Frankenstein’s monster is one of the true classic horror tales. It’s incredible to think that the original novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus appeared in 1818 (anonymously—Shelley wouldn’t lay claim to her creation till five years later), almost two hundred years ago. The story’s utterly captured human imagination, and been told in different ways countless times. From a doctor’s overweening ambition to steal the power of life from God to the muddled motivations of his mutant creation, Frankenstein and his poor monster have fascinated endlessly. Over the years, so many retellings have drained the story of its potency. I, Frankenstein (2014) didn’t do much of anything for anybody. So it’s refreshing to see somebody bring something new to the operating table. Patchwork (2015) is one of the closing films tonight at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why the programmers picked it. Funny, gory and with a sly deconstructive eye, Patchwork turns Frankenstein’s monster over to the ladies, and she ain’t no bride.
Tory Stolper plays Jennifer, an all-business clean-cut climber trying to celebrate her birthday at the local bar. Thing is, no one’s all that interested in celebrating with her. A few coworkers come out, eyeing the exits upon arrival. And her boss makes an appearance, a sleaze-bag sporting a bluetooth headset (yes, he even keeps it on during sex) who might indulge her for a midnight tryst if he can get away from his wife and newborn child. She isn’t all that sympathetic though, belittling the one decent guy she bumps into, her old college friend Garrett (James Phelps, better known as one of the Weasley twins to Potter fans). Feeling dejected and pathetic, she heads home, only to be clubbed from behind by an unseen murderer. You’d think being killed on your birthday would be bad enough, but Jennifer’s day gets infinitely worse when she wakes up in a mysterious lab, confused and in pain, lacking control of her body. For good reason. Her body isn’t hers anymore. She’s been spliced together with the parts of two other women, and even their brains have been merged, giving her a triple personality trapped in the body of a haphazard reanimated corpse.
Jennifer gets acquainted with the other denizens of her brain; they have to cooperate enough to manipulate this body they’re stuck in together and make their escape from the lab. Patchwork‘s clever structure jumps back and forth through a series of chapters, introducing us to the other women’s backstories while the present finds them arguing over what to do about their undead, stitched together predicament. Interestingly, all three women were at the same bar the fateful night before. Tracey Fairaway is Ellie, a blonde party girl eager to impress and connect. Maria Blasucci is Madeleine, more of a shy wallflower, the outsider dissatisfied with nearly everything about her appearance. Director Tyler MacIntyre handles their collective presence with amusing cuts and staging. As the creature lurches and talks to herself, we cut to the three women in close proximity, each aping an element of the monster’s posture, one with an arm arched just so, one with her head inclined. Moving back and forth between one and three, we see how these women are wrestling for control of their gruesome new home. Totally different personalities, they have to learn to work together. When they begin to bond, it’s a little too precious, but realizing what’s happened to them fuels a supernatural rage, and they find common purpose in the fury of revenge.
Inspired by Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), MacIntyre and his cowriter Chris Lee Hill (This Hour Has 22 Minutes) extract plenty of humour from Patchwork‘s darker trappings. Most of the men in the film are kind of horrible and stupid, from the self-absorbed prattle of the lab technicians to the Jian Ghomeshi-esque art babble of one lounge pickup artist. The only likeable male character is Phelps’s Garrett, but as a med student, the women are quick to suspect he may be behind their murderous transformation. The monster’s gory trail of revenge is played for easy satire. A lot of the jokes are pretty obvious, like the sleazy frat boys who get their comeuppance, but it’s still amusingly deserved. Meanwhile, the true villain is one of the movie’s better twists.
Without giving the game away, we’ve hit an interesting moment in horror. A few of the movies I’ve seen at Toronto After Dark this year have women turning the tables on men, delivering gruesome punishment for the crimes visited upon them (both Shut In and Patchwork fit this bill, in different ways). It’s an overdue course correction, and a sort of revenge porn for women. After thousands of final girls desperate to survive the psychotic clutches of a nearly always male killer, having women embrace their bloodlust and even the score must be strangely satisfying. That the directors remain men is one of the overlooked truisms of the industry, but in time, this too could change. The greatest irony in Patchwork is the villain’s pursuit of an impossible beauty ideal. Indeed, all three women in the film strive to be something other than themselves. Sometimes, it’s okay to let it go, and be yourselves.