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A review of "The Eternal" (1998) (aka, "Trance," aka "Kiss of the Mummy")

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around The Eternal, but I think I kinda liked it.  It's a beautifully shot movie about a bunch of alcoholics who go on a supernatural adventure in Ireland, and it plays out like their dream in a bout of whiskey sleep.  It's funny, but I can't tell if it's supposed to be, and it's creepy, but not necessarily because of the horror elements.  I think I'll give this one a middle of the road rating and a marginal recommendation.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Creepy Irish girl Alice tells us some nonsensical voice-over while she plays with a rain puddle, and I mention this only because she will continue to give nonsensical voice-over throughout the film without actually directly contributing to the narrative in any other meaningful way.  So... that's a wrap on Alice, everyone.  Forget I mentioned her.

Anyway, this is a movie about an alcoholic couple, Nora (Alison Elliott) and Jim (Jared Harris).  They have a son named Jim, Jr. and live a blissful, loving life in New York.  There's only two problems: one is that Nora and Jim are unapologetic alcoholics, and the other is that they keep falling down stairs.  Both of these issues will come up repeatedly throughout the film.

After drunkenly falling down the stairs to open the film, Nora is advised by her doctor that they should cancel their plans to return to Nora's childhood home in Ireland.  Naturally, in the next scene, they're in Ireland, where they continue to drink.

This leads into the scene that may be the perfect epitome of the film, in which Nora and Jim stop at a pub to get directions, then order a pint of Guinness and promise Jim, Jr. that they'll be on their way shortly.  (Jim explains: "In the same way that a spider is not really an insect, a pint of Guinness is not really a drink.")  Of course, they end up staying far longer and getting trashed.  It's funny and heartbreaking, perfectly acted, and of an uneven tone that leads you to question what exactly you're watching.

(You'll probably be asking yourself that a lot as you go on.  It's a good thirty minutes before you get to anything that slightly resembles "horror."  I guess it's kind of a Gothic-themed dark comedy about a shapeshifter?)

Eventually they make their way to their destination, which is Nora's grandmother's mansion out in the Irish countryside.  There, they continue to drink while jamming out to Tom Jones, and the movie is briefly interrupted by the plot, courtesy of Uncle Bill (Christopher Walken).

Bill has uncovered a mummy, you see.  Some workers found it preserved in the bogs, and Bill has discovered that this particular mummy was a Druid witch named Niamh.  He's deeply fascinated by her and believes her body possess legitimate magic that holds the secret to immortality.  Nora responds by drinking.

She and Jim make some halfhearted vows to sober up and get better, then venture dangerously close to the stairs where they have another misadventure or two.  Eventually they go to bed. Then Niamh wakes up from her mummy slumber and transforms her appearance to look like Nora.

From here, the movie just gets more bizarre, so it's possible that the rest is supposed to actually be a dream that Nora's having.  However, I'm guessing that since Alice keeps narrating uselessly, everything we see actually happens.

Niamh-Nora wanders around in a muted, semi-catatonic trance with ambiguous goals.  If it wasn't for the fact that she immediately kills Uncle Bill, you might not even guess she's up to something nefarious, since her main crimes for most of the movie are freaking Jim out and being kinda creepy.

Actual-Nora starts to behave strangely, which we find out is because she is starting to transfer her personality into Niamh-Nora as part of Niamh's magical transformation.  Then the mansion gardener bursts into the scene with a gun - by the way, this guy is in the movie now, and apparently he's a hero? - and starts shooting, and Niamh-Nora grabs Jim, Jr. and runs.  Jim goes after her in hot pursuit, and manages to trap her using his one power: drinking.

Jim and Niamh-Nora have a little booze-party, and then Jim tries to suddenly punch Niamh-Nora and rescue Jim, Jr.  It doesn't work, though, because Jim, Jr. decides not to run when given the opportunity, and instead just waits for Niamh-Nora to kidnap him again.  This time, she takes him out to the nearest beach.

Actual-Nora chases after her and screams and freaks out, then slits her own throat and drops dead in the waves.  Jim is horrified, but then Niamh-Nora speaks for the first time and explains that her personality has completely transformed into Niamh's body... so, actually, everything's cool now.  They hug and the credits roll.

The Part Where I Complain

I gotta bitch a bit about the pacing of this movie.  There are moments that are funny and work well, but a lot of it is just downright tedious.

A key moment is in the climactic(?) chase scene between Jim and Niamh-Nora.  There are ample moments for Jim, Jr. to get away, or for somebody to step in and rescue him, or for literally anything else to happen.  But, no, he just keeps getting kidnapped by Niamh-Nora.  Why?  Is the kid just a moron?

For that matter, the entire third act, which is supposed to be a tense chase between Niamh-Nora and the protagonists, is weak.  You'd think it's supposed to be an unnerving, tense sequence.  But instead, the characters just kinda... hang out.

I'm not being flippant.  They literally just hang out and have a chat.  There's a whole sequence where they're locked in the kitchen and they just kinda shoot the shit.  The part where Jim tries to distract Niamh-Nora by drinking with her is the cherry on top.  I thought there was supposed to be a heart-pounding chase going on?

There's a lot of back-and-forth with the sets that ends up getting frustrating, too.  At a certain point it feels like you're playing a shitty video game where you made it to the end of a dungeon, and then you find out you have to backtrack for thirty minutes before the plot can move on.  They leave the house... then they go back inside the house... then they leave again.  They leave the kitchen... then they go to the living room... then back to the kitchen.

All of this makes the movie really hard to recommend to anybody.  I think it actually does have quite a bit of great atmosphere and some really wonderful shots, but it's just not particularly gripping.  You almost have to watch it as a satire of horror movies in order to get the most joy out of it.

The Part Where I Ramble for Awhile Because I'm Confused

So... this is a weird movie.  Being weird isn't the problem.  It's that it's the kind of weird that makes me wonder if I just didn't "get" it.

Don't you hate that?  Happens to me all the time.  I see something I don't understand, and I think, "Huh, I guess that just wasn't for me."  And then every other movie fan and professional film critic in the world starts foaming at the mouth with love for the film, and I think, "Holy crap, I better give that another watch."  So I do, and I still don't get it, and I wonder if I'm just an idiot and everybody else has figured out something I haven't.

The Eternal was not well-received, though, so I guess I'm not alone this time.  It probably is just not a very well-grounded movie.

It would be much easier to accept and understand if you could simply call the whole thing a metaphor for alcoholism in some way.  One of the things I actually really love about this movie is that it's got a dreamlike quality about it.  Everything feels a little bit foggy and muted.  I'd love to say that the atmosphere implies that what we're seeing is a hallucinatory state the protagonists find themselves in, and that Niamh as a mummy is merely a symbol of the creeping death of substance abuse (note that her first victim, Uncle Bill, is family), and that the final sequence is a deconstruction of personal growth in that Nora must destroy her ego (i.e., kill herself) in order to accept change and rebirth herself as a sober person.

I'd really love to, but I don't know if that's accurate.  Too much of the movie plays out with tongue-in-cheek moments of pseudo-comedy.  For example, the mansion gardener is a character who barges into the movie (quite literally) in the final act, apropos of nothing, and tries to save the day.  It comes across as a joke about the arbitrary nature of horror protagonists; they are frequently one-dimensional nobodies that you don't care about because you're mainly just interested in seeing the bad guy dismember people.

Unfortunately, I just can't help but be won over by these elements.  Maybe it's because I once pitched a movie about a loving alcoholic couple who destroy themselves while talking about Snow Buddies, and The Eternal is about as close as I've seen to that plot so far.  Or maybe it's because I just enjoy seeing people screw around with film conventions.

I don't know.  I'm still confused.  But I think I liked this movie.

Where You Can Watch

If you go now, you can stream The Eternal on Netflix.

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