IN A KINGDOM BY THE SEA
Every now and then the Flickwitch gets to see a rarity, a work that has made it to film festivals but which hasn't achieved general release.
The University of Maine in Farmington recently hosted a series of programs titled “Poe / After Poe” to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the Master of the Macabre. The festivities emphasized a post-modern take on Poe, investigating the qualities of mystery and imagination that defined his work and that continue to inspire the creativity of writers, artists, and performers.
The many-weeks-long shindig culminated with a visit from Mike Rissi, and independent filmmaker from the West Coast who screened his latest feature at UMF: “Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee”
Right off the title put me on my guard, because when a director insists on the primacy of the source material, he almost always goes on to ignore it. (Cases in point: “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein” and “Bram Stoker's Dracula” which should have been named after Kenneth Branagh and Francis Ford Coppola, respectively.)
But then, when you make a 107 minute movie out of a poem that's six stanzas long, it stands to reason that you've got a bit of expanding to do, and that the title's qualifier may be just a whipstitch ironic.
Turns out, not so much ironic. The story does take place in the current era: no ladies in hennins or princes in doublets. But the setting is Santa Barbara, and if that's not a “kingdom by the sea” I've never had a drink in one. (BTW, if you don't remember the poem very well, I suggest you read it at
http://www.eclecticexpression.com/images/annabellee2.jpg so you can keep everything straight.)
Jack, a young artist (Jon Woodward), rents a beachside cottage with an ominous tall-case clock and a well-stocked liquor cabinet so he can get some serious painting done. (None of this bodes well.) He gets more than he bargained for when a beautiful and hauntingly mysterious woman rises from the sea, takes off her scanty clothes and offers to be his subject for a, uhh, painting. When Jack discovers that his seductive stranger resembles a woman presumed dead for 18 years, he becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth, and gets all messed up with a savvy gallery owner, a shrewd newspaper editor, the local constabulary, some bad whiskey, and a very wealthy man in a cliff-top mansion that's built over the tunnels of an abandoned silver mine.
If this sounds a bit complex, I may remind you of the other movie based on a Poe poem: Roger Corman's “The Raven” (1963) which had Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, and a VERY young Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre's son, complete with tights and Robin Hood hat. “The Raven” was played as camp comedy, while Rissi's “Annabel Lee” presents an absorbing and at times horrifying narrative that is lightened by frequent touches of wit that seldom slide over into camp.
The most obvious, and the most fun thing about “Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee” is Rissi's love affair with old movies. There are references everywhere if you know where to look, almost as many as Tarantino crams into his horror fests. You can hear the police chief echo Alfonso Bedoya's famous line from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre;” and the wealthy villain in the mansion is looked after by a secretary who, in her wildly alliterative dialogue, parodies Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.”
In fact, “Annabel Lee” could more realistically be seen as Rissi's homage to Hitchcock rather than to Poe, even though the villain matches the “high-born kindred” who bear her body away from her lover, and the grisly climax echoes the ambiguous hint of necrophilia that ends the poem.
The Flickwitch was charmed by the opening credits, where shots of old newspaper headlines provide the backstory, accompanied by Jason Solowsky's moody music (he studied with Elmer Bernstein, among other greats). All this gives the credits the feel of the opening of Branagh's “Dead Again” which was itself an homage to Hitchcock, thus giving the whole sequence a double layer of resonance..
Is this a flawless movie? Oh, dear me, no. Though a number of the secondary characters are very well played, the artist, Jack, who carries the narrative, is limited by a permanently goofy facial expression; though in his defense we do find out (Spoiler) that he's being chronically dosed with hallucinogenic drugs. There's a credibility issue when the skeleton of a body that was buried in the sand on a Santa Barbara beach is discovered more or less intact after 18 years of pounding Pacific storms. And there's a budget issue: the tunnels of the silver mine, where (Spoiler) all is revealed, look like every papier-mâché underground scene from the original Star Trek series. And by the time the villain gets the hero at gun-point and explains his nefarious plan, it's all so complicated and takes so long that we nearly go to sleep.
Mike Rissi's “Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee” has been featured in film festivals, mostly around Southern California, and also on the East Coast. (And here in Farmington, Maine.) It would be good to see his psychological thriller achieve wider release, but it would be better to see Rissi given free range to indulge his visual and narrative talents, and his enthusiasm for film history.