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‘Hangman’s Curse’

Sex and gore are about as basic to teen thrillers as guns and horses are to westerns. But Twentieth Century Fox is gambling with “Hangman’s Curse” that the thriller genre can be redefined with a family-friendly approach.

This major Hollywood studio is distributing the first Frank Peretti novel-turned-film through its new family division called Witness Entertainment. The movie got a limited theatrical release last fall, and it’s hitting DVD and VHS March 30, hoping to find another market and pave the way for an adaptation of Peretti’s second Veritas Project series installment, “Nightmare Academy.”

 

“Hangman’s Curse” opens with the following title:

 

“Across America, there are select citizens secretly commissioned by the government to investigate strange mysteries, crimes and unusual occurrences. Working undercover, they are known as the Veritas Project. Latin for: Truth.”

 

That preface lays the groundwork for the Springfield family, a nuclear unit of four who’s part of the Veritas Project. They’re dispatched to Rogers High School where “alleged paranormal activities” have already harmed three of the school’s popular kids.

 

The family goes undercover in the high school to make heads or tails of these phenomena, which are apparently linked to the spirit of a boy named Abel Frye, who hanged himself at the school 10 years earlier when being a part of the out-group became too much.

 

It seems that Abel’s spirit is getting revenge on the popular kids by using the Goth crowd to do his dirty work. But all is not what it seems, as a sub-plot involving forensic analysis of strange substances found in lockers makes clear.

 

“Hangman’s Curse” has strengths and weaknesses. Some of the actors, like veterans David Keith and Mel Harris, are believable, but others suffer from bad timing. Peretti plays a scientist with a fair bit of humor and does an admirable job.

 

Overall, the production values are good. The only real problem lies in several effects shots meant to convey the sense of hallucination. The music is appropriately creepy, and the generally tone is fairly disturbing when meant to be.

 

Several scenes, however, just seem unnecessary. Of course, a few seem out of place at the time, but actually mean something later. Nevertheless, the movie has a problem in that it segments scenes of plot and character development. Instead of giving us one scene that advances both, it gives us two: one to push the plot, one to push character. This approach makes the movie drag at times.

 

But family audiences who like both good scares and teens who behave without reckless abandon might find “Hangman’s Curse” the alternative that Twentieth Century Fox is hoping.

 

The movie offers some religious themes, like a teacher who talks about morality and a girl who sings church songs and quotes Psalm 23 in moments of crisis. The Springfield-family son also offers a counterpoint to the Goths who court Abel’s ghost when he says, “Lingering around with spirits is dangerous.”

 

In some ways, “Hangman’s Curse” feels like a response to the Columbine shootings and the discussions of in-group and out-group that surrounded the tragedy. This film isn’t a deep meditation on those themes; rather, it’s almost like an “X-Files” episode revamped.

 

The DVD offers two main special features: a featurette on the “spider wrangler” for the movie, and a behind-the-scenes look at Peretti on the set of his own adapted work. Both are interesting in their own right.

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for elements of violence/terror and for brief drug material. Reviewer’s Note: There are some disturbing scenes, especially at the beginning when audiences see Abel Frye hang himself.

Director: Rafal Zielinski

Writers: Kathy Mackel and Stan Foster (from a Frank Peretti novel)

Cast: Nate: David Keith; Sarah: Mel Harris; Elisha: Leighton Meester; Elijah: Douglas Smith; Ian: Jake Richardson; Blake: Edwin Hodge; Norman: Daniel Farber; Crystal: Andrea Morris; Dan: Tom Wright.

 

The movie’s official Web site is here.

 

Buy the DVD here.