Before it was a book, Cadaver was an animated short starring Tavi Gevinson, Kathy Bates and Christopher Lloyd.
Reviewed by Josh Bell ’02
For a project that began as a private joke between siblings, Jonah D. Ansell ’03’s Cadaver has grown into quite the multimedia extravaganza. Ansell originally wrote the piece as a poem for his sister, who was about to cut open her first cadaver as a medical student at Northwestern University. But, as he details in the introduction to the book version of Cadaver (Academy Chicago Publishers), “something in the poem kept prying me back to it. Beneath the rhyme that tickled the ear lurked a text that tackled a truth.”
And so Cadaver became an animated short that played at a number of film festivals (as well as at New York’s Fashion Week). Ansell wrote and directed the seven-minute film; two other Amherst grads (co-producer Tim Hahn ’06 and art director Eric Vennemeyer ’04) were also part of the crew. After the film made the rounds, Ansell turned it into a book he labels a “graphic novel for adults,” with illustrations from the movie (drawn by Vennemeyer, Carina Simmons and Abe Dieckman) accompanying the poem’s text, which is used as narration and dialogue in the film version. As if that weren’t enough, Ansell is now working to pitch both a feature-film version and a stage play, both of which would add musical numbers to the story; two of the short film’s voice actors, Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates, have agreed to reprise their roles in a potential feature version.
As for the story itself, it’s a whimsical and macabre tale that, naturally, involves a timid medical student cutting open her first cadaver. Except unlike Ansell’s sister (presumably), this medical student, Lynn (voiced by teenage fashionista/journalist Tavi Gevinson), cuts out the cadaver’s heart only to see the dead old man (voiced by Lloyd) spring back to life, demanding the return of his heart so he can offer it up to his still-living wife (Bates). Lynn and her lab partner Krista take the undead old man back to his hometown, where the reunion with his wife doesn’t quite go as planned.
The short film has a charmingly gruesome look and tone that evoke Tim Burton or Charles Addams. And although there’s a bit too much blood and senior-citizen seminudity for the film to be suitable for children, it certainly isn’t scary or gory or upsetting in any way. In the end, it’s a sweet story of heartbreak and redemption, the perfect thing to bring a smile to Ansell’s sister’s face on her big day. Sometimes the rhymes are a little strained, and the connections between narration and dialogue, when one has to rhyme with the other, are occasionally awkward. But Gevinson, who’s not known as an actress, carries the movie with a strong balance of whimsy and relatability.
For anyone who’s seen the movie, the book is a little redundant, since it’s less its own entity than an illustrated version of the film (a free download of which is included with purchase of the book). The images are almost all easily recognizable shots from the movie, simply reproduced, and other than a few lines at the beginning and end to introduce and conclude the story (in a way that’s done visually in the movie), the words on the page are taken verbatim from Ansell’s script. Given that the initial poem is the catalyst for the entire project, it’s hard to criticize Ansell for keeping it intact, but the short film is clearly the more effective representation of his work. We’ll just have to wait and see how things work out in the feature film and onstage.
Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly.