Dr Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund) takes up a position at a world-renowned institute in Dresden, Germany and begins contributing to a top-secret human regeneration gene project. The task allows him the potential to make something miraculous out of a personal tragedy that has haunted him for years, but when he uncovers a conspiracy amongst his colleagues, he finds instead something quite different: a terrifying new virus, with potentially devastating consequences for humanity.

Chilly sci-fi thriller splits past and future.

'A discovery’s not a cure," a character is reminded in Errors of the Human Body, a chilly but ultimately tragic invocation of personal obsession amidst scientific ambition, and this debut feature from expatriate Australian filmmaker Eron Sheean proves to have a way with such crucial distinctions. The movie, which could have easily made do with revisiting the body horror genre and allowing for numerous David Cronenberg references, remains attuned to the psychological, as well as the physical, state of its increasingly troubled protagonist.

attuned to the reality of scientific investigation

Newly arrived in Dresden, Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund, recently seen terrifying all and sundry in the Halle Berry thriller The Call) is an American scientist well aware that in a 'publish or perish" environment he’s gone four years without a credit. He is known, in the scientific community, for Burton’s Syndrome, a disease which covers the sufferer with tumour-like appendages that within a week constrict the body’s organs and brain. There has been only one case, Burton’s infant son, and the child’s death has destroyed his father’s personal life even as it has given him a professional purpose.

Burton’s research involves screening for genetic abnormalities in embryos, which was enough to get him hounded out of America but is not, as he announces at his introductory lecture, a form of eugenics. The movie – co-written by Sheean and SBS Film contributor Shane Danielsen – is attuned to the reality of scientific investigation, whether it’s the cloistered environment or the demand for discoveries that can be monetised. You can see how lines could be crossed in such an environment, how morals could become subverted.

Sheean cuts confidently between the present and the past, between happiness and despair; a phone call between Geoff and his ex-wife, pregnant again, tumbles into their happiness at their son’s birth, then their division as he grows ill. Eklund has thick black hair and a hangdog expression, with a great capacity to physically express a body’s decay, and he shows Geoff breaking down (in multiple ways) even as he’s reunited with Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), a former intern whose own research into accelerated cell regeneration is promising.

The film was shot at Dresden’s Max Planck Institute, where Sheean was previously the artist-in-residence, and in this snowy locale devoid of primary colours the score’s soft electronic tones mix with the machine hums in the labs to create an environment for a calm thriller as Geoff becomes entangled with Rebekka’s former collaborator turned rival, 'mouse house" resident Jarek (Tomas Lemarquis), who with his bald dome and habit of referencing the achievements of dictatorial rulers appears an obvious villain. You may also notice that his head makes him resemble the axolotl’s that Rebekka experiments on, one of several suggestive double meanings in the story’s construction.

'Anything to make science beautiful," declares Rik Mayall’s administrator when he welcomes Geoff aboard, but the film makes a mockery of that line, creating a world where despite their talents people cannot impose or decide what eventuates, yet their input nonetheless starts a cycle of flaw that mutates like the viruses Jarek favours. Errors of the Human Body is never simply nightmarish – it stays in the conscious world, changing like cells under a microscope.