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Scary Movies



*Shadow of the Vampire (R)
Lions Gate Films

The Gift (R)
Paramount Classics

Some days just scream "double feature." Like last Saturday, when snow was blowing across the city in frigid waves. Nothing beckons like the inside of a darkened theater on such a day, especially when the marquee promises back to back horror flicks.

The Gift, director Sam Raimi's tale of clairvoyance, infidelity and mad jealousy in a Spanish moss-laden Southern town offers some moments of suspense and plenty of atmospherics, but loses impact because, frankly, the principal characters are so inexplicably dumb.

Raimi took a similar group of characters -- backwoods folks -- and fleshed them out admirably in his superb film, A Simple Plan, managing to avoid stereotyping. But here, working with a screenplay co-authored by Billy Bob Thornton, we are exposed to the worst types in the genre. There's Jessica (Katie Holmes), the town slut who screws everyone in sight, including the town's D.A. in a bathroom stall during a country club dance. Keanu Reeves is Donnie, the ultra-violent wife beater and good ol' boy squirrel hunter who practically hisses every time he opens his mouth. There's his pathetic, helpless and clueless wife Valerie (Hilary Swank), sporting the worst female mullet hairdo ever seen on screen. And no gothic Southern town is complete without its certifiable crazy person, in this case the tortured and abused Buddy, played with over-the-top fervor by Giovanni Ribisi.

Only the luminous Cate Blanchett as Annie, the town's fortune teller, escapes the burden of stereotyping, and only by virtue of being such a sublime actress. Much as we like Annie while watching the film, it's difficult to not grow irritated with her stupid choices. Why, for instance, would a single mother of three little boys who knows she's being stalked by a madman, open her door to him in the middle of the night? And why, when she has been repeatedly terrorized, would she decide to take a walk outside in the dark wearing only her nightgown?

When sluttish Jessica disappears and Annie receives a vision of her grisly murder, we are drawn along in pretty solid whodunit mode for a while. But The Gift wanders from this story to Donnie's, to Annie's kids, and finally to a terribly wooden and inept courtroom sequence that stops the forward motion of the plot dead in its tracks.

Reeves gives a good performance in a dreadful role, and Blanchett does her valiant thespian best, but in the end, The Gift is little more than one of those creepy Lifetime flicks that entertain for a few hours but disappear quickly from memory.

Far superior is E. Elias Verhige's witty and beautifully filmed Shadow of the Vampire. Fitting into more of a Masterpiece Theater mode than a traditional horror flick, Shadow is really a film about the art of filmmaking, a lucid study of the urge toward creativity.

John Malkovich plays the great German film director F.W. Murnau, and the film is a fictional take on the making of Murnau's greatest work, the vampire film Nosferatu.

We know we're in for a treat early in the film as we watch Murnau and his crew board a train in Berlin. Gorgeous shots of a hurtling steam engine traversing the vast, uninhabited countryside are accented by a voice-over narration, Murnau delivering a mesmerizing soliloquy on the moving picture. "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory," he says, and no lover of film can escape the flood of memories that line evokes.

The crew is heading to the countryside because Murnau insists on filming on location. The vampire of the film, everyone is told, is an unknown Russian actor, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), a Stanislawski disciple who Murnau assures them "will be completely authentic." In fact, we soon come to realize that Schreck is an actual vampire, discovered by Murnau when he was scouting locations for the film. He promises to perform in the film in exchange for the blood of the leading lady, Greta, a morphine-addicted diva played with aplomb by Catherine McCormack.

Most fascinating is the film's depiction of silent filmmaking, with Murnau gently murmuring direction and motivation to his actors while the cameraman cranks along beside him. British standup comic Eddie Izzard delivers a hilarious performance as silent screen star Gustav, who shares most of his scenes with the utterly creepy and mysterious Schreck. Dafoe obviously delights in this character, and it is a delight to watch the two ham it up.

The film's climax shows a crazed Murnau madly filming as Schreck fulfills his ultimate purpose. Directing an actual murder, Murnau instructs the vampire to move and face the camera. "If it's not in frame, it doesn't exist," he says, and we watch the film's conclusion through the lens of his camera, a startling flash of sunlight flooding the darkened room. Cut.

It's a wrap. And as we all know, a masterpiece that revolutionized cinema is born.

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