It All Happens In The Dark

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Witch’s Night Out

The Eternal (1998)

Michael Almereyda is a fiercely intelligent and gifted filmmaker – he filters meditations on the idea of the self and stories of addiction through a horror lens until they refract and distill into elements not usually found in genre movies. And he makes it all look easy. His two notable “horror films” are Nadja and The Eternal – and they are kindred spirits indeed – almost necessary companion pieces. While they are classified as horror and contain all the right components to fit into that niche – at heart they are more about the horrors of annihilation, self destruction and finding peace with the past. Yes, Nadja features the daughter of Dracula cutting a dark path through present day New York and The Eternal has a two thousand year old druid witch attempting to take over the body of a young heiress. But you have to look closer than that to fully appreciate them. You have to work for it.

Nora (Alison Elliott) and Jim (Jared Harris) are a married couple living in New York with their young son, Jim Jr. (Jeffrey Goldschrafe). They quite fond of the booze – well, Nora and Jim are. Nora has been experiencing intense migraines and blackouts – blackouts which are more like all consuming visions that strikes suddenly and leaves her dazed. When she is besieged by one when returning home to her apartment with Jim after some heavy drinking, she passes out and falls down some stairs, hitting her head in the process. Her doctor (Jason Miller, in his last role) tells her that she must stop drinking – not cut down, not ween herself, but quit all together – it is a necessity. He also feels the the trip the Nora and Jim and Jim Jr. are about to take to Ireland is unwise. Nora was born there and she is returning to visit her Uncle and Grandmother – her grandmother is very sick and old and Jim Jr. has never met her. Nora assures her doctor that while they are there she will give up drinking – it will be a chance to start over, to rid themselves of all their bad habits. The doctor is skeptical and supplies the film with its best line: “You’re going to Ireland to dry out?”

Driving through the Irish countryside, the three have some trouble finding the family estate and stop off in a pub for directions. The bartender tells them that they are just half an hour from their destination and should find it easily – and Nora orders two pints of Guinness, explaining that she is starving and it is like mother’s milk to her. Jim explains to junior that Guinness is not strictly alcohol because it can be classified as food. Nora says they’ll have just a few sips and be back on their way. However, that is not how it happens and the next scene is the three still in the pub, sometime later, with Nora drinking and examining a jukebox, and Jim at the bar smoking, where Jim Jr. has fallen asleep. Joe (Paul Ferriter) comes into the bar and recognizing Nora approaches her. Joe and Nora have quite a history it seems, and it is not a history Nora is eager or interested in getting into at the moment. She tells Joe that she’s back in town for a few months to visit her relatives and will be staying at her uncle’s house. Joe warns Nora that the place is poison – he’s the bog man, he talks to the gardener – her uncle has gone around the loop. Nora introduces Jim to Joe and the two have a pissing contest which escalates into a scuffle, and Nora and Jim and son flee.

On the road again, Nora has another one of her spells while she is driving and sees what appear to be large birds flying at the car – it almost seems as if they are diving directly at the windshield. She swerves and the car crashes. All are uninjured, but the vehicle is useless now. Luckily, it is then that Alice (Rachel O’Rourke) a young Irish girl, comes upon them, having been dispatched by Nora’s Uncle to retrieve them. She leads the way to the house.

When they arrive, Alice offers to show them to their rooms, but warming themselves by the fire in the study proves to be a more appealing idea. Alice says that Nora’s Uncle is mediating but that she has been told to offer them a drink. Nora likes the sound of that and also likes the look of her Uncle’s bar which has twelve year old single malt Jameson. Jim says they will refrain from the whiskey, and Nora begrudgingly goes along with him.

Uncle Bill (a game Christopher Walken) appears and welcomes them. Nora mentions the accident that they got into and Jim suggests calling someone to have the car towed. Uncle Bill says that cannot be done as Nora’s Grandmother broke the phone. They go into the kitchen and gather around a table as Alice feeds them and Nora asks about her Grandmother and how she broke the phone. Uncle Bill tells Nora that these days he has to sedate her to prevent her from ripping the house apart – she is still strong, but her mind is gone. “She can’t tell chalk from cheese.” He also tells them that he has adopted Alice, that her parents were “lost” like Nora’s.

Nora can tell from Jim’s behavior that he has been drinking and she excuses herself and takes him into the hallway where she frisks him for his flask. He says that he couldn’t resist having some of the Jameson.

Uncle Bill appears and suggests that now would be a good time for Nora to see her Grandmother. Alice shows the two Jims to their rooms while Uncle Bill leads Nora into the basement. She finds it hard going – she becomes dizzy, loses her balance, gets a bloody nose – and also finds it strange that her uncle keeps her Grandmother down there – it is so cold. With Uncle Bill’s help, he and Nora arrive at their destination and Bill says that Nora’s Grandmother is upstairs asleep in her room. What – who – he has brought her to see is someone – something else entirely. A witch. A Druid witch. Who was buried in the bog. Two thousand years ago. Not embalmed, but in a pretty good state of preservation nonetheless. Uncle Bill says he found her in one of Nora’s Grandmother’s trunks – and he’s been keeping himself occupied by learning her identity. Niamh was her name and Uncle Bill explains she was neither good, nor evil – just a creature of force – simply, uncontrollably herself. Uncle Bill goes on, supplying us with some history: Accounts of Naimh span almost two hundred years, during which time she never seemed to age. But she fell in love and that did her in. She neglected her spells, the object of her desire just wasn’t that into her, her powers were fading. She seduced the man however and became pregnant – she had the child and her lover ran off. She went mad, tracked down the scoundrel and brutally slayed him – and then did herself in. Her grieving fellow Druids prepared her corpse for its journey into the after life and buried her in the bog.

Nora doesn’t quite know what to think. As Uncle Bill talks, the corpse of the Druid witch increasingly begins to resemble Nora. At one point it looks exactly like her and opens its eyes and looks at her. Nora has had her fill of crazy for the night and decides to get the hell out of the basement.

Jim Jr. has gotten into bed, and Jim Sr. bids him goodnight – at which point he spots Alice walking down a hallway with a tray – she unlocks a door and goes into a room. It is the room of Nora’s grandmother (Lois Smith). Granny senses things and asks Alice who is “here.” Alice tells her it is Nora, that Uncle Bill has her downstairs in the basement with “the other.” Grandma flies into action, taking the keys from and Jim hearing the commotion runs into the room to find Alice sprawled on the bed. He goes to her to see if she is OK. Grandma springs up behind him, smashes a teapot over his head and escapes.

Nora is wandering around upstairs now and finds Jim, who she tells about the Druid witch in the basement. But it is played so casually, no one really ever discusses how extremely odd this is. In fact when she tells Jim about it she mentions it almost as an afterthought – first she says that things never change, that they’re keeping guns in the basement, that Uncle Bill doesn’t look like he’s aged, and then – oh yeah, guess what? Druid witch. The Grandmother having attacked Jim and now running around loose doesn’t seem to really concern anyone that much either. Obviously the family is extremely odd and eccentric, but most of the clan’s behavior could be classified as certifiable. Is Nora so accustomed her her family’s odd behavior that she has resigned herself to their craziness to such an extent that she just accepts these things without dwelling on them?

In the basement the Druid witch awakens and does bear Nora’s face now – and to make it even creepier, Uncle Bill is bedazzled by her and tries to kiss her. Well, Druid witch doesn’t appreciate these advances (especially with their tinge of incest) and being really cranky after having just woken from a two thousand year nap, slices his throat. Now that she’s up she figures she might as well see what is going on in the world these days and heads upstairs.

For a while this film feels as if it going to become an English drawing room farce. Naimh is found in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs and we see the Grandmother rushing away, having pushed her. Jim mistakes Naimh for Nora. Naimh catches herself on fire and goes rushing outside. Someone claiming to be the gardener enters out of nowhere and when Jim says that there is no garden he is met with this retort: Just because there is no garden doesn’t mean I’m not the gardener!

The scene when Karl Geary’s character enters into the film is done in an especially distracting way. It makes the film feel almost as if it has skipped and we missed some major developments and are now seeing the aftermath. This section of the film could have been done in a way that felt more organic and fit better into the film – the scenes here feel extremely choppy and stilted, as if they were poorly edited. A lot occurs – sudden arrivals, sudden deaths – and it all seems to be over before any of it has even happened.

Alice gives us some answers now. Naimh can’t be killed, she is a shape shifter caught halfway between being alive and dead – the spell has been cast and the body she is now in is only a temporary vessel – her spirt has already made a partial transfer – to Nora.

I found it interesting that the more Naimh gained control over Nora the more she began to behave like Nora – notice how when the men track her down after she has absconded with Jim Jr. they are able to get her to lower her guard by offering her alcohol. I do wish this idea had been developed a bit more.

I like this film, but it sure is a strange bird. It has amazing photography – very memorable and striking images, quite moody and menacing. It also offers a unique take on the doppelganger, body swapping storyline. And it boasts a beyond stellar performance from the greatly under appreciated Alison Elliott. She makes this movie. Christopher Walken too, is a joy, turning in a fabulous little slice of his patented weirdness. The opening scenes of the film with Nora and Jim riding a rollercoaster as Cat Power lulls us is extremely potent. Sure, there are a lot of unanswered questions and I’m almost tempted to advise you to just let the images tell the story – but there is so much going on here that you’d be doing yourself a disservice. I almost wonder if this isn’t a black, black comedy. Certainly the case could be made. But no matter how you choose to view it, you cannot deny that it is passionately unconventional movie making. B


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