CANNES–A bad attack of miscasting and some klutzy development take the shine out of “Mad at the Moon,” a Wild West amour fou movie that sprouts hairs halfway and turns into a werewolf flick. Slimly plotted item may attract the midnight crowd at specialized outings but is unlikely to raise much of a howl with mainstream auds.
Second outing by Argentine-born Martin Donovan (aka Carlos Enrique Varela y Peralta-Ramos), who staked a cult claim with the quirky “Apartment Zero,” shows the same glee in blending genres and going for broke.
Main problems here are accepting topliner Mary Stuart Masterson as a repressed young woman and figuring out a storyline that takes a left turn 50 minutes in.
Setting, per production notes, is “somewhere in America, 1892.” Confident intro immediately sets up an operatic tone with a troupe of singers performing in an open plain at night and unexplained B&W flashbacks of two young tykes and a mysterious stranger (Hart Bochner).
Mood is sustained for a while as pretty 25-year-old virgin Jenny (Masterson) has a back-streets close encounter with charismatic bum Miller Brown (Bochner), for whom she’s had the hots since childhood.
Despite her secret desires, however, she finally bows to the wishes of mom (Fionnula Flanagan) and marries local milquetoast James Miller (Stephen Blake), the bum’s half-bro.
Things start to go awry (with the pic, too) as soon as the couple settle in James’ remote farmhouse. The marriage is unconsummated, Miller haunts the plains outside, and Jenny has her first experience of hubby’s “moonsickness,” during which he starts howling and turns partly vulpine.
Sensibly, she hies back to town. To get her back, James confesses to the townsfolk his affliction, caught as an infant when gazing at the full moon.
Jenny agrees to return home so long as she’s never alone with her husband during a full moon. Mom agrees, and conveniently deputizes Miller as her daughter’s protector. Finale has the trio moonstruck in various ways.
On paper the idea sounds promising, if a trifle outre. Donovan sets up the board with plenty of skill but seems less sure of how to make the game play. The crucial bond between the half-brothers is mistily drawn and the moonsickness stuff, which dominates the pic’s second half, is never developed beyond a horror sidebar that doesn’t deliver for genre fans.
Equally damaging is the lack of depth in the relationship between the two leads.
Masterson, so good at portraying hidden passions in the more naturalistic “Fried Green Tomatoes” and the 1987 “Some Kind of Wonderful,” never seems to get a handle on her part and simply looks too knowing for a naive virgin. Bochner, OK in “Apartment Zero,” mostly gets by with lingering looks and unshaven-hunk appeal.
Still, Donovan shows he has talent to spare as a pure technician. Pic has a confident feel that suggests the helmer knows where he’s going, even if he sometimes forgets to check the rearview mirror for fellow passengers.
Like the much lower-budget “Apartment Zero,” the movie works best when no one’s talking and Donovan can stoke up the atmosphere through sound, music and images. Masterson’s solo reveries and a later dinner scene are fine in this respect.
Of the supports, Flannagan comes off best as Masterson’s canny Irish mom, with a few characterful scenes. Blake doesn’t get many chances as the weak-willed husband. Daphne Zuniga pops up briefly in the B&W flashbacks as the young Flanagan.
Tech credits are top drawer. Sound design by Cameron Frankley is consistently subtle and evocative, complementing Ronn Schmidt’s light-play lensing and the Leone-flavored production design and costuming by Stephen Greenberg and Grania Preston.
Gerald Gouriet’s big-number orchestral score, including a fake Italo opera seg at the start, is a further hokey delight.