Friday, February 17, 2012
CJ Scuffins's PRODIGAL SON: A Zombie Noir Morality Play
Prodigal Son (2011)
Written and Directed by CJ Scuffins
Prodigal Son Official Site
Over the past few years, a number of films have come across our desks that work as updates of W.W. Jacobs's classic story, The Monkey's Paw. In that tale, a family is given a talisman that will grant them three wishes. After a series of tragedies, one of the wishes is for the return of their son, recently killed in a factory accident. While few of those films capture the desolate atmosphere and futility of Jacobs's original story (published in 1902), more than a number are fairly effective treatments (Kiss the Abyss being a recent example). While the story details vary widely, the core idea remains that one should "be careful what you wish for" when it comes to that power, particularly when the return of a deceased loved one is at the top of the wish list.
Finding its own footing in that tradition is CJ Scuffins's eccentric zombie film Prodigal Son. This gorgeously shot morality play from Ireland spins its own brand by using backdoor dealings between brutal mobsters and shady pharmaceutical companies as its backdrop. Instead of a talisman, our grieving family is granted their wish through the use of an experimental medical procedure that returns the dead to life. The only problem being the unpredictable side effects of reviving the dead.
In Dublin, a mobster named Denny (Raymond Kinsella) is at his wit's end with his psychopathic young son, Joe (Ryan Andrews). Denny is increasingly frustrated with Joe's carefree and deadly use of his trusty hurling stick. When the violent teen kills the wrong junkie, he, himself, is shot by a mysterious avenger (Sean Conroy) clad in dark cloak and travelling on horseback. Joe, an obvious sociopath, makes it difficult for us to sympathize, but his parents are devastated by the news. They love the brute, and will do everything in their power to have him back and terrorizing the hood.
Much to his grief-stricken wife's chagrin, Denny calls upon Dr. Burke (Padraig Murray) to tend to his deceased son. Burke, with his connections at pharmaceutical company Prodigal, Inc., makes a deal with company rep Hare to bring the boy in for "treatment". Hare warns that the emotions of the deceased at the time of death can get "stuck", thereby causing some unpleasant results. Joe had better have died peacefully. Burke, having contributed immensely to Prodigal's research, is more concerned with saving his own neck than any ramifications from resurrecting dead kids. Regardless of any personal philosophy, Burke and Hare (hehe) are bringing Joe back to life in the name of further experimentation and the lure of big money.
After a brief, but unnerving hospital scene, Joe is back. He's clearly having trouble re-adjusting, even with simple things like drinking milk. His scope of experience has been altered in that his immediate senses are dulled, but his emotional center is sharper. As a clever twist on the standard version, he's seemed to have developed a bit of a conscience. Instead of struggling with the obvious zombie problems (flesh eating, rotting), Joe is now forced to face his own guilt. For the first time in his life, he's scared and unsure of himself. In the eyes of his parents, he's come back a bit of a wimp. A choice between redemption or revenge looms in the climax when Joe's pasty, hollow-eyed killer is caught by two of his father's thugs. Just who will be redeemed, and who will be avenged, remains to be seen.
Scuffins's short is a solid update on films like Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary adaptation or Bob Clark's Deathdream (Dead of Night). Much like those films, Scuffin's film explores just what may happen when a person "comes back"- the changes to their personality, strange habits, etc. Scuffins goes a step further by introducing a revived corpse that was a psychopath to begin with, but now wrestling with a newfound conscience. Where once Joe was fearsome, he now lives in fear. It's a brilliant way to explore the concept, and one that presents a lot of intriguing questions.
With fantastic photography by DP Piers McGrail, Prodigal Son owes just as much to crime/revenge thrillers, westerns, and noir films than any in Romero's living dead series. By the film's end, we find that Scuffins is more interested in exploring guilt and forgiveness than any sort of flesh-eating. I can't help but think that Scuffins is also commenting on the cyclical nature of the drug trade -the spectrum of legal and illicit drugs - taking its toll all over the world. Drugs that harm and drugs that heal are often one and the same. One can conjure up images of the zombie-like walking dead looking to score the next hit, prescription or otherwise, and the gangsters/big companies shooting it out on the street for ultimate supremacy.
Prodigal Son Trailer