“Twixt” is short for “betwixt” which, my dictionary tells me, means “neither one thing nor the other”, a fitting title for a film which is such a mess. It’s also Francis Ford Coppola’s most entertaining movie in years, an unreconstructed slice of American Gothic which reminds you the film-maker began his career under the aegis of Roger Corman, for whom he directed the Irish-set psychothriller Dementia 13 in the early 1960s. Dementia 13 was a bona fide horror movie and properly scary, unlike 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Coppola fell into the trap of making a horror film that was in no way horrific – a recurring problem with A-list directors who imagine they’re bringing something new to the genre, when in fact all they’re bringing is a bigger budget.
Val Kilmer, all jowls and ponytail, plays Hall Baltimore, a washed-up horror writer on a book tour (though if he’s still being published and doing book tours, then take it from a writer who isn’t any more – he can’t be that washed-up, even if no-one turns up at the signings). Baltimore (shades of Poe) arrives in Swann Valley, the sort of small town (like Galen from Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs or Hobb’s End from In the Mouth of Madness) that you just know is going to mess with the writer’s head. For a start, the clocktower has seven faces. And then the sheriff, the one asking Baltimore, “How’s it feel to be the bargain basement Stephen King?”, is played by Bruce Dern, an actor whose middle name might as well be Nutty.
I’m not going to recount the plot for you, but it involves witchcraft, vampires, ghosts, Edgar Allan Poe, serial-killing, psychotic hick, goth guru, mad preacher, Charles Baudelaire, slapstick comedy, a writer who may or may not be crazy – Coppola’s screenplay throws a dozen different ingredients into the mix without making a serious attempt to weave them into a coherent whole. Twixt is so over-egged it’s more likely to give you indigestion than sleepless nights, though it might trigger some interesting dreams. But it’s precisely this incoherence that gives the film its oneiric feel; Coppola has said it grew out of one his own dreams, but it’s almost as though he has slapped it straight up there on the screen, without first running it through sensible editing mode or subjecting it to tests of logic, likelihood or commercial presentation. In 99 per cent of cases like this, the results would be a self-indulgent disaster, but Coppola is clearly having a ball, and makes it fun for us as well.
There’s a touch of Swimming-Pool, a dash of Hamlet 2, a smidgeon of Manhattan and a morsel of Misery. And then, just when you’ve decided this is nothing more than a lighthearted jeu d’esprit, he inserts a biographical detail so obvious and tragic it leaves you reeling, and obliged to reassess everything you’ve been watching. As a result, this may well be his most personal film, one that lays bare his feelings about the creative process, success, failure and mortality. He leaves you feeling sucker-punched, and strangely moved, though viewers unaware of the film-maker’s personal history may, of course, react differently.
Reportedly, certain scenes were shot in 3-D and required viewers to put on 3-D specs for them, which reminds me of the first 3-D film I ever saw – The Mask (1961) in which the 3-D scenes were heralded by a voice intoning, “Put on the mask!”; sadly, the screening of Twixt I attended was 2-D. Elsewhere, Coppola plays with variations on the same sort of visual stylisation we’ve seen from him in One from the Heart, Rumble Fish and Dracula – desaturated colour, split-screen, back-projection – but there’s a sense he’s having a blast with his effects rather than trying to impress anyone or appear cutting edge. After all, Coppola has already been cutting edge, several times, so it’s a case of been there, done that, now let’s dance.
Joanne Whalley – Kilmer’s ex – plays Baltimore’s wife (seen only at the other end of a Skype link), Ben Chaplin plays Poe, and Elle Fanning plays a pale girl who may or may not be a ghost, or a vampire, or possibly Poe’s child-bride, or maybe all three. Coppola, like JJ Abrams when he directed Super 8, seems a little besotted with Fanning; Coppola has been quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma as saying, “C’est très seduisant ce côté enfantin chez elle.” (“Her childish side is very seductive.”) Honestly, I think it’s a bit iffy for a 12-year-old girl to be togged up in a tightly-laced corset teamed with a puffy smocked frock and accessorised with dental braces and bordello-style choker à la Pretty Baby, the way Fanning is here. But she sure looks pretty in that fetishistic get-up, and it’s true the braces come into their own later on.