This week in local theaters 

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE While it may seem an odd choice to kick off a month of classic horror movies, is there a scarier movie to watch in an election year than John Frankenheimer's sublime 1962 sick-joke thriller? (Get back to us on that after next week's W.) Laurence Harvey, whose pallid lockjaw uptightness was never put to better use, plays the Korean war vet and son of privilege who falls victim to a North Korean brainwashing scheme; Angela Lansbury (a great villain) is his venomous power-broker mother, and Frank Sinatra is his former commander, the one man who can stop a Communist plot to infiltrate the White House. What looks prescient about the movie today is the pushy emergence of television and media manipulation in the political process, as well as a cynical gallows humor that was slightly out of step with the Age of Camelot (but right in sync with Watergate a decade later). Only the twisted minds behind this movie could've cast Helen Kleeb, a character actress who specialized in grandmotherly roles on The Waltons and other TV shows, as a hallucinatory Commie torturer—the first salvo in a sustained subversive attack on the cult of patriotic matriarchy. Enjoy it for sheer suspense—it features what may be the first martial-arts battle in an American movie—or savor the many wicked flourishes of wit in George Axelrod's screenplay, from the bizarre meet-cute patter between Sinatra and Janet Leigh to the liberal senator who literally bleeds milk. —Jim Ridley (Shows Oct. 11-13 at The Belcourt)

CITY OF EMBER Whatever anxieties parents feel about food and water scarcity, untrustworthy leaders and the fate of the planet, this merrily sinister fantasy passes along to kids—only it's more fun and less alarmist than that sounds. Two hundred years after an unspecified doomsday (the years fly by in a clever pre-credits sequence), mankind endures in the City of Ember, an underground metropolis of equal parts Dickens, Brazil and the zany funhouse universe of Robert Altman's Popeye. In this rickety, rundown habitat, lit by constellations of blinking overhead lights and powered by a persnickety generator, kids await the day they're given lifelong tasks by the ceremonial mayor (Bill Murray, rotund and amusingly creepy)—until an inquisitive girl messenger (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan) finds a riddle that contains the city's carefully hidden key to salvation. Adapted by Tim Burton's frequent collaborator Caroline Thompson from Jeanne Duprau's children's fantasy and directed with roving, eye-filling verve by Gil Kenan (Monster House), the movie creates an engagingly immersive, lived-in sense of place that's more engrossing than its treasure-hunt plot. (The appealing Ronan aside, Martin Laing's Rube Goldberg production design merits top billing.) But its message—which basically equates sunshine with intellectual curiosity and darkness with dull obeisance to authority and received wisdom—is so far from the toy-pushing agenda of current kids' movies that its audience may feel like the ones led into the light. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday)

THE DUCHESS Based on Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, Saul Dibb's costume drama tells how Princess Diana's 18th century ancestor (played here by Keira Knightley)—a naive ingénue married off in her teens to a fornicating icy stiff (get the parallel?)—grew into a politically sophisticated woman. Cruising lightly over Georgiana's activism, Dibb firmly turns the spotlight on her love life, in which she must come to terms with a ménage à trois at home and a passionate love affair with Charles, Earl of Grey (an incongruously laddish Dominic Cooper), a future prime minister and namesake of the posh tea. But for all its frisky high jinks, brocaded homes and creamy bosoms, The Duchess is a tragedy about the terrifying vulnerability of even the richest women in a society that deprives them of property rights. As a tale of mature self-sacrifice, the movie would be almost unbearably moving were it not for Knightley's insubstantial performance, which allows her to be fatally upstaged by Ralph Fiennes—who, despite having played many a stiff quite stiffly, has bags of fun here playing Georgiana's husband: a jerk, but also a man of his time who's not oblivious to the happiness of the women in his life. —Ella Taylor (Opens Friday at Green Hills)

THE EXPRESS The story of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis—the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961, two years before he succumbed to leukemia—is absolutely worthy of a big-screen retelling. Davis, who died before ever playing a down alongside Jim Brown for the Cleveland Browns, has almost become a footnote—an inspirational fairy tale. Based on a Davis biography, Gary Fleder's account is a noble attempt at humanizing the myth, but it succumbs to the worst sorts of sports-movie clichés: Its smash-mouth football scenes play like Gatorade commercials, and off the field its characters infuse every casual aside with the dramatic gravitas of History in the Making. To his credit, Rob Brown, first seen in 2000's Finding Forrester, plays Davis with quiet subtlety (to the point where he almost disappears in some scenes). But Dennis Quaid, as Syracuse's Ben Schwartzwalder, is stuck with the thankless role of accidental civil-rights pioneer—the gruff, color-blind coach who must nonetheless overcome his own ingrained racism and internalized fears. Like all formulaic biopics, The Express sacrifices the details for the Big Picture—hagiography without the humanity (wait, is that his girlfriend? wife? what?), populated by sorta-enlightened Yankees, rabidly racist Southerners, and a ghost who remains as elusive as the running back no defender could ever catch. —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Friday)

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