Tag Archives: Ghost

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

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

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)
BACKGROUND:

  • 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. Continue reading 147. KEYHOLE (2011)

CAPSULE: WAR WITCH (2012)

Rebelle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kim Nguyen

FEATURING: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda

PLOT: Rebels abduct a 12-year old girl from her African village and force her to become a soldier; when her military commanders decide she has magical powers, she is declared the army’s “war witch.”

Still from War Witch (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The tiny dash of magic realism that’s added to soften the blow of the tragic realism isn’t enough to turn this all-too-believable drama into a weird movie.

COMMENTS: The blank-faced girl begins narrating her story to her unborn baby, in the process praying, “I hope God will give me the strength to love you.” It’s a harsh opening for a hard movie, but despite the themes of war, cruelty, and child slavery, War Witch finds ways to not be a complete downer. The plot has three clearly defined acts, each tracking a year of Komona’s life. It begins at the age of 12, when armed men in canoes storm the riverside shantytown she lives in, killing most of the residents and carrying her off as a slave. By 13 she has found a beau and hope for the future in the person of a young albino magician (named “Magician”) who courts her according to folk traditions, and by age 14 she is a woman of the world, having suffered enough pain and heartbreak for two lifetimes. Writer/director Kim Nguyen delivers plenty of gruesome and cruel moments but chooses not to linger over them, and lets beams of light pierce the darkness. The sunny Congolese locations, from the mysterious forest full of ghosts to the field of boulders (also full of ghosts) can be sublime. Komona and Magician (first time actors Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) both do well and share a touchingly naïve romance, especially in light of the awful things they have suffered and the awful things they have been forced to do. There is a minor fairytale ambiance to the proceedings, what with the child witches and wizards, accusatory ghosts, and an evil warlord (known by the sobriquet “the Great Tiger”) ensconced in an improbably grand tower in the middle of the jungle. A visit to a hidden albino village to find a semi-mythological creature provides another fable-like moment. The movie accepts the existence of magic and never questions local superstitions; for example, a man casually asks for a gris-gris to protect him against war as payment for helping the children. After drinking “magic milk” (the hallucinogenic sap of a local tree), Komona gains the ability to see ghosts. The apparitions, corpses caked in white clay with blank eyes, are simple and effective, and they begin to haunt the girl everywhere. They warn her of an ambush set by government soldiers, allowing her alone to escape and giving her the reputation of a witch. The movie never gives us any reason to question the accuracy of Komona’s visions, which in the end take on a crucial psychological importance for the girl. Nguyen mixes childish imagination and voodoo practices with military reality to brew up a unique world we have not seen on film before. Unfortunately, with the fantasy elements stripped away, this world is far too recognizable from cable news broadcasts. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mourned Rachel Cooper in Depression-era Appalachia in Night of the Hunter; on another continent, in another millennium, her pronouncement still rings sadly true in War Witch.

At no point in War Witch does the movie explain what country it is set in, or who the rebels are or what they are supposedly fighting for. The movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), however, and clues suggest that the action is set there, including the fact that the rebels fund their insurgency by mining coltan, an exotic mineral found mostly in the Congo. The Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2003, still lingers on with outbreaks of ethnic violence and warlordism to this day; it has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some 30,000 children have been conscripted to shed blood for both sides. The notorious Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has operated out of the DRC, and may be the model for War Witch‘s Great Tiger.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] gripping, surreal African child soldier drama…”-Ky N. Ngyuen, Washington Diplomat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RESTLESS (2011)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Henry Hopper,

PLOT: A moody boy with the ghost of a kamikaze pilot for a best friend and a hobby of attending funerals falls in love with a girl who’s dying of cancer.

Still from Restless (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Remaking Harold and Maude as a teen romance with a hot Maude and a ghost sidekick sounds like a bad idea, but Restless is even worse than you might imagine.

COMMENTS: An unquenchably perky dying woman convinces a boy with a morbid fascination for death that life is a precious gift not to be wasted. If you’re going to use a plot that’s so well-worn and sickly sweet, then by God you’d better find a pungent spice to add some flavor to the treacle. What if you made the love interest an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, and had the thanatophilic teen stage elaborate fake suicides? What, it’s been done before? Well, at least we could have them meet cute at a stranger’s funeral. You’re kidding, they already did that, too? Well, we’ll just do it anyway, and market it to teens who haven’t seen it before. Oh, and let’s throw in a ghost… make him a Japanese kamikaze pilot… they didn’t do that one yet, did they? Despite attempts to gussy up the doomed material with an infusion of quirk, if you’ve seen a dozen or so romantic movies, then Restless is one you’ve seen before. Henry (son of Dennis) Hopper puts on his best brood, but bad boy he ain’t; this pallid dreamboat is more Robert Pattison than James Dean. Despite being graced with a truly tragic backstory that gives him ample excuse for bitterness, Hopper still manages to come across as a whiny brat, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s scripted as kind of dumb, too. Ryo Kase (understandably) doesn’t appear to have a clue why his ghost character is in the story, so he hedges his acting bets and plays Hiroshi totally deadpan. (By far the film’s best—in fact, its only—joke is Hiroshi’s skill at the board game “Battleship.”) In 2011, Mia Wasikowska proved she had pro acting chops by taking the lead in Jane Eyre and an admirable supporting turn in Albert Nobbs; she comes off the best here, but there’s not much she can do to give grit or texture to such a perfect, unrealistic, idealized character. Annabel isn’t scared of dying, she’s always upbeat and positive, and she doesn’t get visibly upset even when her boyfriend dumps her on her deathbed. Chemo makes her hair look really darling, and even when she’s convulsing, she looks like a cutie-pie. Mia is pleasant and brings a life to the role, but her eternally sunny character makes no sense—shouldn’t the movie be about coming to grips with the reality of mortality, not glossing over the ugly facts of death? Mia never appears the least bit sickly, but the same can’t be said for Jason Lew’s anemic screenplay. This script is wired deep into teen paranoia. Why are all the adult authorities against the kids? Why does the funeral director care so much about Enoch respectfully attending memorial services of people he doesn’t know? Why do security guards tackle him when he’s leaving the hospital peacefully? Why does no one understand him? Despite, or rather because of, tailoring itself to teens’ distorted views of reality, this isn’t a good movie for teenagers. It’s pure pandering, and it’s either cynical, or incompetent. Restless isn’t reprehensible or badly made, but it’s worse than many movies that are, because it doesn’t really try: it merely spiffs up tired platitudes with a few quirks and fresh faces, and assumes its unsophisticated audience will eat up the result. The lack of effort or ambition is depressing. Why do so many movies that consciously set out to be life-affirming make smart people despair after watching them?

Gus van Sant is a director who’s hard to peg: he’s all over the map, making everything from gritty indies (Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant) to Oscar-bait (Good Will Hunting and Milk) to kinky would-be cult films (My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) to true WTF head-scratchers (a “shot-for-shot” remake of Psycho?) God knows what attracted him to this material, which seems tailored for a hack director. Directing Restless is like being the makeup guy at the funeral parlor—the best he can do is to make the lifeless script presentable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…they may be a little too weird for the rest of the world; they are the perfect kind of weird for each other… a movie that is as heartwarming as it is strange.”–Matthew DeKinder, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (contemporaneous)

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

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

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various 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). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)