147. KEYHOLE (2011)

“…a ghost sonata in which dream and waking life are seamlessly blended to isolate and expose universal feelings.”–description from the Keyhole press kit


FEATURING: Jason Patric, , , David Wontner, Brooke Palsson, Udo Kier

PLOT: A group of gangsters rendezvous at a large old house filled with ghosts, bringing a kidnapped man tied to a chair with them. They meet with their leader, Ulysses Pick, who arrives carrying an unconscious woman on his back. As the mobsters wait in the parlor, Ulysses travels through the house with the woman and the kidnapped man, trying to reach the upstairs chamber where his wife awaits him with her father and her lover.

Still from Keyhole (2011)

  • Guy Maddin lists the Bowery Boys’ Spooks Run Wild, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space,” and Homer’s “The Odyssey” (or, as he once joked at a screening, Ulysses’ Wikipedia page) as among the influences on Keyhole.
  • This is the director’s first film shot on digital video. Because Maddin’s style is to evoke the look and feel of old movies, the use of actual film stock has been important to him in the past to achieve an authentic period look.
  • Maddin wrote the part of Ulysses Pick with Jason Patric in mind.
  • According to the director, Ulysses’ son Manners is named after David Manners, a “bland” (Maddin’s word) Canadian lead in 1930s horror films (Manners played John Harker in Dracula, among other roles).
  • Maddin wanted to use music by Bernard Hermann for the score but could not afford the rights to license the music. Jason Staczek wrote an original soundtrack for the film instead.
  • Keyhole was one of two movies selected as among the best weird movies of all time in 366 Weird Movies 4th Reader’s Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately, the image you will not be able to get out of your mind is Louis Negin’s wrinkly nudity. Negin plays Calypso, the aged father of Ulysses’ wife Hyacinth, who is chained to his daughter’s bed—naked. His chain is long enough that he is able to walk around the house where, in invisible spirit form, he sometimes whips the assembled gangsters, including one memorable moment when he flogs a mugging mobster played by “Kids in the Hall” alum Kevin McDonald as the gunman is fornicating with the ghost of a maid while she scrubs the floor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: All of Guy Maddin’s movies are dreams, but Keyhole isn’t just a dream, it’s a dream of a ghost. An amnesiac ghost, with deep psychological issues, who finds that extracting strands of his wife’s hair from a keyhole unlocks buried memories of family tragedies. Hazy double images, avant garde editing, and unexpected color intrusions supply the visual weirdness Maddinites have come to expect and treasure, and the bizarre collision of gangsters and ghosts does the rest.

Original trailer for Keyhole

COMMENTS: Memory is sacred to Guy Maddin; his movies are always about remembering. Sometimes the connection to memory is explicit. Archangel features a character with short-term memory loss who believes every day is his wedding day, and another character who can’t forget his lost love. Other films, like My Winnipeg and Cowards Bend the Knee, take incidents and elements from Maddin’s own Canadian boyhood and retell them in a surreal, dreamlike way. But even when his movies don’t feature amnesiac characters or recreate personal mythology through a fractured lens, they are always about remembering (or, rather, creatively misremembering) the forgotten styles of vintage cinema.

Keyhole finds Maddin fondly remembering the gangster films of the 1930s, and hybridizing that genre with the haunted house traditions of the same era. Engaged in a shootout with police, Ulysses’ gang makes its way to their bosses ancestral home, with a kidnap victim in tow. The usual elements of the mobster film are present, such as the jealous underling who pushes to the brink of insubordination, but, this being a Maddin movie, the tropes are surreally subverted. After the shootout, Big Ed counts the dead by having the whole gang line up: those who are dead are asked to face the wall so he can get a good count of the survivors. Ulysses’ moll speaks only French, although everyone addresses her in English, and has obscene doodles drawn on her panties and corset (not in Ulysses hand, as he notes).  Ulysses has made his best man his son; not so strange, until the twisted backstory behind the adoption is revealed. This isn’t the gang that couldn’t shoot straight; they’re the gang that couldn’t shoot at all, at least not after their boss dumps their Tommy guns into the incinerator, a tactical decision that arguably may impede their ability to fight off the police gathered outside the mansion.

That doesn’t matter that much to Ulysses, who seems to be leaving his criminal past behind and is now bent on returning to the family he has literally forgotten. His thugs wait on the first floor while various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Meanwhile, Ulysses tasks one of his lieutenants with collecting various household items that hold memories for him—three nails, a boy scout knife, a wolverine named Crispy—and embarks on an odyssey through the house. Accompanying him are the woman he brought to the house, who is dripping wet, blind, and can’t hear her own thoughts but can read Ulysses’ mind, along with the bound and gagged kidnap victim. It should surprise no one that both of those characters have secret identities. Ulysses journeys through the house, peering through a series of keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). As he progresses to the top floor his wife, and presumably his memories, wait, Hyacinth, her silent Chinese lover Chang, and the father she keeps chained to her bed dread his arrival. The elements of a perverse epic are slowly revealed, but Ulysess’ backstory raises more questions than answers and results in a tale that’s confusing even by Maddin’s standards.

The picture is visually sublime. Although it is odd for fans not to see the grain, crackle and dust of vintage film in a Maddin picture, Keyhole is like a perfectly restored piece of film noir art. The digital clarity serves this material. The shadows of forgetfulness appropriately haunt every corner of the house, and at times the only light in the picture comes streaming in through a keyhole. Brightly lit faces blaze out of completely black backgrounds, highlighting the dreamlike feel. This style is period-appropriate, but Maddin’s movie memories are as jumbled as his protagonist’s familial ones. He can’t resist artistically mucking up the frame with superimposed images to create an artificial haze of overlapping objects, like interlocked memories. The director’s virtuoso, lightning-montage editing also appears, but it’s used less purposefully than in The Heart of the World or Cowards Bend the Knee; it has become something of a stylistic residue or authorial signature. It also wouldn’t be a Maddin movie without at least one color scene intruding on the black and white compositions; here, there are a couple of moments when a jeweled curtain falls across the screen, and then is drawn back to reveal a new scene. Earlier Maddin monochromes set in the filmic worlds of the 1920s included hand-tinted scenes included to evoke the artificiality of early movies; here, the drapes are a beautiful visual device but serve neither as a strong symbol or a formal comment.

“Jumbled” is a word that comes to mind when considering Keyhole. Watching the movie is like wandering around an old house filled with miscellaneous knick-knacks, some acquired by previous generations, or wandering around inside an old mind filled with memories that don’t always fit together properly. Though filled with Maddin’s usual humor, homage and surrealism, Keyhole feels less cohesive and elegant than his previous features. The best Maddin movies have strong emotional and stylistic hooks, while Keyhole sometimes feels built out of stray ideas he couldn’t fit into other movies. Once all the memories are unlocked and the ghosts and gangsters, and even the bullet holes, fade away, an enigmatic coda hints that Ulysses may not have been the protagonist all along. This doesn’t help to supply a sense of closure to the family epic. But as a series of moments and set pieces, fractured memories lost in a murky limbo, parts are sublime. From a Yahtzee playing ghost to a bicycle-powered electric chair to a phallic Cyclops guardian, the sights we glimpse through Keyhole horrify and titillate us. If nothing else, the peepshow satisfies our inner Freudian voyeur.


“…plays like a fever dream using the elements of film noir but restlessly rearranging them in an attempt to force sense out of them. You have the elements lined up against the wall, and in some mercurial way, they slip free and attack you from behind.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…represents something of a departure, even as its weird, almost-familiar, monochromatic images are stamped with Mr. Maddin’s unmistakable sensibility. It is… less personal and more accessible than some of his other work. To a die-hard Maddinite this may be a little disappointing, but for that reason ‘Keyhole’ may also be a perfect gateway into the bizarre and fertile world of a unique film artist.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…for all the undeniable imaginativeness and visual dazzle (this is Maddin’s first entirely digital feature, and it positively glistens), Keyhole ultimately comes off like a feature-length private joke that revels a bit too gleefully in its overall inscrutability.”–Keith Ulrich, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)


Keyhole – Guy Maddin – Trailers, press clippings, and the electronic press kit which is packed with observations on the film by Maddin and others

IMDB LINK: Keyhole (2011)


Guy Maddin’s Keyhole: A Post Production Diary – Post-production supervisor Matt Cahill wrote a diary that’s of great interest to anyone interested in the post-production process in general or Keyhole in particular

Guy Maddin Interview (Keyhole, Brand Upon the Brain!) – 80-minute video interview with Maddin from The Seventh Art; he only discusses Keyhole incidentally but it is still fascinating

List Candidate: Keyhole (2011): This site’s initial review of Keyhole

DVD INFO: The Monterey Video DVD (buy) does not contain a commentary track: hopefully a future release will, since Maddin and screenwriting partner George Toles have always been eager to share their thoughts on past films. The release does contain a wonderful bonus short called “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” an abstract experimental sketchbook of ideas and images for Keyhole, some of which made it into the film and some of which did not. In “Chair”, Rossellini has an orgasm from being strapped into an electric chair that’s powered by a tap-dancer!

Keyhole is also available on Blu-ray (buy) and Video-on-Demand (rent).

3 thoughts on “147. KEYHOLE (2011)”

  1. Love weird movies but this seems like a pseudo-art wannabe Lynch film. It never caught me or pulled me in and I just couldn’t wait for something to happen. Not engaging and I cannot recommend this one – and I love your list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *