Accion Mutante, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alex de la Iglesia, Anna Massey, auteur theory, based on a book, Burn Gorman, cinema, co-writers, disappointing films, dramas, El dia de la bestia, Elijah Wood, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, grad students, Guillermo del Toro, Jim Carter, John Hurt, Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Julie Cox, Leonor Watling, mathematical formulas, Movies, murder-mystery, Oxford University, Perdita Durango, professor, Santa Sangre, The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus, The Oxford Murders, twist ending, Witching and Bitching, writer-director
Without a doubt, Spanish auteur Alex de la Iglesia is one of my very favorite filmmakers, a mischievous maestro who combines the surreal, magical-realism of Alejandro Jodorowsky with Guillermo del Toro’s affinity for genre material (and impish sense of humor). When de la Iglesia is good, he’s absolutely amazing: I would happily rank his most recent films, The Last Circus (2010), As Luck Would Have It (2011) and Witching and Bitching (2013) as some of the best films I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t even take into account his legendary ’90s output that features such cult classic (if impossible to find) treasures as Accion Mutante (1993), El dia de la Bestia (1995) and Perdita Durango (1997).
At his best, de la Iglesia is like a more accessible Jodorowsky, filling his films with delightfully bizarre little asides and eye-popping visual spectacles: in fact, I’ve always felt that The Last Circus was the best film that Jodorowsky never made, an impossibly beautiful yet horrifyingly grotesque political parable that can sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the classic Santa Sangre (1989). When he’s not scaling those impossible heights, de la Iglesia manages to turn out massively entertaining, endlessly pulpy genre films that usually involve tough women, lots of cars and guns and odd supernatural angles. Despite not having the pleasure of watching his entire back-catalog, I can honestly say that I never met a de la Iglesia film that I didn’t like…until I met The Oxford Murders (2008), that is. Despite an excellent cast and an appropriately twisty storyline, the film is largely an inert, confusing mess that displays barely a glimmer of de la Iglesia’s trademark bravura filmmaking. For the first time, to my chagrin, here was my hero treading water.
Our hero, Martin (Elijah Wood), is a grad student obsessed with the legendarily difficult, reclusive mathematician Arthur Seldom (John Hurt). Seeking to get a face-to-face meeting with the professor, Martin takes up lodging with his sister, Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey), and her moony-eyed daughter, Beth (Julie Cox). Disrupting one of Seldom’s lectures, Martin makes an ass out of himself, which makes things even more awkward when both he and Seldom end up back at Eagleton’s boarding house. They soon have something to talk about other than Martin’s bad manners, however, when they stumble upon the decidedly dead body of the land-lady.
A note found at the scene seems to indicate that Mrs. Eagleton was the victim of a serial killer, one who inscribes mathematical symbols like perfect circles onto his missives. Putting their heads together, Martin and Arthur realize that the killer is trying to play a game with the professor, a game that involves creating perfectly logical murders, all towards the goal of proving that they don’t exist. Confused yet? As Martin and Arthur rush from one new crime scene to the other, ably aided by Lorna (Leonor Watling), a young nurse who’s been intimate with both the grad student AND his elderly professor, they discover an intricate series of “almost-murders,” crimes committed in such ways as to seem almost natural…unless one knows what to look for, of course.
As the clock ticks down, the dynamic duo finds themselves in more and more danger, along with an increasing police presence that sees their continued appearance at the crime scenes as being a little too coincidental. Will they catch their culprit or will a mysterious maniac continue to wreak havoc in the hallowed halls of Oxford University?
There are lots of rather critical problems with The Oxford Murders but we’ll start with the biggest one: the film is both overly complicated and impossibly stupid, a critically lethal combo if ever there was one. In an attempt to seem Hitchcockian (an obvious source of inspiration), de la Iglesia piles one double-cross after another left-turn into further complications until the whole thing collapses into a soggy mess of plot contrivances. There are so many red herrings here (Martin’s batshit crazy roommate is an obvious one) that it kinds of feels like parody, after a while, as if de la Iglesia decided to take the piss out of old “drawing-room” mysteries for no perceptible reason.
Trying to follow the plot is no easy task but it’s made immeasurably more difficult by the film’s manic pace and propensity for over-the-top melodrama: Burn Gorman’s Yuri is one of the best examples of a character who not only makes no narrative sense but is pitched at such an insane level (he appears to be dubbed, which makes his bizarre speech patterns a little more understandable but just barely) that he seems to belong in another film. The bit where he makes an ass of himself at the party is a real “high” point but there isn’t much to his performance that could be deemed natural or, you know, non-hysterical.
Wood and Hurt, for their parts, are reliably sturdy, although they both end up just recycling previous performances as if re-wearing comfortable suits: Hurt is the cranky, sardonic old mentor, while Wood is the fish-out-of-water newbie just having his eyes opened to the real world. They’re performances that either actor could give in their sleep, to be honest, and bring nothing new to the table.
It’s not all a dreary disappointment, however: buried within the muck is one moment of pure, unadulterated de la Iglesia that’s an absolute joy to watch. After leaving Prof. Seldom’s lecture, Martin heads back to the boarding house and the camera heads along with him. In a simply glorious single take, the camera glides along after Martin but ends up “tagging” various other characters along the way, jumping from person to person like a giddy child before finally swooping into the boarding house to reveal Mrs. Eagleton’s dead body. Quite simply, it’s a wonderful scene: too bad it’s the only moment in the entire film that actually reminded me of de la Iglesia.
All in all, The Oxford Murders is a middle-of-the-road mystery hobbled by some truly over-the-top performances, a needlessly confusing plot and a truly stupid twist ending. Were any other filmmaker attached to this project, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about the film, since I’ve seen way too many “competent” movies just like this. This is Alex de la Iglesia, however, a genuinely brilliant writer-director: there was no need for the film to be so completely tedious and anonymous. Luckily, de la Iglesia would follow-up The Oxford Murders with the aforementioned trilogy of The Last Circus, As Luck Would Have It and Witching and Bitching, handily proving that this was only a minor blip in an otherwise impeccable career. As it stands, The Oxford Murders should only be of interest to de la Iglesia completists: all others are advised to go straight to his classics and give this as wide a berth as possible.