Into the night of fright with a creepy creature feature

Pitch Black (15) | David Twohy, 108 mins Bedazzled (12) | Harold Ramis, 93 mins The Yards (15) | James Gray, 115mins
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The Independent Culture

As usual, one of the best films of the year is getting only a miniature release. For a while Pitch Black looked like it wasn't going to screen in the UK at all. Once, when I called its distributor in America, they pretended they hadn't even heard of it ("There's someone on the phone asking about Titch Clack"). It's a low-ish budget sci-fi flick shot in Australia, in the same area where Mad Max was filmed. This place, Coober Pedy, is usually boiling hot, but during filming it rained like crazy and the wind blew. This not only made for a hellish shoot (good - the cast look suitably stretched and panicked), it also forced the director David Twohy to bleach the negative and literally white-out all the angry clouds. He had to do this because Pitch Black is supposedly set on a sun-scorched planet.

As usual, one of the best films of the year is getting only a miniature release. For a while Pitch Black looked like it wasn't going to screen in the UK at all. Once, when I called its distributor in America, they pretended they hadn't even heard of it ("There's someone on the phone asking about Titch Clack"). It's a low-ish budget sci-fi flick shot in Australia, in the same area where Mad Max was filmed. This place, Coober Pedy, is usually boiling hot, but during filming it rained like crazy and the wind blew. This not only made for a hellish shoot (good - the cast look suitably stretched and panicked), it also forced the director David Twohy to bleach the negative and literally white-out all the angry clouds. He had to do this because Pitch Black is supposedly set on a sun-scorched planet.

A ship crash-lands with most of its human cargo intact, including the co-pilot (Radha Mitchell) and a convicted murderer (Vin Diesel) who has creepy night-vision lenses implanted into his retinae. At first things are OK. They're thirsty, but plucky. Mitchell strides around with her long legs and serious face, the sweat on her neck making her hair curl into tight balls. Then someone gets eaten by a creature that appears to be cave-dwelling, capable of chewing through humans as though they were a wodge of brie, but terrified of light. Fine. It never gets dark on this planet. Or so they think!

The film looks dangerously bright and burnt-out, so much so that I instinctively narrowed my eyes as though the screen were one enormous sun-lamp. In general, the production feels almost rush-job simple - in science fiction this isn't necessarily a bad thing. We are spared the ubiquitous, post- Blade Runner, apocalyptic monologue (Diesel tries, but his ginormous arms and dancer's waist are too distracting). Instead, the cast chug about, screaming bad news and sound advice at each other, while creatures pour out of flutes in the earth, like pollution from Industrial Revolution chimneys. It is unbelievably frightening. As it gets dark, the whole landscape of the planet seems inflected with horror, as though it were a shark-filled sea. The crew must take on the never-ending night, and therefore, in a sense, time itself.

Bedazzled stars Brendan Fraser as a kindly twerp who is approached by Elizabeth Hurley claiming to be the Devil and wearing what could pass for a dress. In exchange for his soul, Fraser is granted seven wishes. Cue a succession of occasionally funny scenarios in which our hero turns into a trilingual drug baron (the rich wish), a hulking sports star (the sexy wish), and so on.

By wish five, the film's prosaic rhythm (wish, disaster, wish, disaster) irritates. And then there's Liz, with her Joanna Lumley briskness, and her supply of small red outfits. Hurley's true analogue here is Barbara Woodhouse. She talks to everyone as though she's training them, including us. It's all done through a mouth so sucked-forward her lip-gloss threatens to leave little marks on the underside of her nose. "Sit UP!" she always seems to be saying. "Walk towards me SLOWLY. Now, RUN!"

Much fuss has been made of The Yards, but it's nothing at all. It has pretensions - specifically, it wants to be The Godfather Part IV. A perfectly admirable aspiration, unless you plan to achieve it by simply stealing everything you can, and The Yards can hardly stagger under the weight of its sack of loot.

It has a terrific subject, an unimprovable cast and a trio of trustworthy, even hip, producers. And no life. Mark Wahlberg (so deadened here, his features flattened to a mask, his eyes like two lonely raisins) returns home to Queens, New York after a taking-the-rap stretch in prison. He finds that his Aunt (Faye Dunaway) has a new husband. Namely James Caan (presented to us as if he were one of The Greats, which he's not), who runs a subway company. So, a great chance for Wahlberg to go straight. Trouble is, Caan and Wahlberg's best friend (Joaquin Phoenix) are bent. So, an old story then. But the film's desire to add an epic patina by solemnly plagiarising Gordon Willis (director of photography on all The Godfathers) is just the usual larcenous bid for significance. With its self-pity, its anthems for doomed youth, its faux-salient lamentations and studied sentimentality, The Yards actually resembles Rebel Without a Cause. It's very 1950s, promoting the great 1950s lie that man is born innocent and it's the world that corrupts him. Now, how could any student of Michael Corleone buy that?

Harry, He's Here to Help (cert 15, 117 mins) is an excellent French thriller (of sorts, it's also richly comic, and peculiar) that follows the supposedly convivial Harry (Sergi Lopez) as he makes himself indispensable over the course of the summer holiday of a friend and his young family. Writer-director Dominik Moll doles out careful dialogue, but the whole film has a slightly demented edge. Our laughter is deep and lasting, as are our shivers.

Siam Sunset (cert 15, 91 mins), a crackpot Australian comedy, stars Linus Roache, grieving the death of his wife and mixing paints as therapy. Disney's the Kid (cert U, 100 mins) has Bruce Willis finding his inner child (literally) in the form of a fat boy called Rusty. Grim.

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