Opening this weekend:
Them That Follow—Shot in Ohio, this is set in an isolated community of Pentecostals who practice “snake-handling” to demonstrate their faith. Our heroine is Mara (Alice Englert), the beautiful daughter of the Pastor, Lemuel (the great Walton Goggins); she’s engaged to the devout and devoted Garret (Lewis Pullman). Mara’s a sincere believer, but she has feelings for the lapsed Augie (Thomas Mann). It’s possible that Augie is the father of the baby Mara’s secretly carrying.
Written and directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, this backwoods tale is packed with high drama and incident and feverish passion — secrets are revealed, guns and axes come into play. Yet it doesn’t feel like artificial melodrama; the atmosphere rings with authenticity.
So do the performances, even though two of the major players aren’t American. Englert, an Australian, brings to touching life Mara’s terrible plight — trapped between sincere if misguided devotion to her father, her culture and her religion on one side, and the impetus to love on the other. And Brit Olivia Colman, top-billed though she’s in a supporting role, is forbiddingly authoritative as Augie’s dour and suspicious mom. Goggins has the compelling magnetism of a successful preacher, and Jim Gaffigan, in the entirely non-comedic role of Augie’s dad, is entirely believable.
The suspense in this movie derives from the unusually obtuse nature of this particular variety of creed, in which it’s a show of faith to allow yourself to be brought to the brink of death over something that could be put right with one visit to the ER. But Poulton and Savage and the actors never mock these characters, nor do they demonize them. As exasperating as their behavior is, you find yourself liking these people.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—Several yarns from the young-adult anthology books of Alvin Schwartz are woven through the adventures of a quartet of teenage friends in a small Pennsylvania town in 1968. The heroine (Zoe Colletti) finds, in a creepy old mansion, a book of stories the horrors of which are conjured up; she and her friends are beset by the likes of an inescapable, placidly smiling ghost woman, a “Jangly Man” who self-dismembers and reassembles at will, acne-incubated arthropods and a put-upon scarecrow named Harold whose jowly head is infested with bugs.
These and other spooky specters are memorably incarnated, to be sure. But I’m pretty easy to scare, and I can’t say I found the movie, directed by Norway’s Andre Ovredal of 2010’s excellent Trollhunter, all that scary. I’m not sure it was meant to be; this is like Goosebumps, amped-up in gore and intensity for slightly older readers and viewers. But I enjoyed the coolingly autumnal Norman Rockwell-Ray Bradbury small-town-gothic feel of it, and also the period detail — Night of the Living Dead is on the screen at the local drive-in, but is it really any scarier than the news on TV from Viet Nam, or of Richard Nixon’s election?