EYEBROWS were raised, chortles barely suppressed, when it was announced that Terence Davies was heading for America to make The Neon Bible (15). In his Trilogy of short films, and in the features Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, Davies's wistful gaze was concentrated on his native Liverpool - fixed on the faces of his family and a patch of carpet in the front room. He didn't seem the sort of film- maker who would travel much beyond the shop on the corner. In fact, The Neon Bible, an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's adolescent novel, is not much of a leap. It's loaded with Davies themes - childhood, mothers and surrogate mothers, World War Two, and religion - all transported to the American South. Even the tone is unaltered. Davies has taken his insularity with him, packing those solipsism tablets in his baggage.

The movie opens on a boy, David (Jacob Tierney), sitting in a railway carriage. Later we discover that he is in flight, though you would not guess that from the sedate soulfulness of his gaze. The camera glides through the carriage window and into the porched house in which the boy grew up, and we begin to learn what he is fleeing: his childhood. A violent father (Dennis Leary), an unstable mother (Diana Scarwid), pitiless schoolmates, and, soon, the privations of war. The only light amid the gloom comes from blowzy Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands). Events take a still darker, more desperate turn after the war. But plot is not Davies's thing. He is more interested in mood - or moodiness. And here his familiar rapt intensity, with its mesmeric tracking shots and aching tableaux, often shot against black backgrounds, corresponds well to the self-absorption of his hero - and also to Toole's deadpan prose.

The best reason to see the film is Gena Rowlands. As the ex-torch singer, Rowlands gives a compelling display of beauty on its last stand. In outfits of cerise or scarlet, she is still glamorous enough to seduce men and to outrage elders, though Davies's almost elliptical adaptation trims, even further than the novel, her affair with an older man. Her raddled features are a blur of past prettiness. Yet she holds on to her dignity, remaining for David, and us, a shimmeringly warm and welcoming presence in an austere world. No wonder that she describes herself as "down here, just a big sore thumb".

As ever, Davies uses music, especially popular song, to underscore, and sometimes undermine, his images. At the beginning of the war, we cut back to David in the railway car, his hand resting on a reflection of the moon, as the theme from Gone With The Wind blares over him. The moon turns into an open white sheet, and the music coaxes us into a variety of interpretations of this blankness - it resembles a stretcher, but also a cinema screen, or an open bed, awaiting the sexual revolution. The music hints at the battle between old and new values, tradition and licentiousness at the movie's heart.

Yet there is a laziness in Davies's easy equation of tableaux and music to equal atmosphere or meaning. When he films the devout locals, with their herd-like conformity and oozing guilt, his roving camera has a languid cynicism. Scientifically detached, the camera becomes the beady eye of an anthropologist. It makes for moments of entranced wonder but for tedium as well.

Roger Donaldson's Species (18) is a version of Beauty and the Beast in which they are one and the same. Strapping blonde model Natasha Henstridge plays Sil, the result of the injection of alien DNA into a human ovum. Don't try it at home: Sil may look like any Amazonian goddess but she turns nasty when threatened. Or, more accurately, slimy: eels wriggle through her face, her tongue becomes serpentine, and her whole body rapidly mutates into a quivering, omnivorous fungoid mass. Standard special effects these days, but what lifts Species above the average is the bunch of boffins trying to track down Sil in LA (great camouflage for a weirdo) before she reproduces. Ben Kingsley is the driven chief; Michael Madsen a ruthless ex-marine ("Let's just say I'm a freelance solution to some of our country's problems"); and, best of all, Alfred Molina as a twitchy anthropologist, with an exaggerated faith in his "feelings". The badinage between these three switches sci-fi into screwball. When the movie closes with a traditional chase, it's an anti-climax.

Nightwatch (18) is a slick and sickly Danish thriller about a boy who gets a job as night-watchman in a morgue. "All I have to do is sit on my ass all night," he thinks. He had reckoned without the woman wailing in the corridor and the trapped insect fluttering desperately in the light fitting. A foreman tells him about his predecessor's necrophiliac downfall: "The poor guy, he had his own harem." Soon a serial killer is filling up the slabs. Suspicion falls on our hero's misogynist mate, but director Ole Bornedal has red herrings to fry for us. Though laboured in its exposition, and at times sadistic, the movie paints a luridly disturbing portrait of male aggression. And the dialogue contains odd shafts of insight. The hero asks his gushing actress girlfriend: "Why can't anyone be an idiot in your world?"

Don't miss The Wild Bunch (18), Sam Peckinpah's classic 1969 western, enterprisingly rereleased by Warner Bros - though much of the vaunted eight extra minutes in this "director's cut" has already been seen in various versions. Somewhere along the way a realist condemnation of violence turns into a hymn to carnage. But it still makes the shoot-outs of the Tarantino generation look like child's play. Peckinpah's work, immaculately framed and searingly edited, leads us to wonder whether film form is hopelessly, and inevitably, in thrall to brutality.

The most remarkable film I have seen this month, and for some while, is Marie-Louise Iribe's Le Roi des Aulnes (1930), which opened the highly successful first Danube Film Festival. The festival was dedicated to women in film and in Iribe the organisers discovered an unsung mistress of the art. She died after making only one other feature. Le Roi des Aulnes is a dramatic version, largely silent, and with music by Schubert, of a poem by Goethe about a horseman journeying through a stormy forest bearing the body of his ailing son. As the father rides, the child has visions of knights in armour and fairies beckoning him to the beyond. As in Longfellow's The Wreck of the Hesperus, the adult is blind to what the child sees. Iribe's effects match Murnau's Sunrise and Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is to be hoped that this lost classic, restored by the Cinematheque Francaise, will be shown in Britain.

Among tributes to Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller and Louise Brooks there was also a competition for films by contemporary women directors. The best of these, by popular acclaim, was Anna (sister of Jane) Campion's Loaded, a nervy teenage group portrait, which will be released in the UK next year. In time-honoured fashion, a divided jury awarded the prize elsewhere, to The Monkey Kid, a probing, child's eye view of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Gravest disappointment was Agnes Varda's Les Cent et Une Nuits, a celebration of cinema's centenary, set around the silly conceit of having an old character called Monsieur Cinema reminiscing about his prime. Michel Piccoli manically overacts as M Cinema. Actors of the order of Deneuve and De Niro (speaking French) lend distinction to an undeserving project. Varda ignores film's danger and difficulty, substituting sentimentality. A real turkey for the festive table.

Two small gems to look forward to. To Make a Film For Me Is To Live is a fascinating and moving account of the stricken Michelangelo Antonioni's recent filming of Beyond the Clouds. It should be aired when the film is released here next January. Clare Peploe's Rough Magic, which closed the festival, brings magical realism to the hard-boiled detective novel with quirky verve. It plays at the London Film Festival on 7 November.

Cinema details: Review, page 84.

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