Whack Magic: In Beautiful Creatures, An Antiquated Narrative Casts a Tired Spell

Emmy Rossum in Beautiful Creatures.

Emmy Rossum in Beautiful Creatures.

As Dorothy Parker used to say, “What fresh hell is this?” Goodbye, Harry Potter and the flying broomsticks at Hogwarts. Hello, lovesick witches in South Carolina. Desperately seeking the next idiotic supernatural teenage box-office bonanza to replace the hormonally challenged vampires and oversexed werewolves of the Twilight series, writer-director Richard LaGravenese has dragged out of mothballs Beautiful Creatures, the corny combo of Satanism and Valentine’s Day by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia. Its cult precedes it, so writing about it is little more than a formality. This is the kind of movie that can only be reviewed by a 14-year-old critic chewing gum.

Gatling, South Carolina, has 12 churches and not a single Starbucks. Living a life standing still is Ethan Wate (promising newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a bright, imaginative 17-year-old high school kid who dreams of college as an escape from a one-horse town where even The Catcher in the Rye is locked in the library on the condemned reading list. He also dreams about a mysterious Lorelei who lures him into recurring nightmares in the middle of a Civil War battlefield. One day, she actually walks into his class—a new girl in town named Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who lives with her uncle Macon Ravenwood (where do they come up with these names?) in a decaying old mansion with a reputation as a haunted house. In fact, the born-again Christians in town are all convinced Lena and her family are “casters,” or Satan worshipers. This gives the teenage bitches a chance to say things like, “She looks like Death eatin’ a cracker.”

Ethan doesn’t care. The minute Lena narrows her eyes and blows the glass windows out of the school, he’s in love. Ignoring the advice of anyone who ever saw Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus, he hikes over to Ravenwood Manor. Outside, it’s a decaying old mansion covered with vines. Then the door creaks open to reveal a fabulous black-and-white set from an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. Lena’s Uncle Macon turns out to be Jeremy Irons wearing a floor-length waistcoat over white silk Oriental pajamas, like Liberace. (Clichés overwhelm: there’s even a grand piano, with a candelabra.) Eventually, Ethan meets the whole family—Lena’s long-dead mother Sarafine, who takes the form of the town’s most bigoted dowager (Emma Thompson), the creepy grandmother (Eileen Atkins), the bulbous aunt (Margo Martindale) and Lena’s evil cousin Ridley from the Dark Side (Emmy Rossum), who drives a flashy red convertible and sleeps around, with fatal results. Pity the poor highway cop who tries to give her a speeding ticket. They’re all preparing for Lena’s 16th birthday, when it will be decided whether she turns into a dark witch or a good witch. The only person who can save her and break the curse is Ethan, but it is written in the secret book with the invisible writing that a human cannot love a caster. Did I fail to mention it all happens during the town’s annual Civil War picnic?

Myriad questions abound. Mainly, why doesn’t anybody wonder why all the people at Ravenwood Manor have British accents? The best performance in Beautiful Creatures is by the rangy, talented Mr. Ehrenreich, who is really going places as an actor. A coven of good actors exemplifies the movie motto “Slumming Can Be Fun”—except for Jeremy Irons, who is so overwrought and campy he seems to be on an overdose of Boris Karloff. The movie doesn’t know if it’s a teen fantasy-romance or a more sophisticated satire that the material can’t support. The funniest thing in the movie is when the witches confess they used to live in Washington, D.C., until they were banished by Nancy Reagan—the only mortal they were afraid of. More laughs are expected in the next two installments of what threatens to become a trilogy. It’s early, but I’m already making plans to be out of town.

rreed@observer.com

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES

Running Time 123 minutes

Written by Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Kami Garcia (novel) and Margaret Stohl (novel)

Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Starring Alice Englert, Viola Davis and Emma Thompson