Down on his luck horror writer Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is stuck at a book store in a dead-end town struggling to entice customers with his latest work when he is approached by crusty old Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern). An eccentric fan, Sheriff LaGrange tries to interest Hal in collaborating on a new novel inspired by a local case involving the murder of a twelve year old girl. Hal subsequently encounters young, dead V. (Elle Fanning) in a series of vivid dreams that draw him deeper into the mystery and force him to confront some of his own ghosts.
The fortunes of the ageing movie brats that once ruled the roost in Hollywood varied throughout the past decade. While Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg weathered the changing times, George Lucas and John Milius have more or less retired while Brian De Palma has resorted to self-parody. Meanwhile the output of de facto movie brat-in-chief Francis Ford Coppola has grown sporadic but increasingly experimental despite the indifference of critics and the film-going public. Continuing this trend, Twixt, his quirky shot-on-digital horror opus, came and went with nary a ripple. Aside from a few unfairly snarky comments from hipsters at Comic-Con where Coppola struggled to get an uncooperative laptop to play film clips, the reception was less overtly hostile than that accorded his last two movies, Tetro (2009) and Youth Without Youth (2003). That might be because for all its pretensions, Twixt has a great deal of heart and wit. Charming is not a word one would usually use to describe a horror film, especially one dealing with child murder, but in this instance it fits.
In some ways Twixt marks a throwback to Coppola’s roots making horror movies for Roger Corman. Inspired by a reoccurring nightmare of his own, Coppola crafts a plot laden with allusions to gothic literature, from the chief protagonist described as “a bargain basement Stephen King” to an appearance from Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin) who serves as Hal’s spirit guide of sorts through the dream world. Dreams as the vessel of humanity and art as the process by which people are drawn together to share our dreams prove to be the film’s central themes. Though its tongue in cheek tone may irk some hardcore horror fans the wry humour evident in certain surreal encounters and sly performances from Bruce Dern and Val Kilmer is genuinely engaging. As a horror film this is more cerebral than visceral and while unsettling in parts not especially scary. Yet Twixt delivers the kind of darkly spellbinding ideas and imagery that are none too commonplace in horror films these days.
For all its impish humour and self-conscious surrealism the film does have a genuine emotional backbone being fundamentally the story of a father coping with feelings of guilt over the loss of his child. Coppola posits fiction and dreams as a process by which one may exorcise their own personal ghosts. As ideas go it is not exactly groundbreaking but compelling nonetheless as Hal struggles to reconcile his growing paternal feelings towards winsome ghost girl V with lingering guilt over his own daughter’s passing. Coppola indulges in off-kilter framing and editing to evoke a world that is slightly askew even when Hal isn’t exploring his own dreamscape. He makes striking use of the digital palette, drawing freely from J-horror and his own back catalogue whether it is the watery imagery from Dementia 13 (1963), the colour on monochrome fantasies of Rumble Fish (1983), the gothic fairytale atmosphere of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) (from whence Tom Waits returns to serve as narrator) or having Kilmer bust out his hilarious impression of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979), among several others. However, the self-referential aspects never grate as much as those indulged by De Palma in Passion (2012) because the tone is lighter and more playful. Some have described Twixt as a trifle which to an extent it is, evoking a particularly accomplished home movie made by a group of like-minded friends, yet there remains something undeniably ingratiating, even youthful about its spirit.