Friday, December 30, 2016

Haunted Summer (1988)

Director: Ivan Passer                                       Writer: Lewis John Carlino
Film Score: Christopher Young                        Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Alice Krige, Philip Anglim, Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern

Ever since the first time I watched the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein, I have been fascinated with the creation story behind Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In 1972 novelist Anne Edwards wrote an account of that time, and turned it into a sort of gothic novel in its own right. Haunted Summer was produced over fifteen years later and directed by Ivan Passer, a protégé of the great Milos Forman. The film takes a bit of time to warm to. At first it has an extremely dated quality, and the entire cast seems miscast, especially Philip Anglim who has to play the outsized Byron. While it’s difficult to think of specific actors who might have been better, there’s an inescapable feeling that any number of actors would have. Dern and Stotz bring their own baggage that undercut their characters, something that Milos Forman was able to avoid in his finest film. In fact, the example of what Forman was able to do in Amadeus looms over the entire production in a way that makes Passer’s film seem pale in comparison. It’s difficult not to warm to the charms of artists intent on enjoying themselves to the fullest in a time when lives were short and uncertain. But ultimately the story lacks a certain dramatic drive to it and mere experience isn’t really enough to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion, especially when the actual rainy writing contest never materializes.

The film begins with a stagecoach making its way through the Swiss countryside. The driver stops, as a rockslide has damaged the road, and yet Eric Stoltz as Percy Shelley is utterly unconcerned and insists he go ahead. Alice Krige, as Mary Shelley, and Laura Dern, as Mary’s stepsister, are equally reassured by his confidence. During a storm one night, Stoltz takes laudanum while Dern has a hallucination that ants are crawling all over her, and the three share a bed. After ten days on the road, Durn finally induces them to stop at an elegant hotel, where they cause a stir with their unconventional behavior. Her real reason for stopping there is that she knows this is the destination of Philip Anglim as Lord Byron, and his companion John Polidori, played by Alex Winter. Of course both Shelley and Byron, and to a lesser extent Mary, were reviled for their liberal views on sexuality and drug use in an age of great propriety in Europe, part of what they felt needed to be an overall social revolution to break down the existing power structures of church and state. Anglim rents a villa on Lake Geneva and the five of them spend several weeks there together. During the day the group is content to go out on the lake in a boat, or picnic by the water. Then Anglim pushes Stoltz into using Opium, Dern becomes jealous of Anglim’s sexual relationship with Winter, and Krige is struggling with her writing. But a series of events finally shake loose her imagination.

First, Byron unveils a painting he has purchased, “The Nightmare” by Henri Fuseli. Then the party takes a trip to an abandoned torture chamber and she later resists Anglim’s advances. Finally, she begins having nightmares herself. Several strands seem to weave themselves together as the basis of Krieg’s story. Anglim seems to be the model for Dr. Frankenstein, and his experimentation with drugs is his way of defying nature. But Anglim is also the model for the monster, with his deformed foot and his heartless treatment of both Dern and Winter. The place the film suffers the most is in the pedestrian direction of Passer. He doesn’t have the gift that his mentor Forman has for shooting in medium close shots that capture the humanity of the characters. Instead he opts for a more traditional style of direction that brings to mind a television production rather than a feature film. And this does nothing to ameliorate an already tenuous set design that suggests rather than immerses the characters in the past. The synthesized film score by Christopher Young is dated, but he is able to do things with it that a conventional orchestra wouldn’t, imbuing many scenes with an unsettling, nightmarish quality all its own. Ultimately, however, Haunted Summer fails to deliver on its promise, and a few drug-induced hallucinations are not enough to distract the viewer from the fact that the real creation of Frankenstein fails to emerge.

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