As they say around the water cooler at the genetics research lab, when you're a clone, you're never alone.
That's certainly the case for tiny Elizabeth, the replicant/science project of "Closer to God," which materialized this week at Fantasia Fest in Montreal. A Frankenstein story with an advanced medical degree, Billy Senese's cautionary tale – cautionary about what, exactly, we will pursue below – possesses a vague sense of '70s melodrama; exhibits a facility with dread; and, most critically, makes a convincing argument that what we don't see is definitely going to hurt us.
When Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) announces to the public that he has created a human clone, using his own DNA and that of another unnamed source, the response seems predictable to everyone but Victor. The villagers, forsaking the pitchforks and torches for Bibles, are outraged; so are the authorities, who immediately start looking for ways to prosecute the good doctor. Victor's household, where he is forced to bring the baby thanks to the onrush of press and protesters, is none too happy either.
The infant Elizabeth, who has made a blood-soaked caesarean intro of her own during the film's opening moments, has a sensor immediately attached to her forehead, an appliance that is airbrushed out of the photos that Reed subsequently distributes to the press. No one's supposed to know, but the plan for the baby is research and genetic modification; the atmosphere of peril is thick: Do the conventional niceties between movie directors and babies – a quasi-Hippocratic "do no harm" – apply to clones? We start to wonder, as does one of the doctors, who leaks info to the media and helps create the siege situation outside the Reed home.
What's inside that house already, however, is equally dangerous -- and despite the fundamentalist ravings of the anti-clone mob, far more scary.
There are a lot of reasons to oppose human cloning that don't involve, strictly speaking, religion: The breeding of humans for spare parts, for instance. Or the creation of a second or third class of people in a society that's far too stratified already. Writer/director Billy Senese, making his feature debut, focuses on the religious aspects of the debate, perhaps because he comes from the religious-publishing capitol of the world (Nashville), or maybe because it's an effective way to imposing black and white morality onto a very grey issue. Regardless of motive, Senese does create convincing tension. And while he tells an intelligent story, he fails to examine the issue with anything close to balance, despite some gestures in that direction.
But the mystery at hand evolves with precisely calibrated, skin-crawling momentum: Childs, who appeared in Senese's highly praised short films ("The Intruder," "The Suicide Tapes") is not a conventional leading man, which is great: He looks like a research scientist, he sounds like a research scientist and he acts like a research scientist with something to hide -- and it's not the perfectly developed infant clone with the stud in her head. It's the thing he's hiding at home: Ethan, the human result of an earlier failed experiment, who has been tended to for years by Victor's housekeepers Mary and Richard (Shelean Newman, Richard Alford) but is getting too big to be confined to his closet, and too much in pain to be ignored.
His incessant, violent banging and his insistence on being freed combines with the crying of the baby for the kind of din that would drive one mad. Ethan already is: Senese doesn't give us an Ethan to recoil from, just a twisted glimpse here, a limping glimpse there, which of course impels the viewer's imagination beyond the reach of makeup artists. The sound (Nick Palladino was the sound editor) is just more proof that what we hear in this kind of genre film is as important as what we see. Sometimes more so.
Victor is running a madhouse of moral, ethical and biological horrors, but it's the pedestrian stuff that falls flat: Claire (Shannon Hoppe) is Victor's wife and mother to his two conventionally produce children – a source of additional apprehension during the antics of Ethan. But there's little reason to think the parties are related, much less intimate; Hoppe is not directed… well, much at all and it makes for confusion about who is caring about whom.
The upside is Senese's feel for the visual flourish, and his evident distaste for ignorance and fear: A dream in which Victor imagines baby dolls, burning in effigy and being hurled over his front gate by the horde beyond it, is a wild bit of anti-fundamentalist fun. Less amusing are the rantings of God's "chosen," eager and ready to savage a baby who violates the will of God (a god with whom they have a personal, intimate and, most of all, exclusive relationship). Senese couldn't have intended it, but his scenario suggests those patriotic Americans currently screaming at refugee children on our borders, or attacking the wrong school bus.
Senese has made a convincing, slightly campy contribution to genre cinema. But he's also struck a blow against stupidity.
"Closer to God" premiered this week at Fantasia. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.