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A rabbit following

The surreal and swirling film 'Donnie Darko' is finding its destiny as a cult favorite

It's oddly fitting that so much of filmmaker Richard Kelly's 2001 debut, "Donnie Darko," is wrapped up in the mind-bend-

ing intricacies of predestination. Perhaps the movie itself was destined to fizzle at the box office -- not for lack of merit, but rather because this is almost invariably the path to cult-favorite status. "Darko," with its intelligent, tough-to-peg interweaving of achingly realistic teen drama, black humor, David Lynch-wor-

thy mystery, and time bending, is quickly achieving just that level of under-the-radar appreciation. The movie, which screens at the Brattle Theatre this week-

end, chronicles a tumultuous month in the life of suburban adolescent Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a borderline schizophrenic trying to make sense of the swirling, surreal world around him: his visions of a 6-foot-tall, Son of Sam-like bunny named Frank, the sheared-off jet engine that (really) comes crashing

down into his bedroom early in the film, and that always treacherous high school caste system. It's a heady mix -- and one that earned the $4.5 million indie barely half a million dollars in its initial release. Not even an appearance by Drew Barrymore, whose production company served as an angel to the project behind the scenes, was enough to make a difference. Likewise for an inspired supporting turn by Patrick Swayze as a smarmy motivational speaker.

But now, not only is "Darko" enjoying a healthy extended life on DVD, video, and cable television, it's also become an art-house staple. In addition to the

Brattle showcase, there have

been repeated late-night screen

ings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The Two Boots Pioneer Theater, a pizza place-cum-cinephile hangout in New York's East Village, has been showing the movie at midnight every Friday and Saturday since January of last year. And Oct. 3-5, the American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training will even be mounting a stage adaptation of Kelly's script.

"It seems there's always been this weird cult awareness of the film," says the LA-based Kelly, 28. "Even before we started shooting, there was already a fan site, which was very bizarre to me. I mean, the script had been passed around by a lot of people, but I had no idea that anyone would be interested in tracking our film.

"Although," he adds with a laugh, "I think the original fan site maybe had a little more to do with teenage girls who wanted to know about Jake." (The 22-year-old Gyllenhaal has since raised his hottie profile with equally offbeat fare such as "Moonlight Mile" and "The Good Girl," and even more so through his relationship with actress Kirsten Dunst and his near brush with replacing Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man 2.")

Set in 1988, the movie riffs on both Reagan-era attitudes and the pop touchstones of Kelly's youth -- whether the music of Tears for Fears or, in an amusing extended rant about their sexual predilections, the Smurfs.

Still, today's teens seem to relate.

"I get approached by a lot of people who tell me their little brother or little cousin is embracing the film," Kelly says. "I'm probably most excited by that, because it's a shame how many millions and millions of dollars teenagers spend on garbage, on cultural fast food." Not that crowds at the Brattle's first showing of the film a year and a half ago all skewed toward the "TRL" demographic. Theater codirector Ned Hinkle recalls that many were simply movie buffs who'd heard some buzz about "Darko" but had been thwarted by its brief theatrical run.

"We had people coming from Providence and Western Mass., just a lot of people who got really into talking about the various convolutions of the script," he says. "It's dense enough that people can read things into it and look for more information and expand their ideas on it, but at the same time it's also fun and entertaining.

"There's no `Rocky Horror' aspect of people throwing rice and yelling at the screen," he adds. "But we have had people show up in bunny ears."

An officially licensed pair of which may be coming soon to a Suncoast near you. "The Donnie Darko Book," featuring the screenplay, a Kelly interview, production art, and other goodies, was recently published in Britain by Faber and Faber and is scheduled to hit US bookstores next month. And McFarlane Toys, makers of the collector-targeted Spawn line of action figures, is negotiating to produce a Frank the Bunny figure for its Movie Maniacs line.

"Who would've ever thought there'd be `Donnie Darko' merchandising?" Kelly marvels, laughing. "But it's gotten to that point."

Before the toymakers can get to work, though, Kelly has to give them a quick reference assist: He needs to retrieve the original bunny mask from London, where the prop is being displayed in a graffiti art exhibit called "They Made Me Do It." (The title refers to the phrase Donnie tags his school with after a particularly outrageous bit of vandalism executed at Frank's behest; work from the exhibit is also displayed online at www.theymademedoit.com.)

The ART's grad students will have to do a bit of freestyle riffing of their own, if for no other reason than to make that dicey jet engine mishap work onstage.

"One of the most difficult things about doing this is translating the film's fantastical alternative universe," says ART associate director Marcus Stern, who was inspired to take on "Darko" after a chance viewing on HBO. "But the fact that we're working on this has generated such a great feeling around the building. When people stop me, they go, `I can't believe we're adapting "Donnie Darko." ' And I say, `I know, it's scary!' But very exciting." Taken together, the various manifestations of the "Darko" phenomenon might even be enough, eventually, to deaden the sting Kelly felt upon the movie's first-run failure, and again when it was first released on DVD.

"The company in charge of packaging the [DVD] tried in every way to repackage it as a teen slasher film," he says, bristling in particular at the way the names of older cast members Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross were simply left off the front of the box. (The actresses play Donnie's mom and therapist, respectively, with McDonnell turning in an especially remarkable performance full of wisdom and dignity that never once undermine Kelly's disaffected-teen vibe.)

Summing up, he says, "I was kind of enraged." Ditto for Eli Roth on Kelly's behalf. The Newton native and "Cabin Fever" writer-director got to know Kelly through mutual friends and is now collaborating with him on a planned adaptation of fantasy writer Richard Matheson's story "The Box." (Their shared sensibilities also include a fondness for "The Evil Dead" -- both "Darko" and "Cabin Fever" contain shout-outs to the schlock classic -- and, yes, hallucinatory giant bunny images, which also figure briefly in "Fever.")

The outspoken Roth characteristically scoffs at the notion that video ad copy would liken "Darko" to a mainstream thriller like "Final Destination."

"It's humiliating to have `Final Destination' on the same box," says Roth. "It should just say, `If you liked "Eraserhead," you'll like "Donnie Darko." ' "

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