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‘You Won’t Be Alone’ Is a Witch’s Tale with Heart (and Intestines); ‘Morbius’ Is More B.S.

A beautifully arty horror flick or a banally ugly supervampire exercise—the choice is yours.

Noomi Rapace in 'You Won't Be Alone'; a brightly illuminated part in Jared Leto's hair in 'Morbius'
Courtesy of Focus Features; courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Set in the 19th century Macedonian countryside, You Won’t Be Alone sometimes seems to takes place in a world even more distant. Events drift along with the poetically coherent logic of a folk tale, suggesting scraps of fables that teach inconclusive morals. At the center is Nevena, a mute, feral shape-shifter determined to reject the untethered freedom of supernatural power in favor of the harsh limitations yet collective comforts of human society, even if she has to leave a trail of corpses to get there.

Looming over Nevena, the lives of the villagers she encounters, and the movie itself is an ancient being of scarred-over, flame-flayed sinew that resembles a resurrected Body Worlds exhibit. She is the Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), the legendary wolf-eatress whose bloody exploits mothers tell to scare their children. One night, one such mother, Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski), encounters Maria in the gruesome flesh, planning to snatch her infant. When Yoana begs to keep her child until she is grown, the witch agrees, but places her mark on the baby, removing her ability to speak.

That child is Nevena, and for 16 years, Yoana hides her in a sunken cavern, visiting to care for and feed her. Then Maria arrives to claim her adopted child, convert her to her new life via “witching spit,” and instruct her in the ways of witchery—a lot of neck-snapping, blood-guzzling, and externalizing of internal organs, by the looks of it. Entranced by the world she was denied for so long, Nevena (played at this stage by Sara Klimoska) instead prefers to sniff leaves, pet animals, and gaze at fireflies, struggling to apply unspoken words to the new phenomenon she encounters. Still silent, she narrates the film through an internal monologue, marked by a unique understanding of agency that’s been shaped by the limited stimuli of her early years. (“The sky, to bits it chews her up,” she says of Maria.)

Abandoned in disgust by the figure she calls “witch-mama” (to distinguish her from her caring “whisper mama”), Nevena stumbles into a village like Frankenstein’s monster, unaware of her differences or ability to harm (she has witchy claws). Before the pitchforks and torches can drive her away, though, she develops her own shapeshifting abilities, inhabiting two different village woman (Noomi Rapace and Alice Englert) and, to see how the bepenised half lives, an underwear model of a farmhand (Carloto Cotta). She studies these mortals like an undercover alien, forcing herself to laugh in imitation of the village women, narrating a cruel husband’s battering in detached tones, and undergoing sexual encounters that range from disorienting to brutal to loving.

With his use of naive, wondering voiceover and his delirious nature-infatuated flow of imagery, writer-director Goran Stolevski has already drawn Terence Malick comparisons, some complimentary and some not. Honestly I’ll take You Won’t Be Alone over most of the overblown perfume commercials that artiste has wowed his devotees with since they convinced him he was a genius. And cinematographer Matthew Chuang renders setting suitably ancient and foreign: The interiors the village huts, often lit by the flicker of an open fire, have the richness of oil paintings.

You Wouldn’t Be Alone might not exist if films like The VVitch hadn’t smuggled horror vocabulary into more pedigreed fare, and Stolevski explores the implications of that boundary blurring. Who prevails when horror nihilism clashes with arthouse humanism? You may not agree with where You Won’t Be Alone ends up—essentially, that to be human is to live deliciously—but it’s an honest if elliptical journey.

A tiny, closing gripe: The thunderous ambient of Mark Bradshaw’s soundtrack can be overbearing. There’s an essay to be written about the inability of contemporary soundtrack artists to balance their need to heighten the tone of a moment with their distrust for melodic affect. And that’s brought into relief by the ability of filmmakers like Stolevski to arrive at a synthesis of similarly jarring sensibilities visually.

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If you’re in the mood for something a little (a lot) more predictable, there’s a new Marvel movie for ya. (There always is.) If You Won’t Be Alone makes body-horror Malick a dreamy reality, Morbius could have been a sick vampire movie but settles into the standard superhero template. Mysterious killings? Jump scares? Imaginative bloodletting? Nah, just Jared Leto (or a computerized facsimile thereof) keeping the violence PG-13, jumping around smashing shit like a Hulk with fangs, the gore so sanitized it makes Only Lovers Left Alive look like Bloodsucking Bastards.

There are basically two types of Marvel movie, and this is Type 1: “How this guy turned into this guy.” (Type 2 is “A bunch of these guys team up.”) And true to Type 1 form, it’s got a tedious explainer-plot that stretches back to childhood trauma. Not sure why Marvel fans find this exhaustive Vox-gone-to-the-multplex format so entertaining, but this is another flick that believes you can’t possibly enjoy watching a guy flex his superpowers without knowing his full biography.

Leto is Michael Morbius, a genius born with a rare blood disease that he’s been racing to cure before it kills him. His research is funded by his mysteriously super-wealthy childhood pal Milo (Matt Smith), who is also slowly dying of the same disease. (A scene of them walking slowly together, on crutches, along a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, unfazed by the bustle around them, is maybe the one genuinely human moment in the film.) Nothing—not even the development of a possible cure—can ever tear these besties apart. Or can it?

Another doctor, Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), is on hand to deliver cautionary lines like “At what cost?,” “I don’t want to see you get hurt,” and “Not like this!” before agreeing to help Morbs with his research. (Also, they smooch later.) The treatment turns Morbius into a vampire, which… like, duh, we know that because a) that’s his whole deal and b) what would you expect to happen when you fuse vampire-bat DNA with your own?

Unless you’ve ever seen another movie, you’ll never guess who else covets this tainted cure and eventually becomes Morbius’s archenemy. As Venom 2 showed (but did it?), there’s no more exciting superhero plot than “guy battles guy with the same powers.” The fight scenes, which as usual involve two guys bumping gracelessly into one another and falling from high places, are even more hideous and chaotic than the Marvel norm. The way everything around the vamps becomes wavy and wooshy when they’re vamping may be a new low in how superpowers are depicted onscreen.

I keep walking out of these screenings feeling like a guy who takes every free Big Mac that’s offered him and then complains, each time, “This still tastes like shit!” So, uh, something nice to say? Leto is refreshingly personable and non-weird (except in vampire mode, of course) (maybe I like him after all?), the movie clocks in under two hours, and it’s fun watching Jared Harris play Murder Victim We’re Supposed to Care About with as little effort as it deserves.

Alas, poor Sony’s IP is limited to the Spiderverse, so while every new Disney offering, no matter how peripheral (I refuse to believe Moonman, or whatever the hell Oscar Isaac’s guy is called, is a real guy), reassures fans, “Don’t worry, we’ll never run out of guys,” all Sony has to go on is “Hey, maybe this guy will meet Spider-Man someday.” So stick around through the credits like you’ve been trained to and you’ll not only learn how many people it takes to make something so expensive look so bad, but you’ll see Michael Keaton show up as yet another fucking guy, letting us know that it’s time for Morbius to make a Marvel Type 2 movie.

You Won’t Be Alone and Morbius are playing in area theaters.