As if to prove that the average critic will be as powerless as a wandless wizard when reviewing "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," Warner Bros. Pictures invited several girls who run Potter fan sites to a Monday morning press screening in Manhattan. They were quite enthusiastic: Their rousing applause, peals of laughter and terrified screams began almost the moment the "WB" logo disappeared.

The real noise, however, began later, during a death scene. The girls didn't just cry, they sobbed - heaving, stuttering, rib-cracking sobs. The kind that come from a 3-year-old after a meltdown.

By now, the "Potter" movies, based on J.K. Rowling's novels, have become self-perpetuating, even hegemonic: Fans know how they're supposed to react, and they do. Only a perfect storm of incompetence could have botched the latest and seventh film, the first of a two-part finale, and returning director David Yates is too skilled for that. "Part 1," like its predecessors, has been made with great care, craft and attention to detail.

It is also darker and more foreboding. Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, respectively) have become exiles in a world ruled by the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, part of the franchise's stellar supporting cast). In the past the three friends typically found colorful allies, but those are now in short supply.

The film's intensity level is noticeably higher, perhaps to appeal to aging fans. The chase scenes aren't always rollicking fun - one, involving a band of Snatchers, is eerily quiet. Voldemort's new world order has chilling echoes of Soviet and even Nazi regimes. There's also a fleeting but arresting image of smoldering sexuality.

There are few major developments in "Part 1," which is essentially a lengthy setup for "Part 2," the true end of the franchise. It's scheduled for release July 15. Girls, get out your handkerchiefs.

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