Photo by Sebastien Raymond

JAMES WHALE AND TOD BROWNING would have loved Twin Falls Idaho. The first film from twin writer-directors Michael and Mark Polish features no bolted necks, no Living Torsos or Human Chickens, no torchlit processions of vengeful peasants, but it is nonetheless essentially a monster movie, albeit one without violence. We don't seem to love and pity our monsters in the way we once did King Kong, Baron Frankenstein's creation or Browning's pinheads and midgets. These days we hack their heads off, blow them to bits and mail them home to their mothers in 24 individual Mason jars. (It's hard to imagine Fay Wray weeping tears over the broken body of Freddy Krueger.) But horror and monster movies are changing.

Forget Scream — that's ancient history now thanks to The Blair Witch Project, which bypasses arch, calibrated self-reflexiveness in favor of trouser-filling terror (it's a Ramones song of a horror movie). Meanwhile Twin Falls Idaho accesses the other great strain in classic horror, the one Whale and Boris Karloff founded so successfully in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein: the monster as victim of our perceptions, a poignantly beautiful beast whose tenderness goes undetected.

Blake and Francis Falls (delicately played by the Polish brothers themselves) are “Siamese,” or conjoined, twins. They have one broad torso, three legs and two arms, all poured into a debonair double-width, three-legged suit. They talk in whispers, leaning close to each other's ears, in a way that brings to mind cooing doves or shy children — and they're beautiful, too. (They seem like polite young men a mother-in-law might dote upon, were it not for their surplus limbs.) Blake is the more complete; Francis, beset by infections that oddly don't affect Blake, relies on his brother's heart and greater physical strength to survive. Blake could live without Francis, but not vice versa. Talk about bringing baggage to a relationship.

The twins are befriended by Penny (Michele Hicks), a hooker they hire for their birthday. No sex is transacted, but Penny stays around to nurse the sick Francis. “I'm penniless,” she says, in one of the film's many cunning double-entendres, suggesting that while the twins are burdened by excess, Penny is defined by lack and loss. There's mention of a child that she apparently abandoned, and indeed, she becomes a twin of sorts to the boys' mother, Francine (Lesley Ann Warren), who ditched them at birth. Twin Falls Idaho is packed to bursting point with similar doublings, halvings, mirrorings and reflections. In the first 10 minutes alone, the Polish brothers dot the screen with a two-dollar bill (“twice as valuable, but worthless when cut in two”), a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, twin beds and a birthday cake with half-and-half frostings on top. Blake even jokes that he'll call Penny “when I'm single.” That prospect looms soon enough as Francis' health begins to deteriorate, and the full horror of separation is conveyed with the lightest of touches as Penny, pain in her eyes, cleaves a pair of wooden chopsticks apart with a brittle snap.

Though it has themes in common with Brian De Palma's Sisters and particularly with David Cronenberg's eerie, beautiful Dead Ringers, the touchstone here is the David Lynch who made The Elephant Man. Twin Falls Idaho's hallmark, the feature that sets it apart, is its defiantly unironic tenderness toward its afflicted duo. The Falls brothers radiate such innocence, it's amazing the movie isn't undermined by their delicacy and sweetness. If you recall Anthony Hopkins as the saintly Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man, you may sense why Twin Falls Idaho works so well. Treves is soft-spoken and faintly detached, but brimming with an understated compassion for the gentle gargoyle he rescues. Something of that devotion and empathy colors the Polish brothers' elegant direction, the film's muted tones and its stately, unhurried pacing. The result — entirely free of hysteria or any sense of exploitation — cuts against the grain of today's spell-it-out, rub-your-nose-in-it movies, and by doing so proves that it's possible for a movie to be reckless and adventurous merely by being sedate, unhurried and contemplative. A new world of gods and monsters? I'll drink to that.

TWIN FALLS IDAHO | Written and directed by MICHAEL and MARK POLISH | Produced by MARSHALL PERSINGER, RENA RONSON and STEVEN J. WOLFE | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters

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