"You can't change time," says the custodian of the bell tower in the haunted town that is the setting for Francis Ford Coppola's new Twixt. "Time changes you." Coppola know that time surely changes a director's level of acclaim. In the mid-'70s, with the two Godfather films and The Conversation, he was the lord of a new generation of moviemakers young comers like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, whom Billy Wilder derisively labeled the "kids with beards." Over the past three-and-a-half decades those three kids, now clean-shaven sexagenarians, have maintained and enriched their status as moguls, auteurs, producers. Coppola still has the chin whiskers but not the cachet.
He wandered through much of the '80s and '90s on commissioned projects, then went silent for a decade (1997-2007) before returning with the romantic drama Youth Without Youth. That film, and the 2010 Tetro and now Twixt, have been low-budget indie efforts that raised barely a ripple in movie consciousness. He travels the festival circuit, taking Tetro to Cannes in 2010 and Twixt to this year's Toronto, where he is welcomed less as the carrier of exciting new work than as the sire of every middle-aged moviegoer's most indelible memories. The 72-year-old director's only current connection with Scorsese and Spielberg is that their latest films are all in 3-D. But Hugo Cabret and Tintin will be exclamation points to this movie year, while Twixt will be a curious footnote.
Curiouser and curiouser, this weird melodrama that was dismissed by most critics but surely worth a look for its willful mixture of dream fragments with aspects of the director's own nightmare autobiography. "I had this dream in Istanbul, and it was particularly vivid," he told the Toronto press, as reported by Bloomberg News's Rick Warner. "It was like the story in the movie. Then the call to prayer woke me up and I was very frustrated, because I wanted to see what the dream had in store for me." It's Coppola's first horror film since his debut feature, the 1963 Dementia 13, of which Twixt could be a bracingly crackpot remake. Both movies feature a haunted house, a death by drowning, a psycho axe murderer and enough red herrings to stock a Finnish family feast.
In his movie of the dream, the spooky town of Swann Valley is visited by Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), a suspense novelist whom his publisher calls "the Witch Hunter" and Bobby LeGrange (Bruce Dern), the local sheriff, refers to as "the bargain-basement Stephen King." Swann Valley boasts all the accoutrements of a terror tale: a bell tower with a clock of seven faces, a legend that Edgar Allan Poe once lived there, the history of a terrible mass murder and rumors of Satan worshippers in the woods. Just now Bobby is tending a fresh corpse with a stake through its heart. Drop by, he tells Hall. "I got a doozy in the morgue."
Hall, whose recollections of his young daughter's death by drowning still trouble his sleep, finds the girl's spiritual twin in "V" (Elle Fanning), a soulful child who materializes at night outfitted as a virginal vampire: red lips and eye makeup, a silver necklace and a glamorous pallor. He also chats with Poe's specter (Ben Chaplin), still grieving for the death of his cousin Virginia, whom he married when he was 26 and she 13. As the line between waking and dreaming blurs, Hall has visions of 12 dead children crawling out of the cellar of an old hotel, as their killer, a minister, tells them, "The moon is going down; time for your nap."
The eccentric line readings of Dern as the town's foxy-grandpa and Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci on the early Saturday Night Live shows) give Twixt a Twin Peaks vibe. Demonstrating that he doesn't care if viewers think he, his movie and his star are nuts, Coppola lets Kilmer chew all available scenery. Once touted as the young Brando, Kilmer has since accumulated the girth of the old Brando a kinship underlined by his brief, expert Brando imitation. (Hall's exasperated wife Denise, seen in a few split-screen phone conversations with Hall, is played by Kilmer's ex-wife Joanne Whalley.)
If Kilmer is flabby, Twixt isn't, at least not in its visuals; Coppola hasn't lost his gift for creating odd compositions and juxtapositions. The movie invites German Expressionism to rub shoulders with the director's own mid-'80s black-and-white experiments: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Rumble Fish. Cinematographer Mihal Malaimare Jr., who also shot Youth Without Youth and Tetro, lends a frosty nimbus to the desaturated color scheme, puts Poe's saturnine face inside a full moon and plays with monochromatic and color sensations as the juice of a squeezed lemon turns to blood. The 3-D sequences come in the middle and at the end; viewers are alerted to these scenes by the sight of cartoon 3-D glasses moving across the screen. Avatar it's not: the stereoscopic scenes, full of writhing forms and striped snakes, are simply an extension of the sepulchral fun Coppola hopes to provide. The third D is for Dementia.
As with Tetro, Coppola is not just exercising his craft; he means to confront and exorcise his family demons. Tetro, the story of a recluse (Vincent Gallo) whose father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) had stolen his dancer girlfriend and married her, bore similarities to the tense fraternity of Coppola's father Carmine and uncle Anton, who outshone Carmine as a musician and married and divorced two dancers. The Twixt hero's mourning for a drowned daughter inevitably evokes memories of Francis Coppola's son Gian-Carlo, who died at 22, decapitated in a speedboat accident. At the Toronto press conference, Coppola misted up as recalled Gio, saying, "Every parent feels they're responsible for whatever happens to their kids," he said. "I should have been there for my son."
Young men live in the present and the future, old men in the past. That truism applies to Coppola, who channels his 1986 family tragedy into the horrific mood of Dementia 13. Say this for Twixt: it has a jaunty morbidity, a cinematic larkishness to its meditations on violent death. If the film is not worthy of comparison to Coppola's great work of nearly 40 years ago, it's vibrant with the freedom felt by an old master with nothing left to prove.