What comes to mind when you think about films set in a haunted house? I promise you that nothing in your set expectations or perceived notions of the genre can prepare you for Guy Maddin’s Keyhole. “I’m only a ghost, but a ghost isn’t nothing” observes ethereal 1930’s gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric). He isn’t kidding. From the moment he and his gang evade the coppers in a sketchy, raggedly edited shootout and find themselves ensconced in his eerie childhood home, it becomes clear that that this ain’t your average family reunion, character study, ghost story, noir homage or even experimental film.
Ulysses and his gang find themselves trapped in an ever changing tangle of hallways, rooms, alcoves and hazily lit interior enclaves, the probing beams of police searchlights casting an otherworldly glow on their ordeal. Upstairs the spirits of his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), sons and spooky grandfather (Louis Negan) languish in eerie solitude and await his arrival. His goons mess about, try their hand at interior decorating and construct a weird homemade electric chair trap thing. A Doctor (Udo Kier, remarkably low key) arrives from outside the house to treat a mysterious drowned girl (Brook Palsson) who has come back to life and unsettlingly wanders about in a daze. This is of course the plot described literally, but such an endeavour is redundant here, as apparently is for Maddin territory in general from what I hear.
This is the first Maddin film I’ve seen, I’m embarrassed to say, but I am now completely in love with his artistic sensibilities and can’t wait to check out some more. Although surrealist art films are definitely my thing not all of them speak to me or reach out in a way I can process and absorb, but this one drew me right in the way David Lynch’s work does, an obvious comparison but a reasonable one to make. I always try and search out films that successfully replicate the atmosphere of being inside a dream, or what that subjectively means for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of Dreams and artists struggle to bring them to life, no matter the medium. It’s not easy to do and simply can’t be approached from a traditional narrative or stylistic standpoint, but for Maddin it disarmingly seems like second nature, like he’s right at home in the surreal to a point where his characters don’t even bat an eyelash when shit gets weird, it’s just par for the course. Patric is chilling, hilarious, deadpan, gruff and bewildered as Ulysses, whose entire life seems to be contained in this manor, in no easily discernible order either mind you. Characters flit in and out of scenes with little to no introduction, phantoms loiter in hallways wailing to the ether, people’s identities shift mid scene and the dialogue seems to be untethered somewhere between logical scene construction and poetic meanderings. The sound design is full of hisses, hums, drones, cracks, whooshes and all manner of beautifully layered hullabaloo. Visually the film at first seems to bare its cards: rattling Tommy guns, angular French windows, antique interior design, buttoned down 30’s attire, the trappings of a classically inclined film noir. But once one settles into this world it feels anything but earthbound, there’s constant shift in perceptions, the walls seem to be stationary yet in motion, images are quickly intercut into scenes and the overall feeling is off kilter, eerie, bizarre and yes… exactly what it feels like to be deep within a dark, disorienting dream. It’s Ulysses’s dream though, told by Maddin in a fashion that has no interests in holding your hand, tucking you in, reading a bedtime story or explaining just what’s going on. It simply tosses you into this realm and invites you to observe, feel and intuit without logical deduction, and viewers will either be responsive or find it cold. I think it’s something of a masterpiece.