We are all familiar with the story of Frankenstein. Many of us are familiar with the fact that Mary Shelley wrote it as a moralistic tale, not just a horror story. That important aspect is too often lost in the film translations, with “Man was never meant to play God” substituted, if any morality is ascribed at all. In fact, if you’ve seen the restored version of the 1931 “Frankenstein,” director James Whale has the mad creator say, “Now I know what it feels like to be god!” Of course, that feeling doesn’t last long.
There is morality in this latest take, set in the “projects” among black tenants. Here it is the moral issue of reversing a wrong done – but then how do you reverse memory of brutality that follows?
Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes – “Most Likely To”) lives in the projects with her extended family. She’s smart – very smart – and doesn’t take being disrespected by anyone. She has her own personal concept of life and death, perhaps honed by the fact that life has so little value and is so easily discarded by those around her. This includes her brother Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy – “Foresight”), who gets involved in gangs and turf warfare. He kills, but is also killed.
Vicaria’s reaction to Chris’ death is analytical: death is a disease and, like other diseases, there must be a cure. She takes Chris’ body and those of other young black men who have been killed and fashions her solution to this disease – a body she can bring back to life. And she does – in the classic manner with plenty of lightning sparks, and horror in her creepy home-made lab on the edge of the projects. She’s ecstatic at her success in re-animating her brother, and that joy lets her ignore his horrible appearance and virtual mindlessness. We are all familiar enough with the basic story to understand what must come next.
What’s different about this version is the environment in which the story is set: the devaluation of people, the despair of the world in which they are forced to live and bring new life into, and the brutal law of might and turf that animates the gangs that control the project, right down to supplying Vicaria’s father with the drugs that numb his spirit and degrade his body.
Director/writer Bomani J. Story (“Rock Steady Row”) brings us an interesting take on a story over 200 years old. He makes his statements about black life in today’s America in poignant ways, set withing the growing horror of a brilliant child’s love gone wrong.
If the story has a weakness, it is in the one-dimensional portrayal of the white teacher and the police that appear in the film. Confrontation in the classroom takes place, but it is as much the arrogant, dismissive nature of Vicaria’s approach to the teacher as it is the teacher’s (Beth Felice – “Last”) dismissal of Vicaria’s intelligence and non-standard insights.
Cinematography and editing are excellent, and the sense of dread and doom are made palpable by the impressive direction and this early career effort by Story.
There is a lot of language people may find offensive and off-putting, as well as gang violence, and scenes of brutal death. However, if you can look beyond those things, you will find a story that melds a centuries-old desire to make a better world with the despair of the one some of us find ourselves born into.
Director/Writer: Bomani J. Story
Producers: Darren Brandl, Jack Davis, Bomani J. Story
Cinematographer: Daphne Qin Wu
Editor: Annie De Brock
Runtime: One hour, 31 minutes
Availability: In theaters and VOD on June 23, 2023. It will play on Shudder and ALLBlk at a future date.
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