Director – Eron Sheean, Screenplay – Shane Danielsen & Eron Sheean, Producers – Mike Dehghan, Cole Payne & Darryn Welch, Photography – Anna Howard, Music – Anthony Pateras, Visual Effects Supervisor – Ryan Bozajian, Makeup Effects Design – Kristyan Mallett, Production Design – Karin Betzler. Production Company – Instinctive Film/XYZ Films/Halyard Productions/High5films.
Michael Eklund (Dr Geoff Burton), Karoline Herfurth (Rebekka Fiedler), Tomas Lemarquis (Jarek Novak), Rik Mayall (Samuel Mead), Caroline Gerdolle (Sarah Burton), Yusuke Yamasaki (Chiba)
The renowned geneticist Geoff Burton accepts a new position at a research institute in Dresden. Burton’s fame rests on his discovering of a rare genetic condition that infected and killed his son, who he still grieves for and has caused a split with his wife. The job brings Geoff back together with Rebekka Fiedler, a former associate he once had an affair with. She shows him her discovery of what she calls the Easter Gene, which has remarkable properties in being able to regenerate cells, and asks his help in completing her research. Geoff then discovers that Jarek Novak, another scientist at the institute, has stolen samples of the Easter Gene from Rebekka’s lab and is injecting it into mice. Geoff steals one of Jarek’s mice and discovers that it now has regenerative abilities. However, Geoff ends up being bitten by the mouse and finds that he is now infected with the Easter Gene and that this has unforeseen side-effects.
Errors of the Human Body is a science-fiction film that gained some reasonable festival play and word of mouth. It is a directorial debut for Australian-born Eron Sheean, who is currently head of development at the German production company Instinctive Film. Sheean had previously made a handful of short films and wrote the screenplay for one of Instinctive’s most high profile films to date, Xavier Gens’s nuclear war drama The Divide (2011), which also featured Michael Eklund, and the Gens’s subsequent and Cold Skin (2017).
Before breaking through into film, Eron Sheean spent two years as the artist in residence at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. The Max Planck Institute is the same facility that we see in the film – both the exteriors and the actual labs and corridors where the film takes place. In fact, no sets were built for the film – the labs you see on screen are the actual ones at the institute – and no imported lighting was employed, the film was shot by the actual lighting used at the laboratory. The various scientists who work at the institute are the extras, many of whom were simply filmed while passing through the background as they went about their daily business, while others worked with the production crew to determine that the science and genetics being portrayed on screen were credible.
The upshot is that we get one of the few science-fiction films that seems to actually be about the scientific process. Most science-fiction involves wave of the wand science where an actor tinkers off-screen or behind some technobabble and then produces the amazing discovery or gadget that saves the day and/or unleashes chaos – the most notorious example of this is Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver. By contrast, this is a film that is deeply interwound in many of the issues of process – the fight over plagiarised research, proper credit and unethical experimentation.
Unaware of this before I went in to watch, I expected something different of Errors of the Human Body. Going by the brief synopsis – scientist becomes caught up in the research process, uses himself as a test subject – I expected a horror story that was deep into Cronenbergian territory, one that sits back observing a scientist mutating into something horrific a la a Cronenberg work like The Fly (1986).
The surprise about Errors of the Human Body is that this is exactly what it is not. Eron Sheean shoots the film at a cool measured pace – and it remains that way even when Michael Eklund is transforming into something else. Sheean is little concerned about the physical process of transformation – there is one scene where Michael Eklund strips off his shirt and we see him covered in sores and that is it – and what we get is more a film about the psychological disintegration of its central character.
This becomes somewhat of a disappointment. The film’s tone is always cool and measured, it is never a work that leaves the scientific process too far behind to delve into horror territory. That means that when Michael Eklund stumbles around infected at the end, the film eschews any entry into horror territory and rests in the substantially less interesting arena of something like Contaminated Man (2000). The film also arrives at a strangely upbeat ending as though the filmmakers felt that needed to tack a happy outcome on, even though it is one that leaves the darker pathways along which everything was leading before that abruptly unresolved.
The lead role is carried by Michael Eklund, a Canadian actor who has been bubbling under for some time and has suddenly exploded out to attention in the last couple of years with a number of memorable roles where he has been principally typecast as a psycho in the likes of The Divide, The Day (2011) and The Call (2013). (It is a role that Eklund seems at completely 180 degrees remove from in real life, demonstrating an unassuming modesty and lack of pretension about what he does that is refreshing to find in an actor). Here Eklund has been cast as the sympathetic protagonist of the show and proves that he is able to hold the show up just as well when he is required to be non-psycho.
Opposite him is the lovely German actress Karoline Herfurth known for roles in films like Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), The Reader (2008) and We Are the Night (2010). Icelandic actor Tomas Lemarquis has a ball and plays a real live wire part with gusto. Perhaps the strangest name among the cast is that of Rik Mayall, who plays the head of the institute. Mayall was a cult figure in British comedy during the 1980s with in particular the hit tv series The Young Ones (1982-4) and other shows like The New Statesman (1987-92) and Bottom (1991-5). It is a surprise seeing Mayall in a straight dramatic role for once – one looked in vain for him to open up into the old outrageous Mayall playing but the part is played remarkably straight the whole way.