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Empire Records' Johnny Whitworth offers a satisfyingly retro take on the mad scientist in The A-Frame

Calvin Lee Reeder's scifi horror film The A-frame is a delightful story of a mysterious guy messing with stuff he doesn't understand

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Warning: This article contains major spoilers for The A-Frame.

This week at Tribeca Film Festival saw the world premiere of The A-Frame, a live-action sci-fi horror movie about Donna (played by Dana Namerode), a pianist diagnosed with cancer in her hand who is offered the chance at complete and immediate recovery by a mysterious quantum physicist, Sam ( Johnny Whitworth), who has invented a machine that can transport matter to an alternate dimension.

One of the most delightful qualities of the film, in which chaos ensues after Sam convinces the now-cured Donna to help him convince a terminal cancer patient to walk through a larger version of his A-Frame machine, is that from start to finish, we never really know what’s going on with him. Early on he tells Donna that he wasn’t trying to find a way to cure cancer; it was just a discovery he made as he was trying to transport cancer-ridden mice to an alternate dimension. But why exactly he was doing that is never explained. In fact, Sam is never given any sort of backstory at all. It’s not even clear if he really has evil intentions. He’s just this mysterious (and very hot) scientist.

It’s rare today to find a horror or fantasy film in which the villain isn’t given an extensive backstory, normally one that means to justify their villainy. And usually when it comes to mad scientists, movies today either insist they’re actually heroes trying to save the universe, or, as in the case of a Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, or Stephen Strange, actually depicts them as such. (Thesis: The real villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phases 1-3 was Tony Stark. Discuss.)

Old school horror stories felt no need to protect or explain their mad scientists. No one reading or watching Frankenstein walked away thinking You know, that Doctor Frankenstein had good intentions. You knew he was crazy from the moment he said let’s dig up some corpses. And that was fine. Dr. Jekyll is the same—the guy created a serum so that he could indulge his worst impulses without being found out. He’s a bad dude.

The simplicity of these characters allowed those stories to be that much more of an emotional rollercoaster. The scariest villains aren’t usually the ones you understand. They’re the ones you don’t.

In some ways The A-Frame most hearkens back to the 1986 classic The Fly. Like Johnny Whitworth’s Sam, Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Rundle is a hot scientist messing with stuff he doesn’t fully understand. In his case, it's a device to teleport matter between places rather than dimensions, but the end result is the same. Things go bad. And that’s why we love them.

The A-Frame ends with Sam seeming to get what’s coming to him: Having accidentally liquified the terminal cancer patient, Sam has the same done to him. (There’s an amazing moment when his somehow-still-living skull and spine starts screaming. Somewhere in the universe Roger Corman is cheering with glee.)

But at a couple points along the way we’re given evidence that maybe things are not what they seem. A cat who went through the A-Frame as a female came back as a male. Sam insists that the DNA of the liquified cancer patient is not that of the man who went through. So maybe rather than dead Sam is alive in some other universe, building a device to return in some sequel where we’ll learn what the heck he was up to in the first place.

I hope so. Just, not too much detail, please.

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