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HOSSZU ALKONY (LONG TWILIGHT) (1997)

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"No-one will believe me if I tell them this story."

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Director: Attila Janisch

Starring: Mari Torocsik, Imre Csuja, Andras Fekete, Janos Katona, Gabor Mate, Josef Szarvas

Screenplay: Andras Forgach, based upon the story "The Bus" by Shirley Jackson

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Synopsis: A young girl runs through a field of sunflowers, then through an abandoned, dilapidated church. Outside, she climbs a ladder, and watches as her father, speaking for a group of people, congratulating a woman for her "unique find". After the ceremony, the girl runs to her father, showing him a silver locket that she has found. The woman asks to see it, but the girl refuses to show it to her. A car pulls up. The woman says goodbye to the girl, who again repulses her. However, as she is driven away in the car, the woman reveals that she has taken the locket, which she claims belonged to her. As they drive through the countryside, the woman asks her driver to stop and let her out, as there is a church she wants to visit. The driver is reluctant, but the woman insists, saying that she will call on the priest and probably have dinner with him. After walking through a field, the woman comes to a deserted cottage. On the road before it is a bus with its doors open. The driver yells to the woman to hurry up. Puzzled, she asks the bus driver where the priest is, and is told he died ten years earlier. The woman claims that she had dinner with the priest only the previous year, but the bus driver merely asks her impatiently whether she is getting on. Hesitantly, the woman does so. The bus accelerates wildly, throwing her violently into a seat. The bus driver rudely demands her fare, then begins haranguing her about having her bag on the seat. Angry, the woman moves to a seat further down the bus. She dozes, and wakes to find a little girl staring at her fixedly. Checking herself in a mirror, the woman finds that she has somehow gotten streaks of grease on her face and clothes. Darkness falls, and everyone on the bus sleeps. The woman is woken by the sound of someone getting off. As the bus starts again it rolls backwards, and there is a cry. The woman gets off, and finds that the bus has backed over the departing passenger. She moves his head to check his injuries, and finds that he is lying on her silver locket. The bus drives off, leaving the woman stranded. Suddenly, headlights shine in her face. She opens her eyes, and finds herself back on the bus, with the driver standing over her and telling her that she must get off. Forced to disembark despite her threats to report the driver for his conduct, the woman finds herself stranded on the side of the road. In the darkness, she is able to make out the body of a young man lying in a ditch. Suddenly, headlights shine in her face. A truck stops. The woman asks for help from the drivers, and tells them about the dead man. However, when one of the drivers gets out to look, the body has vanished….

Comments: This short Hungarian film is an intriguing exercise in creeping unease. Although Long Twilight is sometimes called a ghost story, this may simply be for lack of a more appropriate way of describing it. Certainly there is no "ghost" in the usual sense of the word; and if the central character is haunted, it may be by nothing more than a guilty conscience. Based upon a story by Shirley Jackson, Long Twilight tells of an elderly university professor whose life is thrown into chaos when she makes an impulsive decision to break a journey to visit an old friend. This step off the beaten path of her life plunges the woman into a vortex of increasingly inexplicable events for which no explanation is ever offered.

In some ways, Long Twilight resembles a rural version of Martin Scorsese’s urban horror story, After Hours. What ought to be a simple exercise – a journey home through familiar surroundings – becomes momentarily more difficult and nightmarish. However, while it is possible to take some sadistic pleasure in the torments inflicted upon Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett, there is nothing remotely funny about the ordeal suffered by Mari Torocsik’s professor, whose age and vulnerability leave her entirely at the mercy of the strangers she encounters. In one truly disturbing scene, the woman’s grumbles about the behaviour of the bus driver are cut short when the man giving her a lift announces ominously that the driver is "a pal of mine". The threat is obvious, and the woman is forced into a humiliating retraction of her words. Given how little actually "happens" in Long Twilight (in the usually accepted sense of the word), the atmosphere of menace generated throughout by means of scenes such as this one is quite remarkable; and all the more so since it is never quite clear whether the woman’s journey is an actual nightmare, a supernatural phenomenon, or all in her mind. Certainly, the cyclical nature of the film’s events has all the hallmarks of a bad dream: episodes repeat themselves in different settings; places and objects from the past take on new and sinister meanings; familiar and friendly faces suddenly become strange and threatening. But the increasing air of dread that permeates the film suggests that something more worrisome than a disturbed imagination is at the root of these mysterious occurrences.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Long Twilight is that the opening scenes, which take place in the "real world", are just as discomforting as those that follow. As praise and fawning affection are showered upon the professor by each person she meets, a strange note of artificiality is struck. Everything seems just a little overripe, just a shade too fulsome to be real, leading to the suspicion that these events have no more substance than those that succeed them. From this perspective, the twisted version of the professor’s world through which she travels that endless night may be no more than the product of her subconscious, forcing her to confront a truth that she has steadfastly repressed. But this, or indeed any other interpretation can be nothing more than guesswork. Long Twilight raises many, many questions, but gives no hint of a definitive answer to any of them. What is the significance of the silver locket, and why will it not open? Why is the little girl so rude to the woman, and why do her parents, seemingly devoted to their guest, allow such behaviour? What meaning lies behind the repeated references to a doll called Rosabella? Who is the young man killed and resurrected twice in the course of the story? When the credits roll, none of these issues have been resolved; and the viewer is left both bewildered and strangely uneasy. The shadowy nature of Long Twilight makes it impossible to recommend without reservation. People who like their stories to go from Point A to Point B to Point C, and who cannot deal with a lack of closure, may well be driven to distraction by it. However, those who are willing to put their more rational instincts on hold for seventy minutes or so should enjoy this mysterious and ultimately quite disturbing little film.