How do you begin a story? If I told you a story begins with the arrival of a stranger in town, you would probably think I was talking about a Western, since the number of Westerns that begin in this manner are countless. By the time the Man-With-No-Name (Clint Eastwood) first appeared in A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964), the motif, cliché, archetype, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, had already been well established. One of the most useful things about this archetypal beginning is that it immediately creates a mystery. Is the stranger a good guy, a bad guy, or something in-between? Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango (2011) is a comic-Western variation on the theme.
The arrival of a stranger in town is such an archetypal narrative device that it appears in virtually every genre. A Fistful of Dollars, for example, stole most of its storyline, including its archetypal beginning, from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), a samurai film. Yojimbo, in turn, borrowed its storyline from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), a classic of noir fiction. The motif turns up in film noirs like Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man (Joseph Cotten arrives in post-war Vienna). One of my favorite noir usages of the motif is Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1961) in which the white-suited stranger (William Shatner) who arrives in a small Southern town appears at first to be some kind of civil rights worker, but is later revealed to be a right-wing rabble-rouser whose purpose is to stir up the town’s racial conflicts. The stranger-arrives-in-town storytelling device is so archetypal, so basic, that it precedes the invention of movies – it even precedes the invention of the novel – and can be traced as far back as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.).
The stranger-arrives-in-town motif also shows up in numerous horror films. The greatest film in this mode would be Carl Dreyer’s dream-like Vampyr (1932) in which an innocent stranger arrives in a small town under the sway of vampires and other supernatural forces. Sometimes the stranger, him or herself, is the problem as in The Intruder and Oedipus, above, or in Herk Harvey’s independent horror classic Carnival of Souls (1962) where the stranger (Candace Hilligloss) who arrives in a small Utah town is, unbeknownst to herself, already dead.
Francis Coppola’s latest film, Twixt, now available on Blu-ray, is like a loose remake of Vampyr by way of John Carpenter’s 1995 horror film, In the Mouth of Madness. The stranger who arrives in Twixt’s small town is a horror writer on a book tour, a bargain-basement Stephen King, played by Val Kilmer.
Typically, for a stranger-arrives-in-town story, one of the first persons the stranger meets is some kind of vaguely threatening authority figure – think of Trevor Howard as Major Calloway in The Third Man, Will Geer as the sheriff in Winchester 73, Nick Nolte as the sheriff in Oliver Stone’s neo-noir U Turn. In Twixt, the writer meets an elderly sheriff, “Bobby LaGrange,” played in high eccentric mode by Bruce Dern. The sheriff is eager to get the writer’s opinion on the latest addition to his morgue, a young girl with a wooden stake through her heart.
Twixt, like the two Coppola films that preceded it, Youth Without Youth (2007) and Tetro (2009), is a small, personal film that seems to have been made primarily for the enjoyment of the filmmaker. That is its most endearing quality – that, and its old school poetic approach to gothic horror. The film is filled with “meta” moments – the writer’s ex-wife, whom we see in Skype conversations, is played by Joanne Whalley, Val Kilmer’s real-life ex-wife; Kilmer at one point does an impression of Marlon Brando, reminding us of his appearance with Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau; Edgar Allen Poe appears in the writer’s dreams, a nod to the origins of stories like this; and the writer’s teen daughter is supposed to have died in a speedboat accident, just as Coppola’s son tragically did in real life.
This is the kind of story where real life melts imperceptibly into dream. In one such moment (is it a dream?) the writer meets a gothically attired young girl (Elle Fanning) whose schoolmates call her “Vampyra” because of her buck teeth. She says her real name is Virginia, but she would prefer to be called “V” which, not so coincidentally, links her to Vicki, the writer’s dead daughter. V may be a ghost, a hallucination, or a vampire – possibly all three. One thing for sure: in this world of archetypes, she is a classic anima figure.
Regarding the town’s mysteries, we will say nothing further, except to note that reality is reflected in the writer’s dreams, and his dreams provide the solution to that reality. This is one of those movies, like Dreyer’s Vampyr or Takeshi Miike’s Gozu (2003), where the entire film is dreamlike, but there are dreams within the dream. Not surprisingly, Coppola says he based the movie on a dream.
Are there echoes of Coppola’s earlier films? Certainly Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) comes to mind. Both films are visually stylish, although this film is intimate where that one was grandly epic. Remarkably, the Coppola film that Twixt most recalls is The Terror (1963), a swiftly made Roger Corman production that Coppola co-directed along with Corman, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson, and Jack Hill. The Terror has the same archetypal structure as Twixt: a stranger (Jack Nicholson as a Napoleonic soldier) arrives, and has to deal with the twin-pronged problem of a suspicious authority figure (the baron of the village played by Boris Karloff) and an anima figure (Sandra Knight) who may or may not be a ghost.
Postscript: The stranger-arrives-in-town archetype relates closely to another narrative archetype, the return of the prodigal to his or her hometown – William Holden in Picnic, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running, Charlize Theron in Young Adult – but that’s a subject for a different column.