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The things they get up to Down South

              Why is it, do you think, that so many distinguished British actors, when offered a role as a character from the Deep South, will go for it like a pack of rats? Money aside, I think it’s an opportunity for them to ditch their usual clipped, tweedy accents for the slow, self-indulgent drawl that drips gracious venom, and to cut loose with some delicious acting excesses that they seldom get to indulge in at home.

            Case in point is the new Southern Gothic horror romance called Beautiful Creatures, based on the first novel of a recent series that’s trolling for the Twilight audience, i.e. mostly female and adolescent.  But for those of us who are on the farther side of the perils of young love, this movie is a huge treat because it’s got three famous Brit actors having the time of their lives, not just as decadent genteel Southerners, but as supernatural decadent genteel Southerners. Tennessee Williams has nothing on this lot.

            Young Ethan, our chawmin’ narrator, is stuck in Gatlin, South Carolina, a town “so far from Charleston it doesn’t have a Starbucks.” When Ethan isn’t reading Vonnegut and other locally banned authors, he’s having troubling dreams of a girl whose face he can’t quite see. Wouldn’t you know that young Lena, who transfers to his school at the start of the year, turns out to be that very girl. Lena lives with her Uncle Macon, a wealthy and mysterious recluse, out at palatial but ruinous Ravenwood. The townsfolk of Gatlin are convinced that Macon and his extended, but attenuated, family are devil worshipers. Of course these real witches (or casters as they prefer to be called) don’t worship the devil, but at age 16 their inner nature chooses them for either the Dark or the Light, and sweet Lena is turning 16 on the Winter Solstice.

            I don’t know anything about these books, but the movie is an entertaining sleeper that has fun with all the Southern Gothic tropes while producing a taut little thriller with glimmers of humor.

            Most of the humor comes from watching the Brit imports. Tall, elegant Jeremy Irons is delicious as tall, elegant Uncle Macon, who is trying to protect Lena from both the Dark Side and the self-righteous townsfolk; the scene where he lacerates a town meeting is worth the price of admission. Another surprise from across the pond is the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Lena’s grandmother, and while she’s not given much to do, she is, as always, a lesson in the meaning of the term “Presence.”

            But the person having the most fun here is the wonderful Emma Thompson as Lena’s mother, the Dark autocrat Sarafine, who has taken over the body of the pious church lady, Mrs. Lincoln, giving her twice as many chances to be gruesomely delightful.

            As for the young lovers, Alice Englert is a lovely and competent young Australian actress who passes ably for an up-to-date Southern belle, with the winsome charm of the outcast who can’t believe this cute guy is following her around, and reserves of strength when she has to confront just about everybody in her family, all of whom are seeking to thwart her, for different reasons.

            As our hero Ethan, Alden Ehrenreich is laboring under two handicaps. First, he was in his 20s, and he looks it, when he played this 17-year-old high-school junior. Second, and it’s a problem I had all the way through: he looks like a young Johnny Knoxville, and I kept expecting him to perform asinine stunts involving beer and chain saws. It’s actually a good lesson in what a good actor can do, that Ehrenrich is able to overcome this handicap and turn in an appealing performance as a teen-ager blind-sided by first love.

            The production designer had a high time showing us the steamy Southland draped with Spanish moss, and even more fun when he went inside Ravenwood to show us a Manhattan-inspired, Architectural-Digest ante-bellum mansion that changes its interior decor to match the owner’s mood.

            The movie’s first two-thirds are well paced, with a rhythm that changes just when it should to keep us interested. The last segment gets rather bogged down, as characters have to explain the motivations – or the magical rules, which are many – behind their actions; and the ending is abrupt and points baldly to a sequel.

            But the sum of this is a pleasant little film that, among other things, stresses the importance of libraries; Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting; Nancy Reagan jokes; and Interstate 95, which will get you out of South Carolina.