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When I was a kid, they were called Harlequin Romances. The famous imprint, which used jacked-up male models in suggestively sexy painted cover shots with their target demo: women who read. The covers provided a kind of softcore titillation, allowing the lonely and/or literate a chance to fantasize their otherwise ordinary and uneventful life away. There, within the pages of its latest period piece pillow fight, a female could find her Prince Charming, her Royal Soldier, her ephemeral soulmate, earning a love that would sacrifice itself for her far more important wants and needs.

While names like Barbara Carlton and Barbara Taylor Bradford guaranteed sales, most of these novels where scrivener pulp, formulaic and flawed as both works of art and examples of the long form narrative craft. Still, they brought in the bucks, and with them, a fanbase always eager for more. Then, cable TV took over, introducing a little something called Lifetime to the lonely hearted. Within its gender-specific programming was a place for such specious escapes. Decades later, the network’s name has replaced the jester-based original for boo-hoo, bodice heaving bragging rights.

Who knew? Who knew that Count Dracula was, at one time, a pretty decent guy. A bit morose and damaged from a stint as a child soldier for a marauding Turk, but as an adult, a nobleman with a kind heart, a compassionate manner, and a devotion to his people. Yes, Prince Vlad was a good person, plagued by a kingdom filled with whiners, but still able to rise above the rabble to do what’s right to maintain his 15th century sovereignty.

Doesn’t quite jive with your memories of the “monster”, does it? That’s because Universal is being run by a bunch of jealous desk jockeys who’ve taken one look at what Disney and Marvel have created via their vast superhero universes and phases and have shouted strongly “Yes, please!” And why not? The House of Mouse and its billion dollar acquisition have seen their bottom line increase as many zeroes, if not more, based on such a plan. Besides, if they can make Maleficent a misunderstood moneymaker, why not the former Prince of Darkness?

Sometimes, it only takes a single sequence to showcase how uninteresting the rest of your movie is. In Annabelle, the pre-sequel to James Wan’s box office behemoth The Conjuring, the scene takes place in a murky apartment building basement. Our heroine, new mother Mia Gordon, has been having hallucinations, visions triggered from a traumatic event that occurred a few months before (more on this in a moment). While in the gloomy space, she hears a noise. An evil looking baby carriage slowly rolls in at the end of the hall. Investigating, she finds nothing. Returning to her work, she looks back and, just for a moment, she swears she sees something… a figure. A demon.

It goes way beyond a simple “he said/she said”. It’s the 24-hour news cycle broken down and deconstructed. It’s a Lifetime movie with megalodon teeth, a tour de force for a director that’s known for his dark, foreboding film work. Even with its bestseller pedigree, Gone Girl would be a significant cinematic achievement, mostly for all the things it avoids while getting so much of the mystery thriller genre 100 percent right.

Sure, there are the usual twists and turns, but they don’t dominate the narrative. Yes, we are stuck with a pair of unreliable narrators, but both deceive in (dis)service of the end result. With David Fincher at the controls and a series of subtexts strewn about, what could have been a basic missing persons drama becomes something far more meaningful, something far more daring. It’s terrific, and terrifying.

May God have mercy on us all.

There are very few films as flimsy and false as Left Behind. The only thing Biblical about this clunky End of the World epic is that both the Word of the Lord, and the 16 book series created by evangelicals Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are printed on paper. Other than that, you have to search long and hard to find anything remotely religious about this first chapter in the ongoing judgment of mankind.

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