Living in the fear and now

For any horror movie to achieve true greatness, it has to conform to a phenomenon we'll refer to as "The Part Where." Somewhere within the film's narrative catacombs must lurk a singular thrill, a defining moment that -- thanks to creative ingenuity, technical accomplishment or just sheer audacity -- takes viselike hold of the public's imagination. Examples range from the original "The Haunting" (The Part Where the Door Breathed Inward) to "The Exorcist" (The Part Where Linda Blair's Head Spun Around) to "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (The Part Where Richard Burton's Agent Called It a Day).

While the handful of flicks unleashed just in time for Halloween 2002 have their virtues, they're markedly short on Parts Where. And the one film that has more than its share of them isn't even a horror picture at all -- at least, not technically.

Audiences have already shown their support for The Ring (3 1/2 stars), the subtle, dreamlike spooker that pits a Seattle journalist against a sinister videotape full of ominous, threatening images. Reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts of "Mulholland Drive") finds herself hurtling into the ranks of unlucky souls who have watched the mysterious tape and died seven days later. A few ill-advised plays later, and Rachel's dire fate has spread to her entire family. (Her young son appears to be on the fast track to oblivion, disappearing from the story for 30-minute intervals while Mommy tries to unlock the secrets of the VHS berserker.)

Director Gore Verbinski, redeeming himself for having foisted "The Mexican"s on us last year, gives "The Ring" a pleasingly surreal feel, relying on mood and pacing to do a job customarily entrusted to blood and effects. Perhaps the film's Japanese origins are in evidence (a whole series of these nightmares has been let loose in the Land of the Rising Sun), but Verbinski's picture has a foreign-film artiness that's more akin to 1962's "Carnival of Souls" than modern slasher cinema.

The results would be even more laudable were the plot developments anywhere above ordinary. Writer Ehren Kruger settles for the tried and tired, in one instance committing the unpardonable sin of luring us into a progressively bizarre sequence he later reveals to be -- brace yourself here -- a dream. That hasn't qualified as an honorable Part Where tactic since "Carrie."

Would-be defining moment: The Part Where an Insect Escapes from the TV Screen. (Does d-CON make head cleaner?)

A similar lack of ambition afflicts Below (3 stars), a collaboration between director/writer David Twohy ("Pitch Black") and co-writer Darren Aronofsky (director of "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream"). In their unassuming thriller, the crew of a World War II submarine rescues three passengers from a sinking vessel, only to be bedeviled by ghostly business that commences with the whispered warning, "Get off before it's too late!" (Hey, wasn't that the moral of "Y Tu Mamà Tambièn?") As the eerie doings pile up, the seamen debate the possible explanations for their apparent damnation -- which essentially entails determining which episode of "The Twilight Zone" Twohy and Aronofsky are going to swipe from most comprehensively. Solid acting and effectively shadowy cinematography help obscure the fact that "Below" doesn't have an original idea -- or a good scare -- to speak of. The movie's jargon-heavy script, meanwhile, makes more particular demands on its audience: You'll have the edge if you've ever pulled an actual tour of sub duty, preferably one that ended mere hours before you lined up to see the film.

Bid for immortality: The Part Where a Mirror Stops Reflecting Reality. (Readers over the age of 30 will sympathize utterly.)

Hoping to score a few dollars from confused ticket buyers is Ghost Ship (2 stars), better known as this Halloween's seafaring shocker that's not "Below." As is his wont, scare-season crapmeister Steve Beck ("Thirteen Ghosts" was his 2001 outing) again confuses terror with nausea. In the very first minutes of his new movie, we witness the mass evisceration of an entire deckload of passengers aboard a luxury ocean liner. There's a bright side, though: They're all Europeans.

Years later, a greedy salvage team discovers the rotting vessel, which has been floating undetected and (apparently) unmanned through the Bering Sea. Remaining unmanned would have been better for the ship than having to entertain these idiots (the cast includes the slumming Gabriel Byrne and E.R. scrubs Julianna Margulies and Ron Eldard), who trade jokes about the smell of feces while attempting to liberate the treasures they discover on board. Naturally, both of those activities help stir up the restless spirits of the ship's deceased passengers.

Perhaps the biggest shock is how boring the movie is between gross-outs. The story inches forward at a snail's pace, encumbered by a set of human protagonists who are so dumb that the ghosts have to sit them down and explain everything that's going on. At least it gives Beck an excuse to replay that evisceration scene a second time.

Passage to remember: The Part Where I Threw Up and Went Home.

Speaking of throwing up, Jackass: The Movie (3 stars) has all of the above films beat in one sense: It's nothing more than an extended series of Parts Where. Certainly no traditional ideas of characterization or dramatic progression intrude on this MTV-bred anthology of extremely dangerous, extremely asinine stunts. At its sadistic best, "Jackass" comes off like the world's most ingenious fraternity hazing; at its worst, it's just another night trapped with the members of just another fraternity. (Yes, fellas, we know what poop looks like; we didn't need the close-up.) To become furious over it, however, is merely to facilitate its marketing goals. Better to admit the slapstick pull of some of the more jaw-dropping vignettes. My favorite, definitely, was The Part Where the Jackass Snorted Wasabi. Or maybe it was The Part Where the Jackasses Went Skateboarding in the Bowling Alley. Or was it The Part Where the Jackass Shot Fireworks out of His Anus? Ah, what the hell. It's just nice to have a choice again.


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