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Thrill Bill 

Close Your Eyes and Morlang

Thursday, Apr 22 2004
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Under the opening titles of director Nick Willing’s occasionally engaging, if undeniably tawdry, thriller Close Your Eyes, a young girl in a nightgown is pursued by an unidentified assailant through a bleak industrial landscape before jumping from a train trestle and plunging into a chilly ravine. This same girl, we soon learn, haunts the dreams of London Detective Inspector Janet Losey (Shirley Henderson), though not because the child is, like those ghostly young femmes of The Ring and The Sixth Sense, some restless specter seeking to settle a score. No, this one is very much alive — and, so far, the only abductee who has managed to flee from the clutches of a serial child-killer whose M.O. involves injecting his own blood into his victims’ veins and tattooing zodiac symbols upon their arms.

Alas, wee Heather (Sophie Stuckey) hasn’t uttered a word since her daring escape, and the police are stymied. Enter Michael Strother (ER’s Goran Visnjic), a hypnotherapist who’s recently relocated, under a cloud, from Seattle and whose powers extend beyond those of mere hypnotic suggestion. He can read minds, too, something Losey picks up on when she consults him about her smoking addiction. She proceeds to bully him into consulting on the case. He, of course, ends up managing to get through to Heather in a way no one else has. And of course, before long — the only good cops being rogue cops — Strother and a moonlighting Losey have teamed up to track down the bad guy on their own.

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The plotting here is as creaky as the floorboards in the fixer-upper occupied by Strother, his disapproving wife (Miranda Otto) and their daughter, who is, ominously, about Heather’s age. Yet as Willing moves the movie along its well-worn, Ruth Rendell–ish path, it accrues a certain fusty British charm, along with the requisite (and, for this reviewer, most satisfying) amounts of satanic symbolism, creepy mute children and abandoned gothic churches. On top of all that, Close Your Eyes offers up a smattering of Jacob’s Ladder–derived waking-dream sequences, a kind of pop-up-castle-in-a-briefcase that resembles a cross between a backgammon board and that weird multidimensional cube from the Hellraiser movies, and, not least of all, the great Fiona Shaw, caked under respiration-restricting amounts of old-lady makeup, as a potentially sinister professor of the occult. It’s all rendered by Willing (whose debut film was the respectable hoax drama Photographing Fairies) with an overdose of smash zooms and wide-angle effects — his idea, one assumes, of what scary looks like.

But there is one not-so-guilty pleasure in Close Your Eyes, and that’s the sublime Scottish workhorse Henderson, who’s just as credible playing a hard-bitten policewoman as she was recently playing the mustachioed wallflower in Intermission and the struggling single mom in Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. (Which is to say nothing of her fine work in films released in years prior to 2004, including Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.) The enigmatic charisma of this petite, wood-eyed lass lies, I think, in the fact that whatever role she plays, the character always seems rooted in a sense of herself as an ugly duckling and an outsider, a bland face in the faceless crowd. Yet whether she knows it or not, Henderson exerts her own hypnotic pull, like some mysterious stranger glimpsed at the far end of a crowded dance hall. I here admit to finding her one of the most compulsively watchable actors in movies today.

Another suspense tale, more artfully crafted, if less contagiously kitschy than Close Your Eyes, Morlang concerns a famous British artist (Paul Freeman, in the title role) who takes up residence with a sexy Irish siren (Susan Lynch) following the suicide of his cancer-stricken wife (Diana Kent). Naturally, there’s more to the story: In flashbacks that smash upon us like waves breaking against rocks, we see Morlang’s busted-up marriage reassemble itself, and learn that both spouses had good reason to be suspicious of each other’s fidelity. Meanwhile, back in the present, something sinister is afoot. Morlang finds himself besieged with mysterious phone calls and post cards that seem like messages telegraphed from six feet under. “Don’t feel guilty,” they pretend to comfort. “It’s nobody’s fault.” What’s nobody’s fault? If you think it has something to do with the death of Mrs. Morlang, you’re right. But rest assured, Morlang has surprises up its sleeve that even the seasoned genre fan may not see coming.

The debut feature of the Dutch television and commercials director Tjebbo Penning, Morlang jumps around in time and only in its final stretch reveals just how its jagged fragments fit together. And like many such exercises in nonlinearity, if the story were told in a more conventional fashion, it wouldn’t be nearly as gripping. Morlang purports to be loosely based on a real-life Dutch scandal known as the “Van Bemmelen affair.” For lack of any Internet sources of information about such an affair, we’ll just have to take the filmmakers’ word on that — especially since, by the time it reaches its twisty finale, Morlang has taken on the quality of something salacious read about in the morning papers and forgotten by supper.

The actors, however, give it their all, with Freeman in particular seeming overjoyed to sink his teeth into a meaty lead role after years of providing reliable backup, most famously as Indiana Jones’ French archaeological rival in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like so many British character actors around the age of 60, he can stand onscreen doing almost nothing and convince us he’s up to no good. And as for his character’s hybrid canvases, combining photographed and painted elements (and credited to the real Dutch artist Brigitte Mulders) — they’re pretty nifty, too.

* * *

More notable than Morlang itself is its distributor, Film Movement, conceived by Larry Meistrich, who formerly presided over the New York–based production company the Shooting Gallery, as well as its late, lamented film series. Meistrich has long been one of the indie film world’s true mavericks. Film Movement is a maverick’s venture: a subscription service that acquires the rights to previously undistributed foreign and American independent films that have achieved some status on the festival circuit, then delivers DVDs of those titles to its subscribers at the same time that it opens the films in select theaters. It’s a cinematic book-of-the-month club, born out of Meistrich’s firsthand knowledge of the harsh fiscal realities of theatrically releasing specialized films, as well as his realization that, since starting a family himself, even he wasn’t catching many of the smaller movies he wanted to see before they disappeared from screens. (You too can become a member for less than the price of a cup of coffee, or something like that, while visiting www.filmmovement.com.) Deployed in 2003 with Achero Manas’ award-winning Spanish drama El Bola, Film Movement has gone on to present Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s touching family chronicle Marion Bridge and Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s acclaimed straight-outta-Compton documentary OT: Our Town, among others. And if Meistrich and his fellow curators (consisting of a few dozen leading festival and film-society programmers) have yet to pick up a single title that I would deem absolutely essential — like the Shooting Gallery’s acquisition of Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka — there is certainly no shortage of such fare lingering in film-festival limbo. It’s only a matter of time.

CLOSE YOUR EYES | Directed by NICK WILLING | Written by WILLING and WILLIAM BROOKFIELD, based on the novel Doctor Sleep by Madison Smart Bell | Produced by MICHELLE CAMARDA | Released by First Look Pictures | At selected theaters

MORLANG | Directed by TJEBBO PENNING | Written by RUUD SCHUURMAN, PENNING, MATTHEW FAULK and MARK SKEET; story by SCHUURMAN and PENNING | Produced by PETRA GOEDINGS Released by Film Movement | At Pasadena Academy 6

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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