One hopes “Twixt” doesn’t prove to be Francis Ford Coppola’s swan song — though if it does, this disarmingly cheeky, intermittently gorgeous trifle would create the perfect bookend to a career begun almost 50 years ago with the Roger Corman-produced schlocker “Dementia 13.” Falling somewhere betwixt that and “Midnight in Paris,” Coppola’s comic thriller follows a desperate witchcraft novelist (Val Kilmer) whose dreams of Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin) supply the grist for a modest commercial resurrection. Toying with semi-autobiography, Coppola himself slouches toward the marketplace with his gimmicky use of 3D in two scenes, although wide distribution of “Twixt” appears unlikely.
At this point in his long, sporadically illustrious career, Coppola has earned the right to do what he likes, which in recent years has resulted in the modestly experimental (and self-financed) “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro.” “Twixt” is clearly of a piece with those two, though it’s a good deal more accessible, thanks to its horror-film trappings and exceedingly simple narrative. Easily the pic’s strongest element, if not its very reason for being, is its set of surreal dream sequences, whose lush black-and-white with splashes of shimmering color recall early hand-painted cinema, as well as Coppola’s own “Rumble Fish.”
Given to booze-fueled dreams following a particularly humiliating book-tour stop at a small-town hardware store, flailing author Hall Baltimore (Kilmer) imagines a woodsy encounter with spooky 12-year-old Virginia (Elle Fanning), who may be the ghost of one of a dozen-odd kids murdered long ago and buried under the local hotel where Poe once famously stayed. In Hall’s next dream, Poe himself turns up, dispensing writerly advice as well as a few sparse details about the murders. Flames burn yellow in these mostly monochromatic scenes, while curtains and stained-glass windows — and blood, of course — carry a hypnotic red glow.
In his comparatively dull waking life, aptly rendered by Coppola and d.p. Milhai Malaimare Jr. as something out of a TV detective movie from the early ’70s, Hall trades insults with his frustrated wife (Joanne Whalley) via Skype and book ideas with the town’s wannabe writer, Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (a frizzy-haired and hammy Bruce Dern). At one point LaGrange breaks out a Ouija board in a nutty bid to discover the identity of the decades-old killer, who may also be responsible for the corpse that’s lying with a stake through its heart in the sheriff’s backroom morgue.
The first of the pic’s two five-minute 3D sequences arrives about an hour in (signaled, in B-movie huckster style, with a pair of stereoscopic glasses flying into the frame), as Hall dreams of climbing the town’s bell tower while children shriek, “Come with us, Daddy!” As the film winds circuitously through its final half-hour, Coppola allows Hall’s uncertainty over how to conclude his work to mirror the director’s own third-act dilemma. By phone, the novelist’s editor (David Paymer) calls for a “great twist ending, with tons of heart” — a formula fulfilled, after a fashion (and in 3D), by “Twixt” itself.
Despite the finale’s clear association with Coppola’s tragic loss of his son Gio (acknowledged in the end credits as “creative associate”), “Twixt” registers as a refreshingly loose and even silly work from a major filmmaker in the autumn of his oeuvre. Moreover, the pic comes closer than the ill-fated “One From the Heart” to the director’s long-stated ideal of iconoclastic genre filmmaking within a controlled, studio-free environment. Particularly in the dream scenes, one has the sense that Coppola, secure in his legacy, would rather push for self-reflexive humor and a handful of haunting images than for another hard-fought masterpiece.
The film’s bevy of in-jokes includes Kilmer’s enjoyably ludicrous impersonation of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now,” along with a throwaway reference to that classic film’s use of “The End,” sung by Jim Morrison (whom Kilmer played in “The Doors”). If much of “Twixt” itself is something of a goof, it’s one that generously lets the viewer in on the gag.