Ministry of "Frankenstein"

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Mon, 09/20/2004 - 16:00

Regulars at Edinburgh Film Festival will remember Lizzie Francke as the artistic director who gave the impression she would be more comfortable dissecting the latest Korean masterpiece in the pages of the high-brow Sight and Sound magazine, than introducing it on stage, tripping over her words in her enthusiasm, forever brushing her fringe out of her eyes.

She spent five years in the post, from 1997 to 2001, bringing a new cerebral cutting edge to the event, before returning to London and more or less disappearing from view.

Francke was back at the festival she once masterminded last month in her new guise of film producer, bringing her first feature with her - not some cerebral piece about Iranian shepherds, but a grisly tale of a man who awakens from a coma to discover his wife has been killed in a car crash and he is a suspect in a seemingly unrelated murder case. Just to crank up the discomfort factor, he moves into a barely-converted apartment in a spooky old hospital and keeps ants as pets.

"As much as I love arthouse movies, like In the Mood for Love or Ratcatcher, I also embrace the surreal imagination of horror film-makers," gushes Francke. She is a fan of Gothic literature and cinema, but perhaps more surprisingly admits to liking the American slasher movies of the Seventies as well, adding that they reflect the mood of their time - not exactly the sort of comment one would hear too often among the crowds exiting the multiplex on a Saturday night.

"I have a very academic take," Francke admits, before adding, "but at the same time I like being scared... As a kid, I loved Doctor Who, I loved the monsters, I loved hiding behind the sofa, the whole thing. As a teenager, the rite of passage in my class was to go to Carrie underage."

With a little more probing, this most cerebral of critics admits to a dark childhood secret - she was nicknamed Frankenstein at school - not because of any passion for horror, but because of her surname. But she was sufficiently well informed to parry the attack by explaining to her would-be tormentors that Frankenstein was in fact an incredibly clever doctor, not the monster he creates.

Horror is regarded as a predominantly male passion, but Francke contends there is a huge potential female audience, for what she calls "girlie horror", stories that do have a strong Gothic or supernatural element, rather than relying simply on a deranged killer with a chainsaw. She reckons 70 per cent of the audience was female when she saw The Others a few years ago.

Born in London, Francke studied English Literature at East Anglia University, worked for a film company on the rerelease of such European classics as La Dolce Vita, and wrote a book about Hollywood's women scriptwriters, before arriving in Edinburgh, where her line-ups included The Blair Witch Project and the original Japanese version of The Ring.

After five years she decided she would like to move into film production, got talking to producer Jonathan Cavendish, who wanted to set up a horror division, and she jumped at the challenge. Three years later, she returns to the festival, with Trauma, the first film from their new Ministry of Fear operation.

Just a few months after leaving Edinburgh, Francke received an outline for Trauma from Richard Smith, a Scottish writer, whose short film Leonard, she had screened. It was exactly the sort of character-driven psychological horror she was looking for.

Nicole Kidman's presence in The Others not only helped attract women to cinemas, it also signalled a new respectability for the genre. She won BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations and presumably made it easier for other horror producers to attract star names.

For the lead role in Trauma, Francke secured Colin Firth, who became a national heartthrob a decade ago as Mr Darcy in the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and set hearts aflutter all over again as another Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary.

"Colin Firth has a huge following," Francke says, though she insists she was not just thinking of ticket sales when he was cast. "It was playing that card of taking someone's screen persona and, at the beginning of the film, creating a sense of sympathy... The film opens with a man in mourning and it was very important that we could empathise with that.

"He was looking for characters that broke the mould of what he had been playing, and he read the script and really loved it, and saw it as an opportunity to discard his Darcy mantle, but also he thought the character was complex and interesting."

The cast also includes Mena Suvari, from American Beauty, as his new neighbour, who may be too good to be true, literally. She takes him to clairvoyant Brenda Fricker, who suggests his wife is not dead at all.

Trauma is directed by Marc Evans, who made his mark at the Edinburgh Film Festival with My Little Eye, one of the most imaginative horror films in years, a spin on Big Brother shows, in which one of the housemates is a serial killer, and Trauma's festival screening is being used as the launchpad for a UK release by Warner Bros at the end of the month.

Brian Pendreigh is author of the Pocket Scottish Movie Book.