Aug 11, 2020

THE CONJURING 2 (2016)


Every time James Wan threatens to retire from the horror genre, it breaks my heart a little -- not to mention strikes more fear in me than all the ghosts and demons he's conjured (shut up) from his imagination. The horror genre never truly dies, despite what weirdos like to claim about the '90s, as there are always up-and-coming filmmakers and interesting indie horror films that will stand the test of time. However, so few consistent filmmakers come along that not only make great contributions to the genre, but make films that have the power to remind both critics and audiences that the horror genre is capable of being classy, well made, and even emotional.

I could rattle off a half-dozen horror filmmakers who have proven consistency with both quality and scares -- Ti West, Jim Mickle, Adam Wingard -- but no one is doing what James Wan is doing: straddling that line between satisfying mainstream audiences with films not too far outside their comfort zone while also finding ways to shock and scare horror-loving fandom who have seen all the tricks countless times before. (That last sentence makes me feel bad, so major hat tip to Mike Flanagan, who is doing the same thing.)


The Conjuring 2, like its predecessor, contains very little that hasn't been seen a dozen times already in films both classic and campy. We've seen the ghosts and the demons, we've heard the loud knocks in the middle of the night or the creepy children hiding in the darkness, and we've seen the power of God, harnessed by the mortal, vanquish these things back into the pit, but Wan has an uncanny ability to use these old tricks in clever new ways. The Conjuring 2 contains much of Wan's repertoire -- the clever use of editing giving creepy figures snapshot movements, the yellow-eyed demons, the unseen monster in the darkened corner -- but he's also got a whole bag of new tricks to try, and all of them work. The Crooked Man, for instance, doesn't quite feel as grounded as the rest of the ongoing terror, but its construction makes for the eeriest scene in the entire film. The Conjuring 2 is more ethereal, more dreamlike, more daring in its risk-taking. And it makes for a more satisfying experience with the Warrens.

What makes The Conjuring 2 stand out from the pack, and even from Wan's previously successful horror outings, is the relationship between Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), playing the real-life married couple who spent decades doing the kind of research that the franchise only touches on. As Wan says in the supplements, he wanted to create a love story for them but disguise it as a horror film, and in that regard he was successful. Like the first film, he takes the time out from the horror to offer them -- and the haunted Hodgson family -- small moments of peace. Scenes like Ed playing the guitar and singing an Elvis song to the family -- but really to Lorraine -- or even the ending, when Wan forgoes the anticipated creepy/shock final scene in favor of something lovely and beautiful, are what make The Conjuring 2 such a success. Putting aside how "real" and "true to life" the Conjuring series claims to be, the films, regardless of what you believe, also wholly exaggerate the stories that inspired them. However, in the midst of this, Wan's ability to make his characters feel like real people are what set the series off from the rest of the genre.


Avoiding the sophomore slump, The Conjuring 2 boasts a less clunky and more naturalistic screenplay than its predecessor, and with less characters to focus on, a bit more streamlined. Knowledge of the first film isn't required to enjoy the sequel, but by now the Warren dynamic and what they do is established and it helps in getting to the action a little quicker. Wilson and Farmiga -- especially the latter -- are fantastic in their roles, with Wilson toning down his take on Ed, making him less gruff than his prior iteration. The Hodgson family as well, led by mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) and terrorized daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe, trying on a genuine sounding accent), are fleshed out into real people. The Conjuring 2's opener serves as a concluding bookend to the tease on which the first film ended -- that of the legendary Amityville controversy, which inspired the never-ending film series The Amityville Horror. (While it's a bummer not to have gotten an entire feature film dedicated to this particular case, I can understand the legal quagmire it would have the potential to become.) But the bits we do get -- the DeFeo massacre, which was a very real occurrence, and even an impressively simple recreation of perhaps the most famous photographic "evidence" of paranormal proof in the Amityville home -- are more satisfying than probably every officially sanctioned Amityville film so far.
Director of Photography Don Burgess successfully recreates the look of Wan's past collaborations with his former DP John R. Leonetti (who may or may not have been too busy directing the Conjuring spin-off Annabelle to join Wan for this second go-round with the Warrens). The presentation successfully recreates that look which is slowly becoming iconic for the Warrens' universe: a blue-hewing, bleached-white world where even during the daylight there's a detectable darkness. The interior of the Hodgson home, with its cracked walls and its busy but fading wallpaper, somehow adding desolation and subtly contributes to the claustrophobic horror the family begins to experience.


The Conjuring is among one of the scariest sounding films ever made, and The Conjuring 2 continues that trend. The film makes very effective use of the paranormal bumps in the night, and the requisite sounds of the genre are all accounted for: knocks on doors, thuds on floorboards, creepy child laughter...and the disembodied voice of the dead. As usual, the creepy score by Joseph Bishara (who has played the marquee demon in every James Wan film so far), complete with its whirling male choir, heightens the horror the characters are experiencing.

After the disappointment of Insidious 2, the most previous horror film from James Wan, the potential for capturing the class and effectiveness of The Conjuring didn't seem like a sure thing for its sequel. I'm happy to report that it's every bit as good as its original, and in some cases, even superior. Wan has sworn off horror films before (prior to making The Conjuring 2), and he's repeated that following its release, but here's hoping when it comes to the exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he'll always make an exception. The Conjuring series prints money for Warner Bros., so more films will be made with or without him in the director's chair, but he and his screenwriters seemed to have cracked the code for making them so effectively horrific as well as realistic and emotionally involving.

Aug 9, 2020

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)


Long before the short-lived J-horror phenomenon breached American shores, resulting in one good remake and boatloads of bad ones, The House Where Evil Dwells was already proving that Japanese ghosts could be so, so entertaining. Best described as a bold-faced rip-off of The Shining attempting to coalesce with America's then-fascination with everything ninja, this 1982 oddity about an American family living abroad while its patriarch finishes writing his "story" - and who then confront a trio of hilarious looking ghosts  - has to be seen to be believed. Hopefully the included screen grabs have done a pretty good job of indicating the sheer stupidity on hand and have enticed some unaware lovers of cinema cheese into pursuing this title: how utterly mad The House Where Evil Dwells is willing to go is a thing that every horror fan needs to experience.

The opening of the film, in which a full-on sexy affair is taking place while the unknowing husband is out walking around holding his lantern thing you only ever see in movies set in Japan, does a pretty good but albeit strange job of establishing the conflict of the plot: after the cheating wife gives to her lover a netsuke (a small totem) that she obtained from a witch, and which seems to be of a woman fucking the devil, the husband comes home to see their tryst in full kimono-shedding mode, so he understandably flips out and kills them both before committing harakiri, which is suicide by blade, not the former sports newscaster. (You know, this guy.)

At this point - yep, you guessed it - our American characters enter the story, and the house where all this sexy murder stuff went down, and are immediately haunted by the aforementioned ghosts of an Asian flavor.


The House Where Evil Dwells is insane, lovingly pedestrian, and earnest in its stupidity. Its attempts to be horrific consist of blue-tinted superimposed ghosts walking around, knocking shit off the wall, or temporarily possessing our married couple characters solely to puppet them into saying really inappropriate things and cause marital distress. But what those silly ghost appearances set up, the screaming ghost faces appearing in soup, or the hilarious moaning haunted crabs that chase a young girl up a tree, definitely help to knock down.

What sucks about The House Where Evil Dwells - that is, beyond the typical kind of suck you come to expect from very low-budget horror flicks - is its pace. To be honest, unless ghostly things are occurring, The House Where Evil Dwells isn't really that interesting. It's slow, and dull, and momentarily brought to life by okay performances (unless we're talking about the daughter character, who's at her least offensive when she's not saying a word). If blue ghosts are egging each other on to commit harm or tomfoolery, then great; otherwise, The House Where Evil Dwells is boredom on celluloid. Still, it's a house where I'd want to spend all my time where I'm probably shooing demon crabs out of my nagaya with my bamboo houki.

Fans of campy and "oops, it's stupid!" horror entertainment shouldn't miss it, or else moaning ghost faces will end up in your soup, and they will be so awful.



Aug 7, 2020

ECHOES (2016)


Anna (Kate French), a blogger who has been offered her first screenwriting assignment, is struggling to get a workable draft to her manager (and lover), Paul (Steven Brand), so Paul suggests they abscond to his house in the desert to give her a change of scenery and perhaps a bout of inspiration. There only a day, Paul announces that he has to leave to go deal with a client, and Anna suggests she stay behind, hoping that her isolation will force her to be productive. Without a car, and with Paul's dog, Shadow, her only company, Anna tries to do just that, but instead begins to suffer from increasingly worsening instances of the nightmares she's been having for a while now - that of an ash-faced figure with black eyes. With each new visitation from his demon figure, she is left with a new piece of the puzzle, so Anna begins to follow the trail of clues until she pieces together the mystery of her haunting - and what she discovers might have best been left undiscovered.

Echoes, simply put, doesn't really work - not as a ghost film, not as a mysticism film, and not as a murder mystery film. It really wants to be all three, but because of the time it has to share among those other sub-genres, all of them are left feeling unfinished and obligatory. What's suggested by the film's opener - someone haunted by sleep paralysis, a genuinely fascinating phenomenon - is abandoned nearly immediately after in favor of more waking-nightmare/possession nonsense that audiences have seen so many times before.

Speaking of things audiences have seen before, it would appear that writer/director Nils Timm has certainly seen The Conjuring, being that more than one visual trick is stolen from James Wan's surprise 2013 shocker. From flapping sheets revealing ghostly forms to black-eyed monsters possessing their victims, so much of Echoes has been done before and in far better ways that its title is actually perfectly ironic.


One of Kate French's eyebrows alone is sexier than any screenwriter I've ever seen, so her casting as such is dubious at best, and shameless at worst. As a lead she's merely competent, although the script doesn't demand she do much beyond look scared or take sad sit-down showers. Her constant appearances in tight tank tops or skintight exercise pants do more to show off why she was cast than anything having to do with her range as a performer. Alternately, Steven Brand offers up a nice performance as Paul. At first the audience isn't sure what to make of him, but he's likable and charming, and proves to offer the most defined character and solid performance in what is admittedly a small and intimate film with less than a handful of speaking parts.

Echoes brings nothing new to the table, but perhaps it will bring more attention to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Leafing through its Wiki entry is infinitely more intriguing and entertaining than anything that Echoes has to offer. Even the most die-hard aficionado won't feel the need to add Echoes to their collection. It's a bland and generic story that jumps from one overused trope to the next, none of which is as satisfying as what the summary promises. Sleep paralysis, also known as Old Hag Syndrome, is a strange ailment affecting an alarmingly high number of people, and has slowly become more and more common knowledge over the years - a shame that the film did away with the concept after an intriguing opening. Echoes is a rental at best.


Aug 5, 2020

BACKTRACK (2016)


The ghost film is my weakness. It's one I will always go out of my way to watch, regardless of pedigree or budget, because I am endlessly fascinated by the supernatural. If I were a human being still capable of actually feeling fear, instead of having been dulled by a steady diet of horror films since I was in elementary school, you might say ghost films come the closest to providing me with a handful of reasonable scares. And that makes sense--that of the more metaphysical sub-genre, the ghost film rides the closest alongside the idea of life, most certainly death, and perhaps something beyond it. The concept of ghosts and haunted houses still pervade so much of our pop culture. Even the Travel Channel has built an audience of millions off their only popular program, "Ghost Adventures," the tie that binds ghost-hunting to traveling being that the hosts often get in a van and drive somewhere.

It's rare when a good ghost film is released. And unless James Wan is directing, chances are those good ghost films aren't at the multiplex, but rather somewhere hovering in the ether between VOD and direct-to-video. Much like any other genre, but especially horror, there's a reason why you've never heard of most titles found on page 37 of Netflix's streaming titles. So much bad horror is released in one calendar year that it's almost staggering. It's also sad, because so many of these so-called filmmakers aren't trying to make a film. They're assembling 90 minutes of forward momentum and spending most of their budgets on the Photoshopped cover that does its best to shield the fact that the film isn't even worth falling asleep to.


Somewhere between this Redbox fodder and James Wan resides filmmaker Michael Petroni's Backtrack, an Australian-produced supernatural mystery that offers up a handful of fine performances, an intriguing concept, and even a few well-timed and well-staged scares that actually border on frightening. Make no mistake that Backtrack is very aware of its influences, taking most of its DNA from The Sixth Sense, but it goes about it in the freshest way possible: that the patients of Brody's Peter Bower are actually ghosts isn't a twist that's saved for third-act reveal (obviously this factoid is included in the home video release's official synopsis anyway), but rather it's something discovered early on which kicks the main conflict into gear.

Brody, too, seems aware of the influence of Shyamalan's still-best film, as he likely realized he was also playing a sad psychologist a little too close to the dead. Brody, strapping on a serviceable Australian accent, is very calm, stoic, sad, and still in his performance, but not in a way that's boring to watch. He's supposed to be playing a man barely holding it together following the death of his daughter, for which he blames himself, and it's reflected in his every scene, during which he always seems moments away from bursting into tears.


The beloved Sam Neill makes scattershot appearances as Bower's own psychologist, looking pretty distinguished in a rounder face and full beard, though the motives of his character are unclear and never fully explained, leaving his presence in the film somewhat unsatisfactory.

 Above all, writer/director Michael Petroni didn't want to make a horror film so much as  a film about life that just happened to contain elements more commonly found in genre films. He tried something similar with a previous film, Till Human Voices Wake Us, which could likely be used as a litmus test to determine if Backtrack is for you. Again, like The Sixth Sense, Backtrack vies to be something more than just a ghost film. It wants to be about life, regret, the significance of the past, and the pain of memories. It does all those things quite well, marrying it to a traditional mystery propelled by supernatural elements (and no lie, the use of "ghosts" in the film are definitely eerie), but what it results in feels a little too similar, however well made it may be.


Despite being a ghost movie, which, yes, does allow for a few jump scares here and there, Backtrack is actually kind of a quiet film. The dread and sadness dwell in the silent corners of every scene in which Bower appears, complemented by a melancholy score by composer Dan Cornelius. Backtrack is the kind of film whose strength comes from the quiet rather than screaming ghosts.

Backtrack is a horror film (kind of) for adults. What this means is that it's not interested in using ghosts to constantly scare the audience, but rather to make our lead character tap into his subconscious to determine why he is seeing them in the first place. Ghosts are used as a concept but not a catalyst. And, is Peter Bower seeing ghosts for real? Or ghosts from his past that won't let him rest until he confronts the memories he's long since buried? If you're looking for a straightforward haunt film, keep walking, but if you're up for something a little different and a little more mature, then give Backtrack a try.


Aug 4, 2020

SWALLOWED WHOLE BY A MONSTER


"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Aug 3, 2020

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)


In the horror genre, there are generally two approaches that filmmakers opt to take: the gory gross-out, or the subtly creepy. Seldom do the two ever marry into a quality final product. The Friday the 13th series contains many entries that are lots of fun, for instance, but unless your fear threshold is comparable to a six-year-old’s, there’s nothing about them the least bit scary. And, likewise, some of the eeriest contributions to the genre were able to scare their audiences while shedding only a handful of blood, relying instead on mood, unsettling camera angles, or well-timed visuals.

In very few instances do visceral imagery and subtle scares come together with success. The Exorcist is probably the most notable exception, perhaps along with The Shining, although compared to today’s standards, a modern audience might not be as impressed with either. And this is what makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal, such a welcome and unlikely surprise. As scripted by Richard Naing and Ian B. Goldberg, the first act unfolds in near-real time as a father-and-son coroner team are delivered a body unearthed from below the floorboards at a local murder scene – one which needs a cause of death attributed as soon as possible. With the body of the young girl now on the coroners’ table, she is slowly dissected, the parts of her examined and tagged – all of which unfolds in a genuinely realistic manner. Indeed, nearly all of this first act unfolds with an almost scientific approach, even as the coroners begin discovering that there are certain “impossible” things about the body – its condition, its reaction to stimuli, and…well, lots more. And as you might imagine, as her body is slowly taken apart, it’s extremely graphic, but never in a way that feels exploitative or vapidly shocking. The film treats this act as respectfully as we would expect a real coroner to treat his or her real specimen, and as you watch the methodology and the men’s attention to their work, you forget you’re watching something intended as horror in lieu of something more fact-based and grounded.


At the end of this act, while the mystery behind the anonymous girl’s body is being slowly put together, the graphic portion subsides, giving way to a more traditional, but no less effective or well done, series of ghostly encounters within the underground winding hallways of the Tilden family’s coroner office. Echoing the successful supernatural films of James Wan, The Autopsy of Jane Doe relies on old school techniques – and hardly any CGI – to craft a series of scares to unnerve the audience, and nearly all of them work. Glimpses of something unnatural through smoke, a mirror’s reflection, behind a crack in a door; unfortunate cases of mistaken identity – yes, they may be cliché, but when they work this well, I’m totally fine with it.

My favorite thing about The Autopsy of Jane Doe is its reliance entirely on history, mythology, and our own knowledge of both to tell its story. Thankfully (and I really doubt this is a spoiler), this isn’t a case of a girl’s spirit returning to warn the son that the father is the reason why she was found six feet under. There isn’t some lame last-minute twist that reveals either of them to be the killer, or crazy, or caught in hell, or some other overused twist that’s been done countless times before. What you see is what you get — there’s no twist coming to save the audience and relieve them from the terror that’s before them on the screen, to gently pat them on the head and say, “Don’t worry, this isn’t really happening.” It is. And, if you ask me, it’s about time that it did.


Brian Cox is a reassuring face in the genre, because – and I’ll go on record right now – he’s never been in a bad horror film. Likewise, he’s somehow managed to star in a handful of major or minor horror classics: The Ring, Trick ‘r Treat, Manhunter, voice work for the severely underrated and underseen zombie film Exit Humanity. No actor’s filmography is flawless of the occasional bad film, but it’s usually the horror genre which causes that actor’s downfall. With Cox, it manages to be the opposite. And The Autopsy of Jane Doe is no different. As usual, he’s excellent, unfazed by the disdain that many of his esteemed peers have for the genre. His younger counterpart, Emile Hirsch (making his horror debut), takes the same approach, and his somewhat picky reputation for the roles he takes additionally elevates The Autopsy of Jane Doe into something worthy of further adoration. This isn’t just some crap write-off for either actor, but something with compelling content that matches context pound for pound.

Odd as it may sound, but Øvredal designs the “dead” body of Jane Doe to look like a flawless work of art — white, unblemished skin; dark hair; and preternatural eyes. She — and the rest of the film — present as sterile and institutional but also inexplicably with an artistry seldom seen in the genre anymore. What colors there are seem bright and dynamic; during the first act, fluorescents are the only source of light, but the picture is bright and even somewhat inviting. However, as the events surrounding Jane Doe darken, so does the picture.


For much of the film, dialogue, only, is what drives the momentum forward — that and a handful of random soundtrack interludes, included repeated and increasingly creepy use of an old traditional folk song from the 1950s. But once the horror really kicks in, the musical score by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans kicks in along with it and really works in complementing the on-screen visuals that Øvredal concocts. The Autopsy of Jane Doe, like all great horror films, really makes full use of its audioscape, relying on both loud and sudden moments along with silence, or the faint sound of moving air, to unnerve.

It’s probably too early to label The Autopsy of Jane Doe as an “instant classic” as many critics seem eager to do, but it certainly deserves the same reputation as recent horror powerhouses like The ConjuringIt Follows, and Insidious, just to name a few. Horror fans are passionate people, which means they complain a lot — in a constant desire for original material, in something more than just tepid PG-13 scares. Well, here it is. Graphic and scary, and made by a handful of professionals determined to make not just an effective horror flick but an honest-to-gosh good film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the antithesis to the reboots, remakes, redoes, and repurposed content flooding multiplexes and streaming services everywhere. With enough graphic and ghostly content to please even the most practiced horror viewer, it’s an excellent addition to the genre that deserves far more title recognition than it might be receiving.