Whatever happened to Álex de la Iglesia? In the mid ‘90s, the prolific fantasist’s star was rising hard and fast from out of the genre cult ghetto he found himself in with early works like Acción Mutante and Day of the Beast into the slightly bigger ghetto of artsploitation comedies with Perdita Durango, scripted by Wild at Heart screenwriter Charles Bufford. Then American distributors lost interest: Excepting festival screenings, five of de la Iglesia’s last nine films went straight to video while two got limited theatrical releases and two more were simply never released on video or art houses stateside. The Oxford Murders is the latest in that trend: Though popular in his native Spain, de la Iglesia’s latest was sat on for two years before Magnolia gave it a straight-to-video release in America. It’s a real shame because The Oxford Murders is the kind of clever, funny, and anarchically complex pop mystery that teases its viewer at every turn and earns every one of its strange and unnerving jolts.
De la Iglesia’s sensibility is refreshingly warped, a unique blend of slapsticky, cynical black humor and a love for inter-connecting intellectual and melodramatic puzzles. The Oxford Murders, based on a bestselling novel by Guillermo Martinez, affords him the perfect outlet to express that idiosyncratic sensibility. Martin (Elijah Wood) is a hungry young student looking to impress the combatively jaded Oxford philosophy professor Arthur Seldom (John Hurt). What automatically puts Martin at odds with Arthur is that, unlike his would-be mentor, he’s convinced that the world makes sense and can be rationalized once mathematicians can decipher “the meaning of numbers.” Arthur derisively laughs at that hopeful notion. He maintains that because we can’t predict the effect of one object or person on another, we can’t epistemically know anything. Almost instantly after Arthur makes this thunderous declaration, people close to him start dying, forcing Martin and himself to appreciate their respective geniuses and work together. Because this is primarily an elaborate problem to these two myopic academics, discovering the pattern that will lead them to the killer’s next victim takes priority over revealing the murderer’s identity.
The Oxford Murders is probably one of the most playful films of its kind in years. Its investigative over-plot is a never-ending assault of new and often conflicting information. Morricone-esque harpsichord music plays while character actors Dominique Pignon and Burn Gorman and leading lady Leonor (Talk to Her‘s Leonor Watling), who plays Martin’s new flame and Arthur’s old one, unwittingly dispense cryptic clues. In the midst of this inspired cacophony, Repo Man director Alex Cox self-mockingly cameos as an eccentric scientist whose studies lead him to self-exile and then a nail gun to the head.
It’s in de la Iglesia’s nature to keep the viewer guessing and he does that expertly from scene to scene, from an early, beguiling tracking shot of the film’s various players to a weirdly exploitative later sequence where developmentally challenged grade-schoolers sing “Frere Jacques” on a bus while their lives are threatened by their driver. There’s also a lot of scenes in which Hurt bellows at and belittles Elijah Wood, which is always good source of cheap yuks. Masque revelers celebrate Guy Fawkes Day while de la Iglesia channels Dario Argento’s Hitchcockian obsession with spiral staircases and victims dying churlishly sadistic deaths, all open mouths and flailing limbs. Happily dysfunctional, The Oxford Murders is a surreally baroque answer to the stuffy Agatha Christie adaptations Masterpiece Mystery cranks out mechanically. De la Iglesia has concocted the antidote to the common whodunit and it is brainy and perfectly cracked-out.
Magnolia preserves The Oxford Murders's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and textures. The film was already awash in blatantly artificial CGI shadows so it's hard to tell whether the image has been drastically changed or if there has been significant edge enhancement. There's a noticeable level of grain that's pleasantly film-like, and as the film was shot with digital cameras, the transfer shows no noticeable wear. The soundtrack is immersive but uneven as the dialogue, already more prominent than the score and sound effects, sounds slightly and disproportionately over-amplified.
All of the special features on Magnolia's release of The Oxford Murders are either lifted from a prior Spanish DVD release or the film's original Spanish ad campaign. Most of these abundant supplementary materials are press-release fodder, full of flattering, backslapping quotations about Álex de la Iglesia from the cast and crew and unexamined footage of the shooting of the film. A four minute-long feature on Professor Kalman, Alex Cox's character, is entirely composed of un-interrogated footage of Cox shooting scenes while wearing heavy-duty prosthetic make-up. De la Iglesia comes across as a sharp guy and John Hurt and Elijah Wood both seem game for pretty much anything, based on footage of the three men bounding around on-set. But the only really interesting feature in the bunch is a comparison of The Oxford Murders's finished sets with their original design plans and even that would have been better as a slideshow instead of a two-minute-long clip show.
Álex de la Iglesia does it again but will anyone other than his established fanbase take notice?