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Woody Allen's latest pays homage to classic horror

Shadows and Fog
Written and directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Woody Allen.
At Loews Harvard Square.

By Bill Jackson
Opinion Editor

Woody Allen's latest film, Shadows and Fog, is a fascinating exercise in stylistic mockery, a compendium of psychological horror films made in the '30s and '40s with a bit of the German Expressionist roots of those films thrown in. Long-time fans will appreciate this film as a hybrid of many of Allen's earlier films, combining Woody's comic presence with plots touching on evil, death, God, and existential philosophy.

What conventional "story" the film has is kept to a minimum. In an unnamed but European-looking town, a killer has been strangling people in the night. Vigilante groups have formed, and at the beginning of the film, Kleinman (Woody Allen) is pulled out of bed by one such group to take part in their "plan." Although he has no idea what their plan is, he dresses and goes outside. He spends most of the film trying to find out what part he has to play in the plan. This might sound like a first-time filmmaker's bad idea for a deep meaning-of-life analogy, but Allen is a master and his character is played mostly for laughs, so it works.

The intertwining subplot involves Mia Farrow and John Malkovich, who play a couple in a traveling circus. He is a clown, she a sword swallower; and yes, Allen's script takes full advantage of the sexual innuendos suggested by her profession. When Farrow catches Malkovich fooling around with the high wire lady (Madonna, stretching her talents to play a tramp for about 15 seconds of the film) Farrow leaves for town, where her wanderings cause here to meet up with Allen.

The concern of the film is "the nature of evil," and the analogy most directly being drawn is to the Holocaust. Somehow, Allen manages to keep the proceedings light despite this somber topic. When one family is taken away as "undesirables," Allen protests, saying of the head of the family, "He does quality circumcisions. I've seen his work."

When the jilted Farrow takes shelter in the town whorehouse and, after many refusals, accepts an offer from a customer, she feels guilt and shame. She tells Allen that she's only had sex for money with one person. "Does that make me a whore?" she asks. "Only by the dictionary definition," he answers.

Film buffs will appreciate the visual quotes from a host of old black and white horror films, including Freaks (the circus scenes) and The Cat People (the chase by the park). The images of (appropriately enough) shadows and fog are beautifully expressionistic. The film opens with a montage of amazing shots of objects and scenes filmed at skewed perspectives or through unique lighting. The cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, does an amazing job of maintaining the gloomy atmosphere, balancing some of the humor.

The cast is amazing. The whorehouse is populated by Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, and Lily Tomlin, and their most regular customer is university student (and the film's representative of the intellectual elite) John Cusack. All four turn in some of their best work. Former sitcom and Tracy Ullman Show regular Julie Kavner plays Allen's jilted bride and landlady with a true flair, especially during one scene in which she slowly prepares a gun to shoot Allen as she is having a conversation with him.

Mia Farrow turns in her best performance since Hannah and Her Sisters, and Allen himself is hysterical. John Malkovich plays a character who perfectly fits his understated method of acting. In one scene, he monotones this to Mia Farrow: "I hate you. I wish we'd never met. Come home." A host of character actors, led by Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) do an excellent job rounding out the company.

Although I won't reveal the ending, I will say that it seems to indicate that the staunchly non-religious Allen finds a bit of faith in magical (read: divine) powers. Has Allen had a religious rebirth? Although we are unlikely to find anything out about the private life of the reclusive writer-actor-director, it is certain that after a tepid series of films, Allen has come up with an entertaining combination of his serious themes and trademark comedy.