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The Eternal   B+

Trimark Pictures

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Allison Elliott, Jared Harris, Christopher Walken, Jason Miller, Lois Smith, Karl Geary, Rachel O'Rourke.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Michael Almereyda followed up his Hal Hartley inspired vampire flick Nadja with The Eternal (also known as Trance, also known as Michael Almereyda's The Mummy, depending on who you believe). This has gotta be one of the greatest failed experiments within the horror genre, emerging after a troubled production history care of schlockmeister central itself: Vestron Video. The marketing, unfortunately, is all wrong -- a half-naked chick lying on a stone slab with Christopher Walken peering out at her from the clouds? Seems like straight-to-video cheap tricks, when in actuality The Eternal is a beautifully orchestrated musical tapestry art house delight, filled to the brim with terrific comic dialogue you'll be perpetually quoting in barroom exchanges for the rest of your waking life. ("Son, in much the same way the spider is not an insect but an animal, Guinness is not, strictly speaking, alcohol. It's food.")

Jim and Nora (delightfully played by indie hero Jared Harris and "where is she now" Allison Elliott, with bonus points if ya get the character's Irish name reference) are a hard-drinkin', romantically besmirched NYC married couple who have spent too many hard nights on the town. Nora is continually falling into a deep trance, flashing back to memories of a schoolgirl running away from some unseen horror. It's either the supernatural closing in on her, or she really needs to lay off the booze already!

"You're going to Ireland to dry out?" asks their bemused but incredulous doctor (The Exorcist's late Jason Miller, in a wry cameo.) That's right -- Jim and Nora are bringing their wonderfully stoic, bespectacled son Jimmy, Jr. (Jeffrey Goldscharfe) to his grandmother's house set deep in the moors of the Old(e) Country. As they sit by the fireplace, they'll dispel all bad thoughts and bad dreams, or at least that's what Nora chooses to believe. When they arrive in Ireland, evocatively described as a place "where it was raining, or it had just finished raining, or it was about to rain," their first stop is the local pub where this happy lot drinks a toast to abstinence! ("It's just Guinness! It's like mother's milk to me!")

After a mild car accident brought on by trance or booze (or both), they arrive at the Irish manor house greeted by a mysterious little girl (Rachel O'Rourke, perfectly understated and weird). They'll admire the liquor cabinet from afar, but indulge in the record collection. How can you hate a movie that stops the bleak haunted house mood with a dance number set to pop Irish crooner Joe Dolan record? ("O me o my / You make me sigh / You're such a gooood loookin' wooo-mannnnn") It's okay if ya don't know who Dolan is. I sure as hell don't! Harris and Elliott are sassy and hip as they shake a leg, having a ball -- Jimmy, Jr. even snaps a photo! It's the perfect time for Christopher Walken to do his soft-shoe entrance as their mysterious, half-blind Uncle Bill. "I'm so HAPPY!" he beams, spoken pitch-perfect by the world heavyweight champion of actors with the gift of bizarre inflection.

It only sounds like a party. Despite Jim and Nora's spontaneous eruptions of good cheer akin to Dashiell Hammett's detective duo in The Thin Man, Almereyda subtly intertwines an undercurrent of creepy ghost story devices. A graveyard underneath an overcast sky, a winding staircase, a half-crazed old woman (Steppenwolf's Lois Smith) holed up in her room, and a labyrinthine basement that leads to, of course, a mummified creature from the age of the Druids, all figure in nicely. The story takes a sharp turn toward the spooky, but the luscious but slightly off-kilter cinematography by Jim Denault (Boys Don't Cry) has already lent a disquieting temperance to the "gee-whiz golly oh molly" drunken revelry. That's before The Eternal snowdives into a knackered dreamscape where plot and coherence fall out the window along with cinematic time and space. Imagine stumbling home absolutely pissed to the wind with drink in the wee hours of the morning, and you'll have some sense of the route taken during the film's second half.

Almereyda has made better films, striking gold with Hamlet despite the presence of Ethan "mumble mumble" Hawke, but The Eternal is without a doubt his most fun. Not even the crazy goings-on in the last 20 minutes -- and I defy you to make sense of it on the first viewing -- can smash the good cheer. Next Halloween, do yourself a big favor and pick up Nadja and The Eternal for a postmodern double-bill that references back to an earlier era in horror history with a decidedly modern (i.e., flannel instead of tweed) sensibility. If nothing else, watch the opening credits for one of the most beautiful slow-motion shots ever filmed of our lovely couple, Nora and Jim, cuddled up close and passing their flask on a high-speed roller coaster. I wish I knew the name of the haunting guitar-and-female vocals ballad that looms underneath like a blessed curse -- it made the hair rise on the back of my neck in a way that a delectable ghost story should.

Review published 06.21.2001.

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