Having grumbled about the twinkly, inexpressive, family-movie ambiance of the first (Chris Columbus-helmed) Harry Potter adaptation, I can only give thanks that each subsequent installment has been darker and creepier; that the last, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, seemed organically rendered—from the inside out—instead of storyboarded from on high by neutered elves; and that the newest, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros.), is a ghoulish PG-13 horror picture from its first scene—one of those caretaker-investigating-a-strange-light-in-an-old-dark-house numbers. No, I couldn't be more pleased with what the screenwriter, Steven Kloves, and the director, Mike Newell, have wrought this time. That said, I stood my ground and left my 7-year-old (who devoured the book) at home. Weak-willed parents of similarly aged children should prepare for night sweats and bed-wetting. It's scary, kids.
Goblet of Fire has little in the way of niceties: no blithe schoolboy (or -girl) mischief-making, no wisecracking portraits, no bizarre but lovable pets, and barely a frame of Quidditch. (A murderous army of Death Eaters interrupts the World Cup festivities.) More terrifying, puberty has finished its work and dating is now neck-and-neck with Voldemort as Harry's most soul-wrenching preoccupation. At this point in J.K. Rowling's series, it's clear that he and Hermione are not destined to fall into each other's arms. While Hermione and Ron resort to traditional British bickering in the face of their undeclared attraction, Harry stews over a fetching classmate named Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who turns out to have a Scottish brogue—how adorable—and no personality.
Daniel Radcliffe's Harry is aging to look like Elijah Wood's dour, pinched brother—but I've never minded his lack of color. Too much acting might interfere with our ability to project ourselves into his head and vicariously experience the fruits of his celebrity. Radcliffe does need all the help he can get from Rupert Grint's Ron, his red hair in a Beatles shag, and Emma Watson's Hermione, who continues to demonstrate that humorless know-it-all valedictorian grinds can be madly attractive provided you have the right casting director.
Speaking of casting, it's always a treat to see what big-studio-franchise cash can produce in the way of top-flight British (and Irish) actors. The islands have been swept for great thespians; this movie must have closed the theaters for months. Along with the peerlessly bitchy Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane (smitten with a visiting giantess who looks like an elongated Judith Miller—only nicer), and Michael Gambon (who has found his Dumbledore, injecting a dose of irony into his lines), we get more Gary Oldman (albeit only as a smoke-and-ash face in a fireplace), more Timothy Spall (vermin with a pedigree), and, best of all, more of the delicious Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle (now sneaking peeks at Harry's privates). There are three additions: Miranda Richardson—regrettably one-note—as a journalist who has made up her mind about Harry well in advance of their interview (i.e., the normal-sized Judith Miller); the amusing glowerer Brendan Gleeson as the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts professor; and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort.
Fiennes rises from a cauldron of what looks like primordial slime—and proves worthy of it. The Dark Wizard's frame is all there, but his features aren't filled in: He's like a statue sculpted from pus, a raging infection on legs. The scariest thing is Fiennes' voice. While Voldemort moves jerkily, not quite at home in his body, his diction is supple and edged with cold steel. All form and sterling elocution, he is every inch the English public-school-bred bogeyman.