Try to imagine if some wiseguy decided to combine the scripts for Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13” and you may have an idea what “A Chronicle of Corpses” is all about. This stately gothic horror drama, filmed in the Philadelphia region by 22-year-old Andrew Repasky McElhinney combines Kubrick’s chilly and icily distinguished period piece with Coppola’s wild tale of an axe-murderer targeting an intensely dysfunctional family. The result is a mess.
Set in what might be early 19th century America (the exact time and location are never entirely clear), “A Chronicle of Corpses” visits the wealthy Elliot family and their plantation full of lusty servants. Grandmother Elliot (soap opera diva Marj Dusay in a rare big-screen performance) is a mysterious old thing with a strange habit of sneering every time the camera is focused on her. Her son Thomas spends his days in alcoholic stupor, slobbering around with a booze-fueled intensity that makes Lee Marvin’s performance in “Cat Ballou” look like a model of temperance. Her other son, identified in the credits only as “Mister Elliot,” is in a loveless marriage, although he and his wife find parallel channels of pleasure: he conducts secret snuggling sessions with his tubby brother-in-law while Mrs. Elliot spends her time with muscular stable-boy. Every now and then, someone associated with the family is killed. The killer’s identity and purpose is the film’s sole element of mystery, though by the time the film is over it is not so much a “who-done-it?” but a “why-did-we-sit-through-this?”
Part of the problem with “A Chronicle of Corpses” is filmmaker McElhinney’s decision to shoot most of the scenes in absurdly long, unbroken takes with his actors frozen in stationary positions, emoting their lines with tired melodramatic voices. This clearly apes the style of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” which the director claims as a near-divine inspiration (but, of course, if “Barry Lyndon” was directed by Joe Schmo rather than Stanley Kubrick, the film would have been long-forgotten as a static, stagnant bore.) This style of filmmaking gets very old very quickly and “A Chronicle of Corpses” risks turning the audience into corpses with death by boredom. In many ways, “A Chronicle of Corpses” is a motionless motion picture, with rare breaks of life coming in the fall-down-drunk character of the boozing Thomas.
The film also produces some jarring problems, most notably the anachronistic contemporary elements of a very silly gay subplot (never a function in classic gothic horror) and a weird sequence when two young girls enjoy a frank discussion of sex which plays like a colonial version of “Sex in the City.” It also seems a bit obvious that none of the characters have a change of clothing: everyone wears the exact same garment despite the film’s extended time line. The acting is frequently too-solemn for its own good, although Marj Dusay brings some much-needed hammy camp to her role as the strange matriarch (years of mugging for the soap opera cameras paid off here) and Harry Carnahan Green, as the naughty stable-boy, offers a refreshingly natural star quality which should take him far if he can land better roles in better films.
However, it would be unfair not to comment on the cinematography in “A Chronicle of Corpses.” This is an uncommonly well-photographed film, remarkably lush and opulent in its lighting and shadow play (and also more than helpful in carefully camouflaging the film’s very low budget). Abe Holtz is the cinematographer here and he shot this film in 16mm…though watching “A Chronicle of Corpses,” you would imagine he was helming the latest state-of-the-art Panavision camera.