ANATOMY (ANATOMIE)

After “Coma” (1978), “Extreme Measures” (1996) and “Nightwatch” (1998), it’s quite clear that if a filmmaker wants to extract some scares from the sight of cadavers lying on glistening morgue or hospital tables, a well-constructed, intelligent script is a necessary complement to the visuals. Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, unfortunately, has forgotten that lesson, if he ever learned it. His third feature is a would-be thriller which looks pretty snazzy in Peter von Haller’s widescreen lensing, but is burdened with a screenplay so crushingly obvious and poorly structured that by the close the cliches are piling up faster than the corpses. And it doesn’t help matters that it’s been dubbed from German with a distinct lack of subtlety. It isn’t that the dialogue doesn’t fit fairly well with the characters’ lip movements, because it does; but the English voices have been recorded in an ambiance that seems totally different from that one would expect of the locales being shown on the screen. As a result, the conversations (and solos, since the main character persistently informs us of the obvious by talking to herself while she’s doing her sleuthing) have a tinny, disembodied tone to them, which hardly helps.

“Anatomy” is a rather strange enterprise for Ruzowitzky in any event; his previous picture, “The Inheritors,” was a seriocomic tale dealing with class and economic distinctions in nineteenth-century Austria, focusing on a group of tenant farmers jointly left their landlord’s property in his will and forced to struggle to hold onto it in the face of local resistance. There was a sense of social consciousness in the piece that’s certainly lacking in this followup feature, an empty-headed exercise in ghoulish mayhem which has nothing on its mind but generating cheap thrills and which willingly goes beyond the bounds of good taste and good sense to do so.

The plot centers on Paula Henning (Franka Potente, from “Run Lola Run”), the daughter and grand-daughter of German doctors who, because of her high test scores, is invited to attend a summer course on anatomy at the University of Heidelberg taught by the renowed but imperious Dr. Grombeck (Traugott Buhre). Paula is supposedly a workaholic, in contrast to her sexpot roommate Gretchen (Anna Loos), who quickly takes up with not only handsome hunk Hein (Benno Fuermann) but also jokester Phil (Holger Speckhahn); but before long she’s being courted by oddball classmate Casper (Sebastian Blomberg). She hasn’t much time for the budding romance, however, because she soon becomes convinced that Dr. Grombeck’s anatomy lab is being used for unethical, illegal experiments on (perhaps not yet dead) victims by a clandestine society called the Anti-Hippocratic League, which, according to the pseudo-historical palaver delivered in the script, consists of physicians who believe that experimenting brutally on live patients is justified by the hope that the discoveries thereby made will serve the needs of the many. It’s not long before Paula’s investigations endanger her friends and, of course, herself; and in the process she discovers a secret about her family background which causes her great grief, too.

There are several problems with the scenario Ruzowitzky has fashioned, some technical but at least one a matter of simple propriety. First, the mystery is dissipated much too early in the narrative, with the villains revealed so soon that the entire last act can be nothing but a series of dumb chases and increasingly absurd perils. Second, the characterizations are way off; Paula, for example, is supposed to be a bright, confident girl, but she comes across more as a brainless twit, while Gretchen is said to be highly intelligent but devotes herself to man-hunting (and man-humiliating) to the exclusion of all else, like the town slut. All the male figures are one-note caricatures. More significant than these concerns, however, is the fact that the entire plot is grounded on the concept of medically abusing live people which, in view of the practices of Third Reich experimenters, is more than a trifle unsavory; it would be bad enough for any schlock horror movie to drop in an allusion to Josef Mengele, but it seems particularly inappropriate for the line to turn up in a German potboiler like this.

Nor does Ruzowitzky do well by his cast. Potente, who was so charismatic in “Lola,” is encouraged to overact so badly here that she appears a complete amateur, the sort of immediately forgettable ingenue who populated junk like the “Friday the 13th” flicks. Loos wouldn’t be out of place as one of the less-nice girls in a WB series, and seems just about as talented. Fuermann, a younger lookalike for Reed Diamond, is used simply for his Nordic, Nazi Youth aura. Blomberg has the sullen shtick of his character down fairly well, but he has to endure an extremely embarrassing sequence toward the close which should make any decent viewer wince. And oldsters Buhre and Rudiger Vogler ham it up rather broadly.

From the purely technical standpoint “Anatomy” isn’t a disaster, except for the rock music used in the score, which by American standards seems about a decade behind the times. And overall it’s no worse than most of the innumerable “Scream” ripoffs that have been made in this country over the past few years. The problem is that it’s no better, either.