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Reviews: Late-breaking terror in ‘Body at Brighton Rock,’ ‘I Trapped the Devil’ and more movies

Karina Fontes in BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK, a Magnet release. Credit: Magnet Releasing
As the sun sets, Wendy (Karina Fontes) starts to worry about predators of all varieties in the movie “Body at Brighton Rock.”
(Magnet Releasing)

‘Body at Brighton Rock’

After contributing shorts to the horror anthologies “Southbound” and “XX,” writer-director Roxanne Benjamin makes her feature filmmaking debut with “Body at Brighton Rock,” an assured — if overlong — survivalist tale. Though Benjamin struggles to fill her running-time, the movie mostly reaffirms that she’s a talented genre director.

The strongest move Benjamin makes with “Body at Brighton Rock” is to pull a bait-and-switch with the tone. The movie’s opening 15 minutes play like a lighthearted ’80s summer camp comedy, with Karina Fontes as Wendy, a timid seasonal employee at a massive California state park. When Wendy trades an assignment with a buddy in order to flirt with a boy she likes, she becomes hopelessly lost in a part of the mountains with poor cellphone reception.

Then she finds a dead body, and the story shifts dramatically. Wendy reluctantly obeys an order to secure a potential crime scene, after which she’s supposed to stay with the corpse and await the rescue unit.

As night approaches, Benjamin has trouble building tension, even as her heroine begins to worry about predators — not to mention a possible murderer. The middle half-hour of “Body at Brighton Rock” is mostly dialogue-free and too light on action.

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But the movie’s last 10 minutes or so are genuinely white-knuckle, all the way up to a chilling twist ending. And even when “Brighton Rock” spins its wheels, Fontes gives a likable lead performance, in a stunning outdoor location. All Benjamin is lacking for this film about killers and wild beasts is a script with enough bite.

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‘Body at Brighton Rock’

Rated: R, for language and some bloody images

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Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: Starts April 26, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD

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‘I Trapped the Devil’

Scott Poythress as ?Steve? in Josh Lobo?s “I Trapped The Devil.” Credit: IFC Films
Scott Poythress portrays a deranged brother with visitors in the movie “I Trapped the Devil.”
(IFC Films)

Horror hounds with a high tolerance for turtle-paced supernatural thrillers might like “I Trapped the Devil,” a movie that inches along through an hour of muted ambiguity before erupting into some genuinely disturbing phantasmagoria in its final 20 minutes.

Indie horror stalwart A.J. Bowen stars as Matt, who along with his wife, Karen (Susan Burke), pays a Christmas visit to his estranged, deranged brother Steve (Scott Poythress). When they arrive at the big, spooky house, Matt and Karen find Steve acting odder than usual. Soon they learn why: He has a man locked in his basement, whom he claims is the literal Devil.

Writer-director Josh Lobo practically dares viewers not to nod off in the early going. His characters barely have anything to say to each other, as they creep across creaky floorboards, communicating in nods and terse whispers that can barely be heard over Ben Lovett’s dissonant, droning score.

But the “What if?” quality of “I Trapped the Devil” proves just compelling enough to keep the film afloat, until the moment when some of the weapons Steve leaves lying around start coming into play. Steve’s elaborate schematics explaining the intersection of evil deeds in his immediate vicinity — coupled with his prisoner’s disturbingly calm voice — keep his relatives from immediately calling for help.

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Lobo overdoes the sudden shifts between the real and the surreal in the last act, refusing to answer any questions definitively until he has to. But the first-time filmmaker shows an impressive amount of confidence in his methods. He knows how to make audiences uncomfortable — first with tedium, then with terror.

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I Trapped the Devil’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

Playing: Starts April 26, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD

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‘Know Your Enemy’

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Maury Sterling, from left, Nora-Jane Noone and Farshad Farahat in the movie “Know Your Enemy.”
(Indie Rights)
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Writer-director Randy Feldman’s social drama “Know Your Enemy” doesn’t waste a lot of time on set-up. Barely five minutes in, an upscale California couple — realtor Chantal (Nora-Jane Noone) and gym owner Daniel (Maury Sterling) — are confronted in their house by a gun-wielding Middle Eastern man, Shaheed (Farshad Farahat). He’s angry because Chantal cut him off in traffic, and he wants her to know he’s not someone who can just be ignored.

The explanation for Shaheed’s home invasion is flimsy, though Feldman tries to make that flaw dramatically useful by teasing via the occasional flashback the possibility that there may more to this act of road rage than immediately apparent.

Mostly, though, the inciting incident is just an excuse for “Know Your Enemy” to plunge into long conversations between a privileged, seemingly shallow white woman and a hard-working immigrant man, who both discover their presumptions about each other aren’t entirely correct.

Noone and Farahat are good enough to overcome the programmatic nature of their roles. Shaheed’s quiet insistence on his own dignity and Chantal’s fumbling attempts to find the right words to get him to go away are both relatable.

But while Feldman — a veteran screenwriter making his directorial debut — brings plenty of storytelling craft to the picture, “Know Your Enemy” falls short of being as eye-opening as he intends. A strong sense of mystery and two searing lead performances can only counteract so much of the contrivance here.

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‘Know Your Enemy’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Playing: Starts April 26, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood

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‘Scary Stories’

R.L. Stine in a scene from “Scary Stories.” Credit: Wild Eye Releasing
Children’s book author R.L. Stine in the documentary “Scary Stories.”
(Wild Eye Releasing)

If nothing else, the documentary “Scary Stories” is a useful primer for the upcoming Guillermo del Toro-produced adaptation of the controversial 1980s young adult horror anthologies “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Cody Meirick’s film looks back at those original books and the hubbub surrounding them: the parents’ protests, the the defense by librarians, and the generation of misfit kids who were perversely comforted and inspired by folklorist Alvin Schwartz’s compendium of the macabre.

The movie follows three tracks, the most underdeveloped of which has to do with the life and work of Schwartz and his illustrator Stephen Gammell. Book sales notwithstanding, neither man was ever a celebrity, so there’s not much on the record about their process or intentions. And Schwartz’s son Peter admits that because his dad was an emotionally distant workaholic, he can’t contribute much insight.

“Scary Stories” is also disappointing as a record of the furor the books provoked. Meirick includes some old news footage and a few anecdotal recollections, plus a climactic standoff between Peter Schwartz and one of the people who led the charge against his dad. But there’s not enough here about how these oft-banned collections fit into the larger history of censorship and the supernatural, from EC Comics to Harry Potter.

This doc excels, though, as a work of critical appreciation. Academics, Schwartz peers and fans alike all break down their favorite stories, describing with great passion how they play on specific adolescent fears. At its best, “Scary Stories” explains why these books endure: because they let their young audience know that even in their worst nightmares, they’re not alone.

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‘Scary Stories’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Playing: Available April 26 on VOD

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