By PETER GUTIERREZ
Starring Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick
Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen
Written by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen
Gunpowder & Sky
The main problem with horror-comedies is that the best ones make the subgenre seem easy to pull off. The laughs pierce the tension, and the frights leave smiles frozen in place. So with Villains, co-written and co-directed Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, it’s better to modulate expectations and think “dark comedy” instead. That said, it nonetheless struggles with both its humorous and shadowy elements, causing it to land as no more than a pleasant diversion.
Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe play the anti-heroic couple on the lam that stumbles upon dangers more serious than the one they pose. As we follow their adventures we encounter weird fetishes, survival horror that mocks the characters’ desperation, and creepy older folks who have a strange relationship with kids—and all of these components you’ve seen before, usually in more memorable films.
That’s not too say that the cast is not frequently engaging, and that there aren’t some original touches along the way, but these are matters of small moments here and there, not raucous laughs or emotional excitement. For example, though Monroe is quite likable, she spends a lot of time, from the opening scene on, being ostentatiously cute. As an actor, she has depths (as witnessed by the short film “How to Be Alone” earlier this year), but her intensity isn’t really leveraged even though there’s ample opportunity.
Skarsgård, for his part, also seems to be somewhat misdirected. At his best he comes across as a young Steve Buscemi—manic, expressive, and more than a little bug-eyed; at his worst, he’s merely grating. Jeffrey Donovan, doing a kind of Foghorn Leghorn meets Jeffrey Combs, is the probably the most fun to watch. But the characters he and (the sadly wasted) Kyra Sedgwick portray are, in the end, little more than caricatures without the surprises or freshness that would redeem those caricatures.
New York’s “Scary Movies” has a well-deserved rep of screening work that tends to slip between the cracks of major genre fests, and Villains feels like a solid addition to that admirable mission. But with a mushy rom-com backbone, flimsy psychology, a smattering of horror clichés, and an anticlimactic climax, it hardly lives up to the promise of its talented cast or the premise of its ominous title.