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Case Number 09725: Small Claims Court

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Magdalena's Brain

Heretic Films // 2006 // 75 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 25th, 2006

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All Rise...

Incredibly clever and professionally polished, Judge Bill Gibron believes you will enjoy this smart sci-fi horror film, a rarity from the outsider arena of moviemaking.

The Charge

It was all in the name of science

The Case

When physician Magdalena Welling (Amy Shelton-White, Sasquatch Hunters) discovers that her husband's memory experiments have failed, she fears the worst. Indeed, her loving spouse Arthur is left a veritable vegetable and it destroys this dedicated doctor. Five years later, she is living in an abandoned factory, taking care of her catatonic partner the best way she can. She lives each day in hope that her continuing research will deliver her paramour from the biological prison he is in. Able to communicate through a complex electronic hook-up, the still-smart Arthur helps her explore all avenues. Eventually he comes up with a kind of artificial intelligence that promises to free his mind from his frail body. All the couple needs is a test subject and a helper. The aid comes from Magdalena's creepy brother Jim—and resident boarder Andrew will provide the experimental medium. Living with the couple since he was diagnosed with a brain tumor (by Magdalena, nonetheless), he has held a torch for this distressed doctor ever since. He will now do anything for her, including sacrificing his mind for a chance at a lover's embrace. With everything in place, the trial appears ready, but one of our subjects may not be. There is something bubbling inside Magdalena's Brain—and it's not good.

First-time filmmakers rarely take on the science fiction genre. Its inherent difficulties, most of which derive from both premise and execution, provide far too many logistical, literary, and likeability loopholes to offer much cinematic success. Leave it to narrative novices Marty Langford (producer/writer) and Warren Amerman (writer/director) to find a way to merge the speculative with the sinister to create a marvelous sci-fi/ horror hybrid. More dread-driven than straight ahead scary, this oddly effective film features strong performances and an equally powerful narrative drive. Some may find the story a little slow, but if you hang in and enjoy the ideas floating within it, you'll be rewarded with an evocative tale of technology run amuck and human hope unhinged. At the heart of the story is the miserable Magdalena. Played perfectly by indie actress Amy Shelton-White (who has appeared in such basic B-movie fodder as Sasquatch Hunters and Slaughter Studios), this former doctor and dedicated spouse lives a life of disquieting desperation. Focused on curing her husband's quadriplegia by helping him finish his groundbreaking brain research that she's cut herself off from the rest of the world, Maggie is a mess. Yet just behind her eyes is a desire to live again, to experience everything that existence has to offer. Numbing herself with endless bottles of Merlot (and the occasional copped pain pill from her spouse's supply), she's incapable of giving up her quest.

Into her life comes a pair of perplexing elements. The first is old friend (and former patient) Andrew. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer five years before, the now-dying man has been holed up in Magdalena's empty warehouse home. Pining away for the doctor who delivered his death knell, Andrew just wants one last fling with our heroine before merging with the infinite, but Magdalena won't give up her marriage vows and avoids Andrew's touch while wishing, herself, for a little interpersonal interaction. The other factor invading her space is a brand-new therapist. Listening intently to everything his problem-plagued patient is saying, this head shrinker doesn't think Magdalena is telling him the truth. Sure enough, things aren't as black-and-white as our reclusive researcher makes them out to be. Her still-intelligent husband has come up with a remarkable new memory bank that can hold 100 times the human brain's considerable capacity. They both believe it can cure Arthur, but their plan is not quite so simple. Instead of fixing her spouse, Magdalena will use Andrew as a repository for his intellect. When the time comes, she will extract the tumor and live happily ever after. Of course, there has to be a wrench in this perfect arrangement, and to give it away destroys one of Magdalena's Brain's best moments. Let's just say it's a tasty twist this critic never saw coming and leave it at that.

Experts at tone and atmosphere, Langford and Amerman make excellent use of their abandoned factory backdrop and use all of its industrial elements to amplify the fear factor. A chase through the bowels of the plant is all the more effective, thanks to these rusted-out ruins. Yet even on the science side, the guys really deliver. Though most of their effects resemble standard smoke and mirrors, the techno-babble foisted upon the screenplay makes it all seem realistic and authentic. Indeed, we never once doubt that the mind transfer trick will work, which in turn makes the last-minute denouement so devastating. Along with Shelton-White, the rest of the cast is crucial to the film's success. Luckily, there is not an amateur in the bunch. Everyone acquits themselves admirably, with special kudos going to Robert Weingartner as Maggie's reprobate brother. He's an unsettling presence in an already disturbing film. In fact, one could easily see this entire effort being expanded upon by a full-blown Tinseltown treatment. The idea is so interesting, the execution so expert, that all you'd need is a pair of name celebrities and the box office receipts would be more or less guaranteed. In the meantime, we have this wonderfully evocative low-budget offering to enjoy. Here's hoping Magdalena's Brain gets the recognition it so richly deserves.

Offered by DVD newcomer Heretic Films, the digital version of Magdalena's Brain is a real treat. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, very colorful and rich with details. Our filmmakers keep the compositions concise and the backdrops veer from sleek and futuristic to rotten and rustic. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 delivers the dialogue perfectly. It also does a nice job of capturing the ambient underscoring used throughout. As for the bonus features, Heretic really steps up. There is a collection of deleted scenes (with text explanations as to why they were removed), three behind-the-scenes featurettes (looking at various aspects of the production), a day-in-the-life video diary, a music video, and a collection of trailers. Perhaps the best bit of added content is a full-length audio commentary featuring Langford and Amerman. Loaded with information about the film's conception and creation, it's a comprehensive, if occasionally cold, discussion. Both of these men are fine artists. As narrators, they're a tad clinical.

If you are looking for something slightly out of the ordinary, or demand proof that the homemade movie market can generate something other than fanboy drivel, give this smart, suspenseful film a try. Magdalena's Brain may not be the most accomplished slice of speculative fiction ever created, but it does deliver a healthy dose of eerie, effective entertainment.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Heretic Films
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Unrated
• Drama
• Horror
• Independent
• Science Fiction

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by writer/producer Marty Langford and writer/director Warren Amerman
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Gag Reel
• Music Videos
• Heretic Trailers


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