Remembering Elvis and Anabelle: Blake Lively's Real Breakthrough
This week The Cold Case remembers Elvis & Anabelle, the 2007 indie that links Gossip Girl, the Weinsteins and Edgar Allen Poe.
If Prince Charming brought Sleeping Beauty back from her deathly slumber in the media-saturated 21st century, then he'd be plastered across the tabloids as a necrophiliac perv while she'd be hounded by Oprah for a tell-all interview. And that's precisely what happens in 2007's Elvis & Anabelle, a dark and dreamy slice of Southern gothic romance that's not too far removed from our previous Cold Case, Lawn Dogs.
Playing like a cross between Six Feet Under and Sixteen Candles, writer-director Will Geiger's indie pairs Max Minghella's mortician Elvis with Blake Lively's bulimic beauty queen Anabelle. When she snuffs it at the very moment she's crowned Miss Texas Rose, her body winds up on the slab of his family's funeral home, which he's had to run singlehandedly since his widower -- and hunchbacked -- father (Joe Mantegna) was rendered simple by redneck stupidity. Struck by Anabelle's beauty, Elvis gives her the kiss and she comes back to life. But this ain't Gossip Ghoul, rather an earnest exploration of an idea as readily found in kids books as tabloid newspapers.
As a "near deather," Annabelle, who doesn't know how she came back to life, renounces her pageants and puking lifestyle, much to the dismay of her grasping parents (Mary Steenburgen, Keith Carradine), and flees the media, hiding out with Elvis. A tentative romance begins, with an on-the-beach hearse drive, dress-up montage, and the inevitable truth-telling all in the mix.
Groan away -- and the trailer does it no real favors -- but Elvis & Anabelle is a movie to reignite the inner teen, referencing Edgar Allen Poe (his last poem was "Annabel Lee," and he called the death of a beautiful girl "the most poetical topic in the world") as easily and gracefully as it does Bride Of Frankenstein (the "She's alive!" reference is a modicum of restraint). That the opening track is "Killing Moon," covered in a lilting but still menacing fashion by Nouvelle Vague (itself a meta-movie reference) declares that Geiger is aware of Donnie Darko but still willing to stake his claim to the retro-po-mo landscape and make it his own.
And then there's Blake. As Anthony Lane of The New Yorker has reminded us, it's the film critic's obligation to sometimes fall in love with a screen presence. Elvis & Anabelle -- even without Gossip Girl, unseen by this author -- was the wake-up calling card for Hollywood. Her Anabelle is effortlessly appealing. As her paramour, Max Minghella, who struggled in Art School Confidential, finds the appropriate blend of affected cool, vulnerability and victim mentality to make his angsty hero much more than a pain in the ass. It's the script, careful direction and performances that mean -- for once -- when two characters in love do dress ups, you actually feel you -- and they -- have earned it.
Elvis & Anabelle has all the hallmarks of a cult film in the making, not least because of its scarcity. Geiger made it at the "lower range of low budget" and got a substantial portion of that from the (now discontinued) University Of Texas program Burnt Orange, which traded investment for student placements on the production. Elvis & Anabelle played film festivals but got not traction until it screened at the Hamptons Film Festival and found a champion in celebrity publicist Peggy Siegal, who took it to the Weinsteins. Then, of course, six months later Blake Lively became Serena van der Woodsen.
"She started showing up on magazine covers," marveled Geiger when I spoke to him. "Seeing what happens when you have a name in your movie -- compared to when you didn't have a name in your movie -- it makes a big difference."
True enough, but the authenticity of Elvis & Anabelle is what shines. While Will Geiger wasn't a mortician, he told me that as the son of an FBI agent (a whole other story) who moved around a lot in the South, he knew undertakers and their ilk well. Three decades on, as a dad to a toddler, he noticed the similarity to the fairy stories he was reading his daughter those stories that appear once a month about people who wake up at morticians' homes, funerals or in the grave.
"Every now and then you read about it, and it's wild," he said.
Script written, he lucked into bona-fide Southern gal Lively ("Her dad was on the Dukes Of Hazzard") and surprise British import Max Minghella ("Texas test audiences thought his accent was Southern.") and a chemistry that sells one of the oldest tales for a new audience.
Once they find it, that is. The movie has been playing on TV and is due on DVD in February, although it's already available in some foreign territories. If the IMDb's user comments -- not a single hater; the word "love" is all over -- are any indication, it's destined for some sort of Gen Z status. And fair enough.
As for Lively, well, you know all about her. And if this offers an indication of her potential, when Gossip Girl wraps she'll be the next big thing. Gwyn, watch your back, and Blake, don't launch a GOOP. Max Minghella, meanwhile, should be on every director's watch list.
And for writer-director Will Geiger? When he spoke to Movieline has finishing off... Free Willy 4 for Warner Premiere. Laugh all you like -- and he did say it'd "Be fun to do something that the kids could enjoy" -- but have preconceptions busted by this: "It's much more enjoyable," Geiger said of the studio process. "I'm not kidding you, I hate to say it, but, weirdly enough, there's been more control."