Movie review

Do you know what the scariest thing is in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”?

The acres of razor-sharp fangs on view, gnashing?

No.

The forests of miles-long tentacles, thrashing? The piles of corpses, accumulating? The screams of the terrorized, keening? The massive property damage, proliferating?

No, no, no and no.

No, the scariest thing in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is Woody Harrelson’s face: something in his eyes, in the set of his mouth — a chilling death’s head grin with a hint of mockery.

Something is not right with that boy.

That’s acting. All that other stuff is just special effects.

Woody Harrelson in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” (Jay Maidment / Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Harrelson is perfect for the part of serial killer Cletus Kasady, aka the monster Carnage.

You can think of him as the direct descendant of Mickey Knox, the mass murderer Harrelson played in 1994’s “Natural Born Killers.” And a chip off the quiet maniac he portrayed in 1997’s “Wag the Dog.”

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Consider those rehearsals for Cletus/Carnage. Harrelson knows this character well. Clearly, director Andy Serkis knew what he was getting when he cast Harrelson. He wanted to provide a worthy adversary for the anti-hero of the title, Venom, the monstrous alien CG symbiote played by Tom Hardy.

From the Marvel Comics stable Venom and Carnage both come by way of Spider-Man, whom Venom originally plagued years ago. Spidey is not in this picture (well, actually, just a smidgen). Serkis and Hardy (who co-wrote the story with screenplay author Kelly Marcel) have gone for a full-bore monster mash with the two bashing and thrashing each other to a fare-thee-well in screechy fight scenes that shatter the scenery and the eardrums.

The picture builds on the character Hardy launched in 2018’s “Venom.” That one got mired down in introducing Eddie Brock before kicking into gear when an alien entity invaded his very personal space. Which is to say he became an unwanted guest in Eddie’s body.

In the sequel, they’re a squabbling couple. Venom wants to emerge from Eddie and gleefully eat people with those impressive choppers. Eddie is not down with that. He even puts up a poster decreeing “No eating people” in his apartment, which vexes Venom mightily. He’s reduced to a diet of chickens and chocolate, which leaves him ever hungry for something more substantial.

Venom is rather a noodge, pestering Eddie in a echoey guttural inner voice about his many shortcomings. But he also gives Eddie the backbone to excel at his job as a journalist. That lands him an interview with death-row inmate Cletus on the eve of his execution. That has a bad outcome as Cletus manages to chomp one of Eddie’s fingers, draws blood and is thereby infected with the symbiote strain that produces Carnage.

Carnage proceeds to go on a rampage with the goal of freeing his incarcerated sweetheart, called Shriek (Naomie Harris), whose superpower is a high-pitched — well her name says it all — powerful enough to destroy the hearing of mere mortals. It bothers symbiotes as well, which makes for a tricky romance between her and Carnage.

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Serkis, best-known for his motion-capture performances as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and Caesar in “Planet of the Apes,” directs in a mode of sustained hysteria. There’s some psychological substance mixed in here as Cletus seeks understanding for his bad behavior. He explains that he was horribly abused as a child, triggering homicidal rages, and says his loveless upbringing somewhat mirrored Eddie’s, making the two of them soul mates.

That in no way offsets the picture’s stylistic excesses, which leave the viewer feeling pulverized by the time the closing credits roll.

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ ★★½ (out of four)

With Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Stephen Graham. Directed by Andy Serkis, from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel. 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language, disturbing material and suggestive references. Opens Thursday, Sept. 30, at multiple theaters.

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