For those who don’t want to be stuck at home to hand out candy today (or have already partied), the multiplex is a surprisingly good place to rustle up some scares this year. Sure, there’s still a Saw and a remake (The Stepfather), both unseen by me, but there are some good choices out there.
First, there’s the low-budget, big box-office, sleeper hit of the fall Paranormal Activity. It’s not a great horror movie but its low-tech effects are all the more scary for being uncomplicated and eerily convincing. It’s a slow-building freak out that grows steadily more frightening as the stakes are raised and the set pieces get scarier. Every night, the lead couple goes to bed. Every night, something weird happens. Through “found footage” the story unspools, with occasional expository clumsiness and a very stupid Ouija Board time-waster, but mostly with unsettling tension. With hype of the “scariest movie ever” variety, I went into the screening ready to prove the hype wrong. For quite a while I had my arms crossed over my chest while thinking “creepy, but not too scary.” By the last third of the movie I was worried I would chew off my bottom lip. It's still not the scariest movie ever, and it's too unsatisfying to be a great movie, but it's good as a horror experience. The movie plays all too well on an elemental fear of the dark and the all-too frightening question: “what happens while you are asleep?” Sure, buckets of blood are startling, but it has nothing on a scream piercing the darkness, jolting a character out of his sleep. Let me tell you, that scream haunted my ears for days.
On a less intense, but even more entertaining, note there’s Zombieland, a zom-com in the vein of the subgenre classic Shaun of the Dead. This film is a bit less great than that one, but it’s still a raucous haunted-hay-ride of a movie. Four survivors of a zombie apocalypse team up to go cross country. A typically odd mish-mash of character types, the group consists of a macho-man survivalist (Woody Harrelson), a nerdy agoraphobic (Jesse Eisenberg), and a young woman (Emma Stone) and her younger sister (Abigail Breslin). Together, they get in to all kinds of wacky adventures and close-calls, not unlike a normal zombie movie but played with a lighter, nimbler, tone. What prevents the movie from being standard and routine are the marvelous comedic performances from all involved, helped tremendously by an uncomplicated and funny script that sails along at a breakneck speed with plenty of wit and good-nature. First-time director Ruben Fleischer directs with a light touch and an enjoyably creative visual style. Zombieland may not be all that scary, but it’s a blast.
As for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, it gets a much more qualified recommendation from me. It’s based on the first three volumes of a book series, and it consequentially feels rushed and cluttered, with almost too many underdeveloped characters for its own good. It’s also a movie that has way more wind-up than pitch, with one eye always on a sequel. However, director Paul Weitz (is he jealous his brother Chris has the Twilight sequel next month?) directs with just enough likable style and his cast, especially John C. Reilly as the titular vampire, young newcomer Chris Massoglia as the titular assistant, and Josh Hutcherson as the budding baddie, is just endearing enough that the movie squeaks by. It’s no great thing, but it was an enjoyable distraction on the lazy Saturday afternoon when I caught the matinee.