Puzzlehead

First-time writer-director James Bai's spin on the Frankenstein story takes place in a dystopian future shaped by "The Decline," a period during which neo-Luddites outlawed advanced technology and replaced scientific-research facilities with fertility clinics in the hopes of rebuilding Earth's depleted population. Scientist Walter (Stephen Galaida) has scavenged...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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First-time writer-director James Bai's spin on the Frankenstein story takes place in a dystopian future shaped by "The Decline," a period during which neo-Luddites outlawed advanced technology and replaced scientific-research facilities with fertility clinics in the hopes of rebuilding Earth's depleted population. Scientist Walter (Stephen Galaida) has scavenged enough equipment to build an android in the basement of his shabby townhouse. After imprinting it with his own "neuronet map," he dubs the man-machine "Puzzlehead" — a mind of bits and pieces — and casts himself in the role of benevolent father. Walter teaches Puzzlehead to play the harpsichord, do household chores and run errands, eventually allowing him to explore the bleak, dangerous world outside. After Puzzlehead runs afoul of a gun-toting thug, Walter equips him with a built-in video camera that eventually proves the undoing of their relationship. Every time he does the household shopping, Puzzlehead sees Julia (Robbie Shapiro), manager of the desolate K&G Grocery. After he thwarts an armed robber, the grateful Julia invites Puzzlehead to her home for tea and awakens his first stirrings of love. But Walter has nursed a crush on Julia for years without working up the courage to approach her, so the stage is set for a love triangle that can only end in disaster. Walter begins shutting off Puzzlehead for long periods of time and then assumes his identity (naturally, Walter made Puzzlehead in his own image, which becomes clear once he shaves off his bushy, protective beard). By the time Puzzlehead catches on, Walter has forced his attentions on Julia and driven her to attempt suicide. Julia survives the attempt and finds herself pregnant, whereupon Walter imprisons her in his home. But Puzzlehead now understands the depth of his maker's flaws, and even as he questions his own motivations — after all, his brain is crammed with Walter's thoughts, perceptions and memories — he begins plotting to free himself and Julia. Made over a period of six years and filmed in Brooklyn on super 16mm, Bai's unsensational feature consistently favors subtle psychological chills over conventional horror-movie shocks. Despite the low budget, the film is handsomely designed and well acted, and Bai's inventiveness turns what could easily have been liabilities into assets — even the postdubbing of some actors' voices by different performers, necessitated by production sound problems, was cleverly tweaked to produce a discomfiting effect entirely in keeping with the movie's chilly, unpredictable tone.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: First-time writer-director James Bai's spin on the Frankenstein story takes place in a dystopian future shaped by "The Decline," a period during which neo-Luddites outlawed advanced technology and replaced scientific-research facilities with fertility clin… (more)

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