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This film image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows Stanley Tucci (left) and Ewen Bremner in a scene from ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’. (AP)
‘Dark Skies’ smart little chiller Horror film creepy, terrifying

You know a horror film is effective when it remains creepy even after they explain the unexplained phenomena. On that front, and on many others, “Dark Skies” emerges as a smart little chiller, one that can be read as a metaphor for the American family in crisis during tough economic times or merely as a tense exploration of things that go bump in the night. We can only wonder what possessed the folks at Dimension Films to hide this movie from critics, thus creating the impression that it was a stinker. On the contrary, it’s that rare film that takes its time ratcheting up the tension without ever feeling draggy or overlong. After the much less successful “Priest” and “Legion,” it appears that writer-director Scott Stewart has finally found his groove as a genre filmmaker. It’s a tense time for suburbanites Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and Lacy (Keri Russell); he’s an out-of-work architect trying desperately to land a new gig, but in the meantime, the bills are piling up, with only Lacy’s paycheck as a real estate agent keeping them and their two sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) afloat.

The two brothers communicate via walkie-talkie after bedtime, sharing spooky stories of monsters from outer space who invade the earth to steal people’s eyes. These tales get a little scarier when strange things start happening around the house - one night, there’s a mysterious kitchen intruder, then someone makes an elaborate sculpture that reflects light patterns on the ceiling, and on another night, all the family photos are stolen from their frames. Local cops think the kids are playing pranks, but Sam knows that the sandman he sees in his dreams is responsible for the ever-escalating mayhem. As the financially strapped Daniel and Lacy invest in security systems, more and more strange events happen, leading them to understand that their entire family is in danger.

Smart movies can take subject matter we’ve seen a million times and make it feel fresh and exciting, and after a spate of haunted-house tales, it’s refreshing to discover that such an old standby can still deliver the scares. It helps that “Dark Skies” firmly establishes its human element before getting into the paranormal; Russell and Hamilton are strong enough actors to play married people with problems in a straight-ahead drama, and they bring a reality to both the mundane and the bizarre aspects of the story. Their lead performances are bolstered by Goyo and Rockett, who also establish a level of believability as regular people that encourages us to stay tethered to them when the story leaps into the unreal. J.K. Simmons brings his usual gruff gravitas in a cameo as an outsider who offers sage advice to the family at a key juncture. There are any number of moments when “Dark Skies” could have pivoted from suspenseful to ridiculous, and it’s a testament to Stewart and his cast that the film remains on the right path.
In a genre that so rarely delivers what it promises, this horror flick never lets up on the jolts.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” - A big-budget, 3-D retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk legend may seem like the unlikeliest pairing yet of director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, but this ends up being smart, thrilling and a whole lot of fun. Singer and McQuarrie’s collaborations include, most famously, the twisty crime mystery “The Usual Suspects” and the Hitler assassination drama “Valkyrie,” featuring an eye patch-wearing Tom Cruise. They’ve sort of been all over the place together over the past couple decades - why not reinterpret a classic fairy tale? “Jack the Giant Slayer” is cheeky without being cutesy. While the look is medieval, the vibe seems more current, but it’s not so anachronistic as to be subversive along the lines of a “Shrek,” for example. It actually ends up being pleasingly old-fashioned. Shot in 3-D - rather than one of those muddled 2-D re-dos - the film looks crisp and clean, much more so than the trailers and ads might suggest. The action sequences are cut in an unobtrusive way as to allow the intricacy of what’s happening on screen to shine through. And once it bursts forth from the ground, the beanstalk itself is magnificent. There aren’t many surprises here, though; if you know the story, you know what happens. Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci and Bill Nighy star. PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.

“Stoker” - A spider crawls up the leg of 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) early in Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, and she regards it passively, intrigued. There’s a creepy intruder in the Stokers’ handsome, isolated estate, but it’s India’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who arrives following the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a mysterious car accident. An homage to Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” he’s dashing, cultured and oozing melodramatic evil. He settles in at the house and a lurid triangle forms between him, India and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). A heavy Gothic atmosphere with bloody eruptions takes hold, and Park pushes the film to intoxicating macabre outlandishness. India’s transition into womanhood comes via incestuous desires and buried corpses. In the first Hollywood movie from the celebrated South Korean filmmaker of stylistic, hyper-violent revenge tales like “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance,” there isn’t even a slight dip in his brilliant, colorful compositions (with his usual cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), his flesh tearing, or his extreme warping of genre. The film, from the screenplay by actor Wentworth Miller, adds up to something largely because of Wasikowska’s deft, coming-of-age performance. The movie is an exquisitely made grotesque that crawls up your leg. R for disturbing violent and sexual content. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. (Agencies)

By Alonso Duralde

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