Now that the Halloween season has passed and my post-meltdown meltdown has subsided, it’s time again for Netflix horror. Because, you know, all my actual work might do itself. If I believe really hard.
If you’re in the mood for something weird, Francis Ford Coppola has just the film for you. Twixt is the story of Hall Baltimore, a horror novelist who is quickly fading into obscurity. He arrives in a weird backwoods town for a book signing, only to learn that there is no bookstore; instead, he has to set up in the local hardware store. The only person to buy a book is the kooky local sheriff, Bobby LaGrange. The sheriff, it turns out, wants Baltimore to co-write a horror novel with him. A recent local killing, says the sheriff, provides the perfect background. Zanily, Baltimore accepts his offer.
The rest of the film is Baltimore’s waking quest to discover the narrative that will inspire his next novel, and his dreaming encounters with the local ghosts–among them, none other than Edgar Allen Poe, who, we are told, once spent a night in the local hotel. Poe ultimately serves as Baltimore’s Virgil, guiding him through the weird, drippily symbolic landscape of his dreams to learn more about the killing. On the way, he learns about another local tragedy, the murder of a bunch of children. Only, I’m not sure if that part really happened or not. It could have all been, you know, symbolic.
The film bears more than a passing resemblance to Twin Peaks, which may be good or bad, depending on how you feel about David Lynch’s trademark approach to storytelling. (I happen to like TP.) The most striking parallel is that everyone, every character, is a caricature of themselves. Kilmer’s character is a ridiculous, washed-up hack, able to move books but clearly not actually a gifted writer. The town’s sheriff is gravel-voiced Bruce Dern, a seemingly well-meaning nut who invites the novelist into the morgue to see a murder victim, because, you know, that happens. His deputy is a bumbling fat guy who spends most of his time sleeping. A bunch of ’90s Goth kids have a weird sex-camp thing across the lake, and the locals blame them for everything bad that’s happened. Deliberate stereotypes, all.
Also like Twin Peaks, Twixt features a number of gaudy, ham-fisted dream sequences. Here, they’re mostly monochromatic, but the obviously dead people with whom Kilmer’s character interacts are freaking obviously dead. One of them, a little girl named Virginia, glows white, and the occasional set piece stands out in violent red. In the dream scenes, Poe also appears, first to guide Kilmer through the writing process, and then to reveal more about the local murders.
And also the moon in at least one scene has Poe’s face. It is not a subtle film, and it revels in that fact.
Despite the similarities to Twin Peaks, there are a lot of problems here. The symbolism is too heavy-handed; the dream sequences too overwrought and trippy; the CGI too terrible. The worst part is that the story Kilmer’s novelist ends up discovering would probably, in novel form, make a much more compelling story than the film does. The ending of Kilmer’s character’s story is far more interesting than the strange, Poe-led dream-narrative, which seems ultimately to have little bearing on the world of the frame narrative.
That’s the real issue, in fact: this is very much a meta-horror–which, in this case, means a horror story that is about writing horror stories–and such stories require a light touch to handle the multiple narrative threads they weave. Alan Wake did it fairly effectively; In the Mouth of Madness, less so, but it was still fun. Joe Hill‘s short story Best New Horror does it pretty well, too, albeit in a non-supernatural-horror context. Twixt is not nearly as deft as these other stories. It has a definite Lynchian flair for the bizarre, but lacks cohesiveness. It almost feels like the frame story and the dream-narrative were written by two different people, with two very different ideas of what the story was trying to do.
The places where the movie shines are the humorous, if slightly sad, portrayals of a trashy paperback novelist’s struggles with the writing process itself. Kilmer gives a decent performance, and there are a few moments that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a bit with Poe where the father of weird discusses writing technique with Kilmer’s character that is a stand-out moment for horror nerds.
And if nothing else, the scene where we see Baltimore’s writing process, which devolves into him pounding oddly colored whisky and doing random impressions of Marlon Brando, Oscar Wilde, and a generic gay black 1960s basketball player is totally, 100% genius.
“I like short shorts. They are revealing but they’re comfortable. It helps me jump.”
I believe it would at that, Mr. Kilmer. I believe it would.