CLOSER TO GOD
Directed by Billy Senese
As with religion, horror tends to find itself at odds with the scientific pursuit. Its scepticism started in the decaying days of Shelly, continued through the mind control of the cold war and the nightmarish 80s creations of The Fly/ Re-Animator. Today it still exists in the contemporary version of the zombie virus, found footages and a fear of the information age present in so many western and eastern horrors. Yes, as long as the genre’s existed, science and those that use it have been an undying source of terror to audiences. The brainchild of debut feature film maker Billy Senese, Closer to God continues this tradition with a modern Frankenstein tale about science gone mad.
Wearing its inspiration on its sleeve, this movie sees talented geneticist Victor Reed (Childs) use his own DNA to create the first ever human clone: baby Elizabeth. Designed for research and genetic modification, she immediately has a sensor attached to her head following her bloody cesarean entry to the world. From this point on the pint-sized lab project is subject to a fierce debate about the ethics of her very existence. Here the angry villagers pitchforks are replaced by Nashvillian cameras and angry placards as the God-fearing locals corner Elizabeth and her creator in his estate. This places a severe strain on Victor’s already struggling marriage with Claire (Hoppe), with whom he has already fathered two children the old fashioned way. Not that he is willing to work on this problem. From a lifetime of only seeing humanity under the microscope, Childs’ protagonist is a detached man in a long distance relationship with the rest of his household. If that wasn’t enough, the familial issues driving the story are further complicated by a subplot about his previously hidden original clone Ethan (Disney). Unfortunately he is getting too much for the once adoring housekeepers Richard (Alford) and Mary (Newman) to handle.
While this may sound like a lot to pack into a lean 80 minute running time the plot develops at a pleasingly unhurried pace. Most of the horror is saved for the third act where it transitions into slasher mode. As such, Closer To God devotes much of the first hour to a small-scale chamber drama that skilfully ups the tension. Unfortunately it also habitually cuts it, with mishandled attempts to explore the ethics of cloning. The problem is Senese has chosen to mostly polarise the conflict on holy grounds. While this is likely done for narrative cohesion (and an opportunity to use the movie’s title in dialogue) it does the film a disservice, by simplifying what could have been presented as a more intellectually complex issue. The talking heads are all a little too Fox News, with their arguments being based on emotive fundamentalism, and jokes about Victor being both father and brother, rather than rationale. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t demonise the results of cloning as much as its protest. The secondary plot is maybe more engaging than the main one. Richard and Mary’s conflict with themselves and each other about how to deal with the horrific creation outgrowing its closet is gripping. Yet it never rests comfortably with the core premise, as the inexplicably violent Ethan escapes to kill off cast members and cause a havoc with little explanation except him being ‘in a lot of pain’. Essentially Closer to God has its cake and eats it by being a fully-fledged science gone too far movie that simultaneously lampoons the ignorant defiance of progress. Consequently, the attempts to give the film a pro genetics message in its closing minutes feel like disingenuous back-peddling and the coda for a very different movie.
This limitation is particularly frustrating given how competently the tension gets escalated. In the main plot Victor’s disintegration under the public’s probing is well measured and brilliantly played. Furthermore, in the second plot Ethan is scarcely seen and is all the more frightening for it. During his scenes the potential for the use of sound in horror is pushed to its limits and what little glimpses we see of him are well judged (look out for an excellent sequence involving a mirror). But make no mistake, as with the horror creations derived from more primitive sciences this is a movie that has promise but does not hold well together. Still, if Senese can build upon the work he’s done here then he may yet create a monster.