Monday, May 18, 2020

"'Why' Is the Most Overused Word in the English Language" - Graveyard Story (1991) - Film #178

Why don't we take this time to examine in great detail 1991's Graveyard Story, another Canadian film from the director of Beyond the Seventh Door, Bozidar D. Benedikt. While this film does not feature the cheekbones or hair of Mr. Lazar Rockwood, it does feature Mr. John Ireland.

Some of your universe's critics obviously misunderstand the works of Bozidar D. Benedikt's. For example, reviewer linseylockley writes, "The acting was like watching Middle School children in a poorly-directed play. The dialogue, also, was horribly written." Reviewer triso writes with some unwarranted bigotry, "This is a typical bad Canadian movie. There are no thrills, no chills and no spills." (This is inaccurate. I counted at least three spills.) And reviewer Leofwine_draca writes, "THE GRAVEYARD STORY turns into a standard kidnap thriller with some very bad acting from the supporting cast, particularly the woeful actors playing the gangsters."

How could these critics be so wrong? Please read on...

Over the image of a big house, a narrator intones, “There was a long, winding driveway that led to the mansion. Stonehenge, it was called, so named by my father. But behind its beautiful gray, monotonous walls would soon live an unknown force that would play havoc with my life.” (The narrator will never be heard again, and the information he imparted bears no relationship to the plot of the film.)

In the opening scene, an old man, played by John Ireland, sees a young girl enter his bedroom, but she is not really there. He goes to the window and sees her standing in the primeval jungle that surrounds his mansion.

She blinks away.

Mr. Ireland goes to his desk, puts on some Stan Lee shades, and dials a phone number. The film cuts to a man named Mr. Hunt arriving by train, then taking a limo to Mr. Ireland’s mansion. “Why did you bring me here, doctor?” Mr. Hunt asks Mr. Ireland.

“Well, in your ad, you stated, quote, former police detective seeks employment. Anything considered. Well, Mr. Hunt, two words puzzled me.  Former...and anything.”

Mr. Hunt explains his backstory in great detail with no emotion. He infiltrated a drug gang, after which his superiors told him to begin a new life (as the police are likely to suggest, willy-nilly).

So Mr. Ireland explains his own backstory, which involves being chauffeured through a cemetery in his limousine to visit a grave. In the flashback, accompanied by droning synthesizer music, he lays flowers on a grave, then walks to another grave by the seashore, which is decorated with the statue of a girl. “What is it, little girl?” he asks the statue.

Her stone identifies her as Dolly Cooper (1970-1980) and includes the touching epitaph “A TRAGIC DEATH OF HER INNOCENT LIFE.”

A tear dribbles down the statue’s cheek.

Cleverly, the film cuts to the present time, where Mr. Ireland stands in front of Dolly Cooper’s grave with Mr. Hunt. Then they get back in the limo to drive to the mansion so Mr. Ireland can continue to explain his backstory. “I’m a psychiatrist, or rather I was. I’m retired now. But as sometimes happens in my profession, some of my patients’ complexes and neuroses became mine.”

The story is so long that it continues into dinner, though the filmmakers spare us the intervening parts. “This is a strange story,” Mr. Ireland says.

“That’s all right,” Mr. Hunt replies, perhaps a little insultingly. “Continue, please.”

“I decided to adopt a little dead girl,” Mr. Ireland tells him. He grew obsessed with visiting Dolly Cooper’s grave. “Finally, she began to visit me. I’ll never forget the first time. I was asleep. Very gently, her hand awakened me.”

Mr. Hunt asks what Mr. Ireland wants him to do.

“It said on her gravestone that she left this world tragically. I would like to know how.” Despite the fact that he has all the time in the world on his hands, Mr. Ireland has decided to get a former police detective to research the girl’s backstory.

When Mr. Hunt asks why, Mr. Ireland replies, “Mr. Hunt, ‘why’ is the most overused word in the English language. That is why I am hiring you. To find out why.”

Mr. Hunt’s first visit is to the local priest. He makes up a story about having cousins named Cooper in the area—as he speaks, his accent becomes more and more Canadian. The priest, however, has no record of Dolly Cooper. Neither do the local police. Mr. Hunt hypothesizes the parents were migratory laborers and simply buried Dolly in the local cemetery (with its big statue) without telling anyone.

Mr. Hunt’s next visit is to the local newspaper, where the woman in charge, Vicky, after calling Mr. Hunt “gorgeous,” says, “I just love helpless men.”

The two begin bantering in a manner that must not have been intended to be highly awkward.

Mr. Hunt asks her, “Are you real?”

“I know this will probably sound crazy, but I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”

“Sorry I was so late,” Mr. Hunt replies with charming deadpan timing, “but before I ask for your hand, could I have a look at a complete edition of your paper from 1980?”

He reads through bound books of newspapers one page at a time all day. By evening, he finds an article about the suicide of Elizabeth Cooper at a local winery. “Cooper?” Mr. Hunt asks inquisitively, as if he weren’t looking all day for someone named Cooper.

In a nostalgic scene for those of us who grew up before the internet, Mr. Hunt struggles with the massive bound newspaper book on a photocopier just to get a copy of the tiny article.

Mr. Hunt rebuffs Vicky, who has brought a bottle of wine and two styrofoam cups, and the next day he visits Mrs. Bloor, the owner of the winery where Elizabeth Cooper worked as a maid before killing herself. He asks Mrs. Bloor why Dolly Cooper was buried without being registered by the local church.

Mrs. Bloor launches into a flashback in which she meets the homeless Elizabeth and Dolly, giving Elizabeth a job as a maid and generously allowing them to eat large piles of bread.

Mrs. Bloor spoils Dolly. They talk about significant things, like why Indian Summer is called Indian Summer, cutting away before Mrs. Bloor’s explanation gets too racist.

Unfortunately, tragedy unfolds when Mrs. Bloor hires two drifters, one of whom who resembles Walt Disney—always an ominous sign.

The drifters kidnap Dolly in broad daylight while the oblivious Mrs. Bloor is walking with her in the vineyard. The ransom note is pinned to a random tree, demanding $25,000. Of course, the kidnapping ends tragically when Mrs. Bloor and Elizabeth find a pine coffin in the vineyard with a dress sticking out.

Elizabeth, for unknown reasons, insists that they bury the body themselves. “Let’s just bury her secretly.” They do so, after which Elizabeth hangs herself.

Mr. Hunt asks if Elizabeth left anything, and without hesitation, Mrs. Bloor gives him a shoebox that contains Dolly’s old doll. (The doll and the shoebox are never mentioned again.)

Almost immediately, Mr. Hunt locates one of the kidnappers, a member of a country-rock band, The Tin Eddies, that plays at local taverns. Mr. Hunt visits a tavern to confront the man, who is successful enough to have his own dressing room with his name, Vic, on the door in the back of the bar. Vic didn’t even know Dolly was killed.

Of course, Mr. Hunt’s plan is to enlist Vic, go to the cemetery, and dig up Dolly’s grave.

As they dig, Vic is spooked when he sees Dolly’s statue blink at him. (The effect is achieved by cutting quickly from the statue to the real Dolly.)

“Oh my God,” Mr. Hunt says when they open the coffin.

The film cuts to Mr. Ireland’s home, where, shockingly, Mr. Hunt has brought the coffin itself. He opens it for Mr. Ireland. Even more shockingly, the coffin is empty, with only a dress, but there is a note there: “This is our last warning.” The kidnappers did not kill Dolly after all! Elizabeth and Mrs. Bloor never opened the coffin in the vineyard!

The shocks keep coming. Mr. Ireland has a revelation for Mr. Hunt: “Dolly Cooper...I’m her father.” He flashes back to meeting Elizabeth when she was a nurse at a mental hospital. “My assistant was a beautiful young nurse named Elizabeth Cooper. She had just come from England. And she was beautiful.” Bizarrely, he adds, “She had a gorgeous body and she used it well. She was insatiable. Love was anytime and anywhere. My office, my car.” When she “becomes pregnant,” he offers to pay for an abortion, but she walks out on him, never to see him again.

Mr. Hunt continues tracking down the story of Dolly Cooper. He asks Vic more about his fellow kidnapper, Walt Disney, the mastermind behind the operation and, incidentally, a former butcher. Vic gives Mr. Hunt some envelopes sent by Mr. Disney, the last of which are postmarked in Toronto. Mr. Hunt drives there and interviews various garage mechanics, one of whom thinks Mr. Disney is a shoeshine guy who works at a mall.

Mr. Disney does indeed work at the mall shining shoes, but he also acts as a bookie for horse races with the convenient “out of order” phone right next to his shoeshine stand.

Through the incredibly complicated means of writing a note to Mr. Disney telling him the cops are onto him and he will be escorted out of the mall by Ron Hunt, Mr. Hunt walks away with Mr. Disney. Seconds later, coincidentally, a trio of overdressed mobsters (one of whom affects what might be intended to be an Italian accent) comes looking for Mr. Disney because he has money for them.

In a bar, Mr. Hunt interrogates Mr. Disney, who tells him that not only did he not kill Dolly Cooper, but that she lives with him. He takes Mr. Hunt to his basement “apartment,” but Mr. Disney cold-cocks him and ties him up just before he can meet the now 19-year-old Dolly Cooper.

Mr. Disney proceeds to assault Mr. Hunt about the head with a can of retried beans.

When Mr. Disney leaves to straighten things out with the mobsters, Mr. Hunt tries to explain the truth to Dolly. “When was the last time you walked in the sun?”

“Well,” Dolly replies, “he lets me out sometimes and I play in the scrapyard.”

He tells her the truth, but just as she unties him, the mobsters arrive. For some reason, they tie Dolly up next to Mr. Hunt while one of them chews bubble gum and spins a gun around his finger.

As they leave, Mr. Disney returns, but the mobsters shoot him in the head before he can explain anything, assuming he was stealing money from them. They return to kidnap Mr. Hunt and Dolly while rock music blasts suddenly on the soundtrack. Instead of simply shooting them, the mobsters throw them in the back of a car in the junkyard, then transfer the car to a crusher. Once the crusher is started, the mobsters drive away.

As do most victims in a situation such as this, Mr. Hunt and Dolly escape the car crusher—they are rescued at the last minute, perhaps implausibly, by Vicky, the small-town newspaperwoman who has been following Mr. Hunt the whole time.

“I bet you could use that drink now,” she says.

“Now I know how a sardine feels,” Mr. Hunt quips as the police help him out of the brushed car.

In the end, Mr. Hunt reunites Mr. Ireland with Dolly—without the aid of ghosts or the supernatural. Mr. Hunt climbs into Mr. Ireland’s limousine for the return trip to the train station. Mr. Ireland strikes up a romantic relationship with Mrs. Bloor. And Vicky strikes up a similar relationship with Mr. Hunt.

The ghost sightings and the tears on the statue are never explained.

The End

Some of the appeal of Graveyard Story is generated by the collision of honesty and dishonesty. The film is entirely honest in its title. There is a graveyard, and there is a story. Furthermore, the tag line for Graveyard Story is "When they buried little Dolly Cooper they forgot to check if she was DEAD...", which is both honest and misleading at the same time, as it conjures up ideas of a girl buried alive, when all it really means is that Mrs. Bloor and Elizabeth Cooper used poor judgment and refrained from opening the coffin in the vineyard.

The dishonesty of Graveyard Story comes from the filmmakers' passive-aggressive desire to be everything all at once: a ghost story, a crime thriller, a romantic comedy, and, not least, a 1970s television show. The atmospheric opening, which sets up the ghost story and in which we actually see a ghost several times, is at odds with the film's detective-story second half. Some might say the little girl's apparition and the crying statue at the gravesite should have been explained at some point in the film. I say...okay, yes, some explanation was probably warranted. Even better, the film would have benefitted with a twist ending, say if someone--anyone--were actually a ghost. Mr. Ireland, maybe? Or Mr. Hunt? Or even Vicky, who saved the day by turning off the car-crusher. But such an ending was not to be. As in Beyond the Seventh Door, the filmmakers stayed grounded in absolute reality. One must respect their decision, even if one cannot understand it. In the end, these tensions gave us the film Graveyard Story as it is, and we can--we must--all be thankful for that.