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Scream Wes Craven (18) Female Perversions Susan Streitfeld (18) The Boy from Mercury Martin Duffy (PG) Liar Liar Tom Shadyac (12) Margaret's Museum Mort Ransen (15) It Takes Two Andy Tennant (PG)

If sound can have gender, the scream referred to in Wes Craven's Scream is, of course, female. That's why Drew Barrymore's face on the posters wears the classic woman-in-peril expression, eyes as wide as Mary Philbin's upon first glance of the Phantom of the Opera, mouth as gaping as Janet Leigh's, caught showering by a sociopathic cross-dresser in Psycho 35 years later. Craven's blood-soaked parody (think small town, think high-school teenagers, think serial killer) borrows from both, plus a hundred further horror sources in which women suffer - The Spiral Staircase, Halloween, Les Diaboliques, He Knows You're Alone - but Scream isn't merely a nostalgic compendium for Fangoria fans underwhelmed by timid Nineties definitions of "terror", though hard-core gorehounds will doubtless revel in graphic death by disembowelment and garage door. It's also a tart critique of genre cliche.

Craven's female characters aren't butchered for having sex, don't wander upstairs to investigate things that go bump in the night (duh) and fight tool and nail-gun if cornered. (Barrymore could give Mrs Bates lessons in 101 Things to Do With a Kitchen Knife and best friend Neve Campbell shoots as sharp as Annie Oakley when stalked by her mother's taunting murderer.) His heroines aren't easy meat, as any punter who has witnessed Heather Langenkamp's terrorist tactics in A Nightmare on Elm Street can confirm: in Craven's world all men are potential Freddy Kruegers and a girl should be prepared. Scream's shocking, mocking plot twists call time on an era dating from Friday the l3th; what initially seems to be little more than a bizarre form of black comedy turns out to be implying something more serious - that even the reactionary slasher flick can no longer sustain the stereotype of woman as passive victim.

Craven does a better job exploring - and exploding - stereotypes than Susan Streitfeld. Her Freud-flavoured Female Perversions aren't pro-active. They aren't much of anything, except old, arty and obvious lessons in How Feminine Identity is Constructed, with Tilda Swinton's obsessive-compulsive bisexual attorney Eve (yes, Eve) once again proving that "pale" and "interesting" can be mutually exclusive terms. This despite such japes as having her pubic hair shaved, engaging in lesbian sex in a hammock (possibly a movie first) and enduring a dream sequence where she races through many miles of chiffon saddled with a seriously disfiguring backcomb. It sounds like fun, but Streitfeld is strenuously academic and almost as creepily self- infatuated as Eve. A film only in an incidental sense, Female Perversions is, so the credits claim, based on Louise J Kaplan's book of the same name, though "based on" isn't quite the right phrase (mind you, neither is "inspired by"). Streitfeld's approach echoes Eve's kleptomaniac sister, Amy Madigan: "I'm defending my thesis". But then Madigan also says she steals to postpone committing suicide, so why listen to her?

If this sounds churlishly dismissive, then Female Perversions' heavy portent and pretension compel the reaction, as when the previously moronic Woman Who Loves Too Much suddenly springs the word "archetypal" on unsuspecting audiences. What purports to be a study of breakdown comes across as a very particular, and inadvertently precious, Princess fantasy.

It's a better week for Boy fantasies. The Boy from Mercury hails from Ireland with debut director Martin Duffy convincingly seeing Fifties Dublin through the unblinking blue eyes of eight-year-old Harry (James Hickey), a fatherless, Flash Gordon-mad youngest son convinced he's an alien visiting earth. Duffy's experience as a children's author is everywhere evident. He presents adults like Harry's Mam (Rita Tushingham), uncle (Tom Courtenay) and brother Paul (Hugh O'Conor) with an unsparingness bordering on caricature: they can be read in a single look. The picture's a trifle, but an reassuringly stringent trifle. As open as Harry is closed, Duffy never lets personal or period charm inhibit the cool clarity of one child's view of self-deceiving grown-ups.

Ah, adults. No wonder neglected birthday boy Max (Justin Cooper) wishes for his divorced lawyer Dad Jim Carrey to speak the truth, and nothing but, for 24 hours. Liar Liar really rides its plot device. Max has his wish granted and the excuse of truth means PC can be sidestepped (cue the tit, fat and ballbreaker gags) while Carrey's humiliations - admitting he's farted in the elevator ("It was me"), slagging off boss Amanda Donohue's sexual prowess ("I've had better"), informing the entire board of partners they're "degenerates, sluts and idiots" - get him forgiven for the dark disaster of The Cable Guy, which made the mistake of exposing the clinical, rather than the comic, insanity bubbling behind the mask.

Teamed again with Ace Ventura director Tom Shadyac, Carrey is relatively controlled - for Carrey. And, surprise, surprise, also extravagantly funny, given that Liar Liar makes him the target of his own hyperactivity in a bid to capture Robin Williams's cute fruitcake market; the script, too, is heavy on the sentimental families-need-fathers message most recently peddled by Jerry Maguire. But when Carrey cuts through, it's advisable to stand back: the sequence where he must argue the adulterous Jennifer Tilly's divorce case without recourse to mendacity is a virtuoso display of derangement. When Carrey starts revving, it's hard to believe he can sustain the pitch, but he just keeps going until you give in or give up.

The same might be said of Helena Bonham Carter's performance in Margaret's Musuem, a title that refuses to explain itself until the very last moment, perhaps a beat too long. Still, it's a minor quibble. Set in Forties Nova Scotia among an downtrodden Irish-Canadian mining community, Gerald Wexler and director Mort Ransen's script mainly avoids being a poetry-hewn-from- poverty production, though it does include such traditional signifiers as indiscriminate bagpipe and fiddle playing. Superbly shot by Vic Sarin, Margaret's Museum prizes gallows humour too highly to settle for the folk- picturesque, and it also reaps the benefit of Bonham Carter "stretching" in the sort of free-willed outcast role that has sunk more experienced actresses. (Remember Jodie Foster in Nell? No? Count yourself blessed.) Playing difficult daughter to the perennially astonishing Kate Nelligan's bitter parent, Bonham Carter shows an very unEnglish Rose excess of rage. Here her weird, and often inappropriate, intensity finally pays off.

Nothing pays off in It Takes Two, an uncredited rehash of the Hayley Mills masterpiece, The Parent Trap. It takes two Valium to survive this tale of unaccountably identical moppets scheming to unite social worker Kirstie Alley and millionaire Steve Guttenberg, both of whom should have their homes burnt and their pocket money stopped for aiding and abetting such a vile travesty of a romantic comedyn

All films on release from tomorrow

John Lyttle

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