The Devil is a character who, for obvious reasons, pops up a lot in Western art and literature. Usually he’s there to lead the heroes into temptation or to act as an antagonist, someone who chases the heroes. Occasionally, he’s humanised and revealed to be part of God’s plan – for example, Bedazzled, with Liz Hurley playing the Devil as just misunderstood.
Rarely though is the Devil the hero of the piece. Or should that be anti-hero? Rarely does anyone ask how he feels about the whole set-up or ask what his plans are, while simultaneously depicting Old Nick as basically malevolent.
So the 1990 movie Mr Frost is a wonderful delight that you should get if you can. In it, Jeff Goldblum plays the seemingly ordinary Mr Frost – well, ordinary until it’s revealed that he’s a serial killer who’s killed dozens of people and buried their bodies in his back garden. He’s declared insane and taken away to a mental asylum where for two years, he refuses to say a word. That is until he meets psychiatrist Sarah (Kathy Baker). Frost claims that he’s the Devil himself. But what is the Devil doing in a mental asylum? Why would he allow himself to be captured? What does he want?
Well, if God moves in mysterious ways, surely the Devil must too…
Here’s a really bad trailer. Try to ignore the voiceover for starters.
At its heart, Mr Frost is a two-hander between Baker (best known for Picket Fences and Boston Public on TV) and Goldblum. While other characters appear, either to cast doubt on Frost’s claims or to aid them, ultimately this is a movie in which two actors debate.
In essence, the Devil is annoyed. After millennia of his scaring the crap out of people, modern science and psychiatry have convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Not only is that bad for him, it’s bad for people – “People used to sell their souls to me. Where’s the passion, Sarah?”
So the Devil is on a mission to convince the world that despite all the power of the intellect and modern science, he is still “stronger than passing time”. And what’s the one act that might convince a disbelieving world that he still exists? Getting a psychiatrist, one of the representatives of the rational, to believe in him and murder him.
Part of this attempt to convince Baker is also an attempt to convince us, the audience. Special effects mean nothing, so Frost instead corrupts various people around the institution. He turns an otherwise gentle boy into a murderer. But he also heals Baker’s brother, who was confined to a wheelchair. Why would the Devil do such a thing? Well, if evil can come from good, surely good can come from evil, too. Do we believe him? Well, we’re sceptical but maybe…
Frost has already convinced one man of his identity – the police inspector who caught him (played by Alan Bates). Baker finds herself consulting more and more with a man she assumes at first is unhinged and together they reinforce each other’s beliefs, until the inevitable conclusion – although is it really the end?
Is it any good?
Well, obviously I think it is, but it’s clearly not a flawless piece. While Goldblum is mesmerising as Frost and Bates is an excellent foil, Baker is a little wooden for most of the movie.
It also suffers from being an international co-production, with Anglo-French backing. There are an awful lot of actors in this movie for whom English is not a first language and they don’t give the best of the performances. With so much international backing, it’s also not obviously set in any one country. While it’s clear at the beginning that it’s supposed to be set in England at first – although Bates’ “Detoiler” doesn’t sound like a very English name – the clinic in which Frost ends up in could be in any country and for a serial killer who’s murdered dozens, he doesn’t half have lax security.
However, while it does have these obvious flaws, it remains a strong piece. There are some fun directorial flourishes to look out for, such as the superposition of crucifixes in the eyes of those who have succumbed to Frost.
There are also some surprisingly chilling/funny moments, such as when Bates first interrogates Goldblum about a body that might have been spotted in his garage by a couple of criminals, which is practically worth the price of admission.
So give it a whirl, just to see if the Devil is indeed stronger than passing time.