A strenuous walk in the dark

Gothic has certain generic ingredients: sexual obsession, gore, forests. But giant floating shoes?
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Some way into Philip Ridley's The Passion of Darkly Noon, it comes to light that Callie and Clay, the couple living in the heart of the forest, aren't married. That's all, that's their disgrace. They're not brother and sister or anything. Some viewers may be puzzled by this omission: Southern Gothic without incest is like chips without salt and vinegar. And it's not as if anything else has been left out - religious mania, self-mutilation, porch swings.

In recent years several British directors have been drawn to this particular genre: Simon Callow with The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Terence Davies with The Neon Bible. Both those films were adaptations of novels, though, and Ridley has written his own script. What's in it for him? The attraction seems to be partly the opportunity to use fearlessly obvious imagery. A man's hands covered in red paint, blood spots dripping on the Bible. There's also the joy of dispensing with psychology, in a symbolic landscape where everything is extreme and the idea of the normal dissolves.

Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) collapses in the forest and is taken to the house of a beautiful woman. Callie (Ashley Judd) is alone, since her partner Clay has gone on one of what he calls his "walks in the dark" - expeditions that can last many days. She nurses the young man and hears the story of his upbringing and suffering. He explains that his parents chose his name by sticking a pin in the Bible. That was their tradition.

A good test of whether the film is casting its spell at this point is to see if you ask yourself what becomes of the sect's children who are named by this method after Satan or God or the definite article. For Ridley, religion seems to be part of the genre formula rather than a real subject. It doesn't inspire confidence that the one time Darkly quotes from the Bible - the part of Corinthians that gave him his name, actually - he mangles the passage. Fundamentalists usually get the quotations right. It's when they try to apply them that the trouble starts.

It will come as no surprise that Darkly becomes obsessed with Callie. Luckily the Bible contains no specific condemnations of women who knot their blouses so as to show off their saucy midriffs, and the destructive side of Darkly's upbringing - the itch to burn a witch - is kept under wraps for the time being.

Then Clay (Viggo Mortensen) comes home. He has a symbolic trade, making coffins for the local undertaker, with which Darkly agrees to assist him. But there's trouble brewing in the forest. Clay is a mute (which makes it mysterious that we should be told of the phrase "walks in the dark" as if it was his) who uses his tongue mainly for putting out his cigarettes, but he is welcoming enough. Darkly's the problem. Darkly starts having visions of his dead parents and moving with the agonised zombie slowness of someone who is wearing barbed wire next to the skin (as he is).

The reappearance of Darkly's parents, bullet-riddled but otherwise well turned out, perched on a tree or a sofa and dispensing murderous advice, is bound to remind audiences of the hero's returning friend in An American Werewolf in London. It may not be wise to allow any late arriving ray of comedy sunlight to cut through an oppressive atmosphere that has been so strenuously worked up. By this stage of the game, Ridley needs to stick to the rules of his chosen genre. If viewers find the sexual obsession as formulaic as the religious background, and the inevitable mutation of the two into savagery no more authentic as a development, it's too late to introduce an element of parody. Better to stick to the starkly ominous mood of the film's The Shining-style intertitles, announcing "Third Day" or "Final Night".

Ridley is well served by his American cast. Even Lou Meyers, doing a brief turn as the campy undertaker who employs Clay, is presumably doing what the director wants of him. There's only so much conviction you can bring to lines like: "Well, I'm a baby of death, corpses keep me juvenile." The director of photography John de Borman, comes up with slickly magical images of forest and grotto. The editor, Leslie Healey, puts together some quirkily effective scenes, notably one where Clay keeps coming over to Darkly's workbench to see if he's all right, the jumpy rhythm making the repetitiveness of the concern infuriating. A couple of scenes, more confusingly, have two conversations taking place at different times layered on the soundtrack.

The Passion of Darkly Noon is an odd mixture of tentativeness and over- confidence. When Darkly picks up a dead bird full of spines, and pricks his finger, it seems to be one more symbolic incident among many - this one presumably representing the hidden cruelty of nature. Then when he meets Clay's wild-eyed mother Roxy (Grace Zabriskie), who lives in a mobile home not far away, it turns out that she constructed this little device, to train her gun-dog to pick up a bird without mauling it.

This particular domestication of what seemed a fantastical object is effective enough, but when it is repeated on a large scale the effect is ludicrous. Darkly watches spellbound as a giant silver shoe floats downstream. Later, Roxy uses it as a sort of improvised longboat for the Viking funeral of a beloved pet. The big shoe burns and burns on the calm water, a strangely soothing surrealist image - surrealism without the surrealists' urge to upset.

But then it turns out, in the film's final scene, that the shoe was a prop belonging to a circus, lost when a boat sank upstream. Never mind that any explanation involving a circus is worse than no explanation at all. The film stands or falls by the resonance of its images, not by the repeated profundities of the dialogue - lines like, "I thought you could only walk halfway into the forest, then you started walking out." Why even try to explain? We wouldn't think so much of Bunuel if he had added a scene to Un Chien Andalou explaining that the gent with the razor cutting the lady's eye was an ophthalmic surgeon doing an emergency operation.

n On general release from tomorrow