“How does it feel to be the bargain basement Stephen King?”
Hall Baltimore used to be a celebrated writer. His first novel, Fortune’s Pilgrim, was even heralded by the New York Times. But these days he’s reduced himself to witchcraft-themed genre quickies, excessive drinking and arguing with his wife via Skype. We meet Baltimore in the midst of a book-signing tour, albeit one that flits from small town to small town rather than city to city. His current destination, as Tom Waits’ narration informs us, is a place “for those who want to be left alone”. It’s a town so small that its bookshop is, in reality, just a couple of shelves in the hardware store. It does, however, have some very distinctive features: a seven-faced clock-tower, each of which tells a different time; a mass murderer “a while back” who slaughtered twelve children; a very famous visitor, once upon a time, in the guise of Edgar Allan Poe; and a corpse in the morgue with a stake through her heart.
Twixt is the first horror picture from Francis Ford Coppola in some time. Whilst a film student at UCLA in the early sixties he had turned to Poe for The Two Christophers, a short inspired by William Wilson. Shortly afterwards he wrote and directed Dementia 13, a post-Psycho thriller produced by Roger Corman (the most famous Poe adapter of them all), and many years later took on Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a very particular stylistic zeal. The latter two were budgets apart: Dracula recreated Romania and Victorian London entirely within the confines of Californian sound stages, picking up Academy Awards for its costume and make-up designs; Dementia 13 was completed without Coppola’s say-so and now resides in the public domain. And yet, if you’re looking for a kinship with Twixt, then Dementia 13 is the more amenable of the two. This latest venture may not quite be a minimal budget affair with a nine-day shooting schedule, but it does star a former Hollywood player now firmly entrenched in the direct-to-video stage of his career and it is still awaiting distribution in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, just as audiences could only find Dementia 13 on the bottom of a double-bill with Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, so too eager viewers of Twixt have been somewhat restricted in their options. Luckily, our European friends in France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Finland have deemed the film worthy of a Blu-ray release.
The combination of Coppola, Kilmer and a modestly budgeted small town horror tale perhaps suggests a spot of genre slumming. It’s not an inconceivable position, especially since Coppola’s returns to the director’s chair following a ten-year hiatus (2007’s Youth without Youth and 2009’s Tetro) were hardly lavished with the same praise and attention that once came with the territory. Furthermore, a bit of slumming need not necessarily be a bad thing. If the right filmmaker is placed in the right low-rent surroundings, then the results can be endearingly curious. (Think of Donald Cammell’s Wild Side, made for VHS-fodder specialists Nu Image, or Raúl Ruiz’s dalliances with the erotic thriller genre [Shattered Image] and the Cannon Group [Treasure Island].) Yet whilst ‘endearingly curious’ certainly fits the bill when it comes to Twixt, I’m not entirely convinced that Coppola is simply doing this for cheap thrills. As writer-director-producer he’s far from being a gun for hire, plus there are elements of the script that are just too personal and aspects of the finished film that are just too entertaining for this not to be seen as a serious work.
The key connect between Coppola and his lead character is a boating accident. Baltimore is haunted by the death of his 14-year-old daughter, an event that appears to have kick-started his slide from serious novelist to the writer of trash. Coppola’s own son, Gian-Carlo (older brother to Roman and Sofia), was killed in 1986 in very similar circumstances to those we see onscreen whilst his father was making Gardens of Stone. At the time of his death his fiancée was pregnant with their daughter, Gia, who now finds herself credited as Creative Consultant on Twixt. Her presence is surely no coincidence and such knowledge haunts the picture, just as Baltimore’s past seems to be forever on his mind. Indeed, the various strands – not just these but also the slaughtered children, Poe and the corpse with the stake – all haunt and inform each other so that the end results exist somewhere within them all. The fact that Baltimore interacts with the dead during sleeps and drunken stupors only adds to the woozy mood: somewhere between (or rather, betwixt) dream and reality, between certainty and imagination.
Complementing this already heavy mix is a series of touches best described as Lynchian. Perhaps it’s the small town setting, but the presence of Bruce Dern as aspiring horror scribe and local Sheriff, Bobby LaGrange, in particular, has the flavour of Twin Peaks about it. (David Lynch has yet to employ Dern, though he’s made use of both his daughter and his ex-wife in the past.) Similarly, the rebellious teens on the opposite side of the lake, presided over by goth heartthrob Flamingo and rumoured to be vampires, wouldn’t be out of place and neither, for that matter, would their taste in music. Coppola employed Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov for the third time (following Youth without Youth and Tetro), here working in collaboration with American electronic artist Dan Deacon. One of their tracks – the credits don’t provide a title, but the lyrical refrain is ‘Nosferatu, Me and You’ – would have slotted perfectly into Lost Highway’s blend of Rammstein and Trent Reznor.
Equally Lynchian are the bouts of offbeat humour and other quirky additions. Sheriff Bobby LaGrange keeps working hours to the bare minimum, likes to make novelties out of wood and indulges in some slapstick with his Deputy and a gurney. We also get an impromptu cover version of Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain (“All the cops have wooden legs, […] And all the hens lay soft-boiled eggs”) as Baltimore looks on suitably bewildered. And Kilmer gets in on the act with a truly bizarre sequence in which he attempts to write a new outline for his publisher. In the space of a couple of minutes we get to see Kilmer impersonate Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and a gay basketball player from the 1960s pondering his revealing short-shorts. Such oddball excursions are an acquired taste and may cause a faction of the audience to abandon Twixt, yet they very clearly show how much fun Coppola is having with this picture. Anyone who found Youth without Youth and Tetro overbearingly serious will have no complaints here.
Not that everything is quite so freewheeling. Coppola reins proceedings in when need be and so for every Dern-does-crazy turn we also the more restrained likes of Elle Fanning (as a dead child, a little younger than his daughter, who visits Baltimore in his dreams) or Ben Chaplin playing Poe. As for Kilmer, he acquits himself well and has plenty more to work with than much of his recent direct-to-video fare opposite the likes of 50 Cent or Cuba Gooding Jr. He also finds himself in considerably more stylish surroundings than those kinds of title have to offer. Admittedly the decision to shoot digitally can lend Twixt the occasional sheen of cheapness during its less grandiose moments, but it really comes to life during the dream sequences. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr (who has just shot The Master for Paul Thomas Anderson) reduces Baltimore’s nocturnal wanderings to a near-monochrome, peppered only by splashes of deep colour (a red carpet, bright yellow lemons with a dash of blood). The slightly artificial effect – heightened, no doubt, when viewed in 3D – recalls Sin City, although it’s also a sly reminder that Coppola got there first with Rumble Fish.
This little wink never feels like a nod to former glories now almost thirty years of age, but instead comes across as playful. Indeed, Twixt never feels like the film of a man in his seventies, either in terms of his being past it or the film itself seeming in any way old or outdated. There’s too much energy and invention within, too many nods and winks, and so much humour and mischief. Coppola’s proven himself plenty in the past – he’s made his classics and his glorious misfires and his outright mistakes – and you sense that Twixt was made without any kind of burden. It represents Coppola with his hair down, being serious when he needs to be but also exuding a terrific amount of fun. For some that may result in a concoction just that little bit too quirky and devil-may-care for easy digestion, but for the rest of us the end results are extremely pleasurable. And, let’s be honest, somewhat unexpected.
To the best of my knowledge Blu-ray editions of Twixt are currently available in Finland, Norway, Sweden, France and Germany, with the latter two appearing just a fortnight ago. Some discs appear to have more extras than others, though I opted for the German release as this one comes with English and German soundtracks and subtitle tracks meaning there was a strong likelihood that I would be able to watch the film without forced subs and in its original English. Thankfully, I was proven right.
The German release, issued by StudioCanal and presumably Region B-locked, is somewhat light on extras (just the German theatrical trailer) but does contain both 2D and 3D presentations on the same disc. My current technology being what it is I’m not in a position to sample the latter, though the 2D offering is more than impressive. Twixt appears in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p AVC encode. The image is consistently crisp throughout, both during the flatter daylight scenes and more stylistically inclined nocturnal dream sequences. The splashes of bright colour in the latter are suitably handled without any ill-effects – indeed, there are no flaws to speak of whatsoever. Detail is excellent down to the weave in Val Kilmer’s jacket and the straggles of hair on Bruce Dern’s head, whilst contrast levels cope just as well with the manipulated monochrome as they do daylight. Mihai Malaimare Jr can surely be satisfied that his cinematography is done full justice. As for the soundtrack, the DTS-HD Master Audio offering (in English – I didn’t sample the German dub) is just as pleasing. Dialogue is crisp and audible throughout, plus the musical score and musical numbers remain perfectly balanced. The lack of extras may dissuade some, but those unable to wait for a distributor in the UK or US could do worse than pick up this particular Blu.
“How does it feel to be the bargain basement Stephen King?”