Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self: THE ETERNAL (1998)

Ireland - birthplace of literary horror and unrepentant alcoholism - full of murky bogs and steamy moors, and dark pubs, and hellfire haired hotties within and without, predisposed to take a nip, and a dip into the tannin-rich peat to preserve a sunken shrouded shamaness across the sodden centuries. And then there's horror author Bram Stoker, Irish as the day as long: some speculate he contracted a horrifying venereal disease while in a London brothel and it perhaps left him equating sex with death and personifications of archetypal malice incarnating in irresistibly charming high-end ladies. And he also did a mummy story, adapted by Hammer in 1972 as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, called "Jewel of the Seven Stars." Director Michael Almereyda used it too as uncredited source material for The Eternal (1998) and it's a similarly fascinating and classic horror film reference-enriched follow-up to hip downtown NYC vampire movie Nadja (1994). The Eternal is a generic name but it's an unusual, atmospheric alcohol-entriched saga helped no end by Alison Elliott in a dual role, one the incarnation of a bog mummy druid priestess; the other a hipster alcoholic mother of one prone to seizures.

There may not be any of Stoker's phrenological acumen but there are unique and oblique references to horror movie classics stretching from silent Expressionism to Ulmer's Black Cat to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and even Luis Fulci's Manhattan Baby, all done up in a Days of Wine and Roses  meets Karl Freund patiana. Jared Harris and Alison star as the two hard drinking, fun-loving, but not entirely bad parents Jim and Nora, who head out from the city to the remote Irish moors to visit Nora's ancestral home, a Baskerville-esque mansion in the moors ("When they got there it was raining, or was about to rain, or had just rained" intones the amazed child narrator),. Of course they stop at a pub for a pint on the way, and one pint turns to many many many pints. "They'd been thrown out of pubs all over the world" says narrator), aways off down the moor. "Good thing we're not alcoholics" Harris says. Nora's doctor notes her brain problems aren't going to get better until she stops drinking altogether. She doesn't like to hear that, so figures a trip to the ancestral homestead, which she fled, under a cloud, before meeting Jim, will do the trick. "You're going to Ireland to dry out?" The doctor replies, bewildered. (He obviously never saw the 1934 Columbia voodoo movie Black Moon). Once the family gets there though everyone there is either declining a drink with a nervous twitch, accepting one with a sidelong glance or lurching merrily from its effect, which may include super 8mm flashbacks of pretty women old and younger along Nora's matriarchal line, a line that stretches down into the Iron Age peat moss, before there was even silver nitrate stock to burn it out. 

From top: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Eternal, Tomb, Eternal
Stoker's novella had already been adapted once by Hammer in 1971 as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Super sexy in pale skin and black velvet choker, Valerie Leon remains the main and maybe only reason to see it (I've seen it at least six times). Visiting all the exhuming archeologists one by one to kill them for their pieces of the reincarnate puzzle, Leon gets to play three types: archeologist's timid daughter, homicidal swinging mod with telekinetic skills, and ruthless Egyptian queen. And when I see a pale brunette in a black velvet choker offing duffers, well Amazon feels my 'Buy with One click' faster than a styrofoam ankh can bounce off the floor during a climactic tussle. Leon or no, The Eternal is the Stoker mummy movie to beat and sadly Almereyda's last horror feature, so far--he's been making mostly arty documentaries since. A waste, really...

1996 had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male (but punked out) shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket reincarnated as a rabid nymphomaniacal Communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing at the mouth stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right: there's enough druggie acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund and Lewton.  I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer, the English blood and sexy thunder of Hammer and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, or Iron Age moral compromises? 

Here's what happened: 1998 Michael Almeyreda, having had a minor critical hit in 1994 with Nadja (see my post earlier in the month), a black and white downtown NYC vampire film with lots of Portishead and cigarettes, took his winnings and doubled down on a color Irish mummy film with lots of Cat Power and whiskey. It didn't find the art house crowd it might have if he kept the black and white. Instead it went for the easy money and wound up in the cut-out bin looking more or less like everything else therein--at least from the cover. I mean look at that thing (above)! It looks like some direct-to-video Japanese softcore ghost story or hack Skinemax exorcist rip with a Waken walk-on ala The Prophecy IV instead of a druggie downtown-stylized old dark house ode to pre-code Universal and 70s Euro horrors. Well, I whipped up some real nice cover alternatives. Trimark--my gift to you:

i.e. "The Eternal Thirst" - the old booze comic Max and I did in the 80s
Here's the record collection, the wee lass, and Harris:

Debits for the ginger, their son. But he keeps his ugly haircut to the rear most of the time, which is just another thing Almereyda gets right -- these parents are cool, in the old school tradition, in that they don't freak out and/or treat their kid like some precious unboiled egg in a relay race. They're partiers, and they love to horse around with the kid, but the kid doesn't stop them from getting sloshed at the pub. And Harris is no Dustin Hoffman "pacifist" pussy but an ever-dancing freewheeling dude who's maybe a hair less charismatic than he thinks, but what drunk isn't? I admire the way Harris incorporates what is probably some dance background into his drunken twirls and rills. First thing he does to prove his mettle when the Straw Doggie skulking townie ex-boyfriend shows up is punch him, picking a fight by the juke box. It's a great scene not least because they've stopped in there 'for a quick one' after swearing off drinking, and soon its hours later - they're tanked - and the son is falling asleep at the bar from stone boredom. Yikes! Call child services except, god bless it, this is Ireland. They just get ejected from the pub is all. "They'd been kicked out of bars all over the world" notes the narrator, with some veiled admiration. Wait, I said all this already, didn't I? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. Come back here, laddie! I'm still talkin'...

What counts in the meantime is the groovy scenery and how Walken's residing uncle patriarch has a great homicidal record collection (well not great, they make fun of the Joe Dolan but dance funkily to his one hit, "She was a Good-Lookin' Woman"). Meanwhile the girl with the disaffected expression who occasionally interjects some plot points "your mother was a witch as well," has a kind of worldly calm. It's all right there - in the beginning she's a bit like the girl in Don't Look Now (1973) and for awhile she's like the girl in Who Saw Her Die? (1972) with a semi-decent establishing shot matte painting ala Corman's Poe series.

One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken anger - as still sick and suffering alcoholic Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it all while nipping from a flask unseen. That kind of balderdash makes me want to retch. And I should know. The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some whiskey down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the ginger kid --it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself feel keenly. How nice that there's whole films and wings of Irish literature just for us! No matter how adept his Walken impression, or grace around the dance floor, Jim's refusing drinks on Nora's behalf stings like a slap, and it's meant to. Only Eugene O'Neill really ever wrote scenes that captured the way every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, warms the alcoholic's blood like a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on their sickly behalf freezes the blood like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from. And only Hawks and Huston ever understood it well enough to capture it (Wilder doesn't really get it in Lost Weekend); only Hawks and Huston understood how cigarettes and drinks are the currency of cool loyalty, how they bring the world into focus as well as out of it. Almereyda doesn't have time to stretch out on these branches. There's no mariachi band playing the Death Song to steady her nerves like in Rio Bravo; no agony of being denied a desperately needed drink just for 'singing lousy' like in Key Largo. No time; the sub-plot just dries out. Plus, "Why be serious? That's for people in sad countries like Poland or Africa. And anyway, the mummy catches on fire and bursts through the window and gets zapped by electric current just like Hawks' original The Thing. So add the cigarettes (Harris is constantly lighting them and sticking them in his wife's mouth; the young girl does the same for the old woman, keeping one for herself) and drinks (and drink awareness) and that's Hawks enough. We don't need soberin'. We need another round.

Other wry references: Jim offhandedly quotes Six Million Dollar Man while building a fire; crazy old bat Lois Smith's hair makes her resemble the crazy old Baroness Graps in Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), which Eternal resembles for its inter-generational war of the matriarchal sorceresses plot, and the transmigration of souls motif which also ties in with Nadja and its influences like Daughters of Darkness-ness with the dreamy beachside ending.

There's other evidence of Almereyda's artistry and laid back genius for subliminal nodding, as in the way he evokes the idea of a pharaoh's crypt by lighting the cavernous marble foyer with the kind of candle light that evokes a big archeological dig; or the subtle way the cold washrag around Nora's forehead after one of her spells mirrors the head-wrap worn by the mummy (also played by Elliott) Niamh; or how Almereyda uses super 8mm movie footage to nod to home movies for the flashbacks to Niamh's Iron Age tragedy (she let her love for a no-good man weaken her magick power) and the death of Nora's mother, (Sinead Dolan). It might have been a corny touch but Almereyda has been exploring the use of different media within film structures for awhile, as in his Hamlet's intentionally pretentious conscience-of-the-king-catching video art pieces and overwhelmed Blockbuster trips; the Fisher Price Pixelvision in Nadja.  And the old lady (Lois Smith), the dead mom of Nora; the undead mummy shamaness; and the girl narrator provide a multi-generational matriarchal chain in contrasting film stocks (witnessed in Nora's head accompanying her weird flashback nose-bleeds and bird hallucinations) around which the little ginger, the local lads, and Jim are the only men and always seem a hare's breath away from being killed in a Barleycorn sacrifice. "It was the Iron Age, you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by," Walken says in reference to Nora's question about whether Niamh, her bog mummy ancestor, is good or evil. "She was uncontrollably herself." Jim meanwhile jokes around when it turns out the mattress is stuffed with dead snakes and potato-shaped stones: "The ancient druids used Mr. Potato Head as part of their rituals" he tells his owl-eyed ginger. But is the ginger really his? Straw Dogs skulking in the windows with their deux ex machina timely shots conjure wild scenarios ala 'Her Majesty's Coachmen' in Lady Eve. Then again, do they? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. These shards of Jimmy Dolan albums aren't going to just telekinetically slice into townsfolk's necks themselves!

And as for sobriety... Fuck sobriety. No one comes to Ireland to dry out and. besides, good Scotch functions as snake bite remedy. This is the dawning of the Iron Age of Aquarius, sweet ladies, goodnight. Saint Patrick can boast as he likes, Ireland always keeps serpents handy!

Goodnight, ladies, goodnight sweet ladies...

1 comment:

  1. Tim Wright20 May, 2015

    Haven't seen this gem in years, but in memory it comes off as one of the coolest horror films of the 90's. Not necessarily a hard call to make, as I don't recall getting excited about too many genre movies from that decade. Okay, there was Cemetery Man, Ringu, In the Mouth of Madness, Blair Witch, Sleepy Hollow, The Witches, Seven...Anyway, I really liked this one. Dreamy atmosphere, oddball characters and tonal shifts, great soundtrack (I bought that Cat Power record immediately after seeing it). Revisiting tonight. Thanks for the reminder.


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