Aug 24, 2021

THE CONJURING 3: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

And The Conjuring train keeps chuggin’ along! After four spin-offs of varying quality following the release of The Conjuring 2 in 2016, The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It returns us to the primary series. Following its production announcement, there were a lot of “oh, really?” reactions in the horror community. The first worrisome development was that James Wan, who had directed the previous two Conjuring films along with new classic Insidious and unfortunate cultural touchstone Saw, had opted to reduce his involvement to a producer capacity, citing a desired break from working in the horror genre (that is, before making Malignant, an unrelated horror film). Being someone who considers himself a fan of Wan’s horror output, and also being someone who recognizes that the scripts for the first two Conjuring films had been bland, rote, and very familiar but which had become solid genre pics because of Wan’s direction, I assumed the magic was over. When it was additionally announced that The Conjuring 3 would be directed by Michael Chaves, an untested director who only had The Curse of La Llorona to his name – one of the blandest genre movies to come out in a long time (and which crammed in a five-second appearance from Tony Amendola’s Father Perez from Annabelle to force an otherwise non-existing association with the Conjuring series) – The Conjuring 3 seemed doomed. And here we are, all these years, pandemic delays, and strange rumored plot points later (werewolves! Amityville!) and The Conjuring 3 has landed with a soft okay.

It’s the ‘80s! And the Warrens are still driving around in their Mystery Machine solving spooky cases like the meddlesome kids they are. Their opening-scene reintroduction sees them assisting on an exorcism of a young boy named David (The Haunting of Hill House’s Julian Hilliard), which doesn’t go all that well until one of the main characters, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor), wills the infesting demon out of David and into his own body. The Warrens soon discover that this isn’t a “simple” case of possession like so many of their previous romps, but that Arne is actually in the midst of a “curse,” which means whomever has cursed him can basically rent him out to an interested demon for a few minutes at a time so said demon can get its avatar on and do some murderous mischief…and only one frumpily-dressed, demonologically-experted middle-aged couple can stop them.

Despite my glibness, The Conjuring 3 isn’t the disaster I expected it to be, even walking away with what I’d confidently describe as the richest and most complex screen story yet from the entire Conjuring universe. As mentioned, the first two Conjurings, though far superior to this newest entry, were built on a foundation of very familiar stories, bandying plot points we’ve seen before in the genre. In fact, the story that inspired The Conjuring 2 had been previously explored with 1992’s incredible and controversial Ghostwatch and 2017’s solid BBC miniseries The Enfield Haunting. In the face of their stories’ familiarity, Wan ably brought them to life using his uncanny talent for creating shockingly creepy images – and each entry directed by him has more than one example. The Conjuring has the leaping wardrobe demon and hanging specter; The Conjuring 2 has the Crooked Man – eerie creations brought to life and depicted in such a manner that they stick with you after the movie has concluded. The Conjuring 3, though it sidesteps the typical haunted house story in favor of murder mysteries, courtroom drama (which it needed more of), and witchcraft, is desperate for this same feat, leaning not once but twice on a chase sequence involving a very rotund and bloated corpse seemingly borrowed in concept from 2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but which doesn’t contain the same staying power. Though this feels like one random example, it sums up the experience of The Conjuring 3 as a whole – not as good as what’s come before, somehow including the two most recent Annabelle spinoffs, but also much better than tripe like The Nun. The makings for terror are there, and the opening exorcism scene involving a small-statured stunt actor depicting some insane (and very real) body contortionism is genuinely unsettling, but it also unfortunately establishes a level of scares that the remainder of the film simply can’t recapture.

The Conjuring 3’s main issue is that it’s overdone, as if Chaves believes on-screen chaos and fear are interchangeable, whereas Wan had previously proven many times over that a calm, stationary shot which builds on that misleading foundation of calm is ripe for sudden terror – see the “let’s play Hide and Clap” sequence from the first film for an ideal example. Wan’s Conjuring films established and maintained dread; Chaves doesn’t know how to do that. Though he doesn’t flat-out rely on cheap jump scares like the ol’ cat in the closet, some of his “boo!” choices border on that kind of style, like boosting the decibels of a little kid doing nothing more than ripping a sheet off a bed. Instances like these are harmless of course, as the flick knows that genuine scares are coming soon, but they are leaned on a little too often and they set the tone early on that this new entry doesn’t have anything in store beyond gotcha moments.

Keeping things alive are the returning Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the ghost-chasing couple, whose performances and holds on their respective characters haven’t changed in the face of a new director. They are the constant component in these films and the rock around which their various conflicts are eventually cleansed. The script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick offers them small moments of humanity to bring light into another dark story, notably the scene where Lorraine insists on investigating a cobweb-ridden crawlspace and Ed tries to deter her by saying it will ruin her dress, leading her to say, literally, “hold my purse.” Is it too on the nose? Sure. But it also works because we’ve seen the horrors this couple has lived through and it’s nice to see them act like real people instead of the somewhat cartoonish bible-brandishing superheroes the film world has turned them into.

Speaking of, nothing annoys a horror fan more than using the words “based on a true story” across a film’s marketing, because in so many instances, the studio is testing the durability of the word “based.” The real-life Warrens have left behind a lifetime of strange and unexplained work with seemingly irrefutable proof of the supernatural, but you’ve also got a large, vocal group of naysayers who called the couple charlatans and frauds. Even if you accept their body of work as fact, the Conjuring series has always pushed those facts to their breaking points, with this latest entry going so far off the reservation that you have to wonder how much people who see the words “based on a true story” are willing to believe. In a historical sense, the Arne Johnson saga – the murder of his landlord and subsequent court case – was faithfully retold; everything having to do with the curse and “the Occultist” (Eugenie Bondurant) was entirely fabricated, and though that sounds like a fair balance, the Warrens’ hunt of the Occultist makes for the bulk of the flick, and once the finale arrives and takes place in a ludicrously complex underground tunnel system beneath a simple farmhouse that is given zero explanation for its existence is what tips the movie’s scales from true morbid history to utter farce. (For those interested, there exists a 1983 made-for-TV movie called The Demon Murder Case, also based on the Johnson case, starring Kevin Bacon.)

With The Conjuring 3 having gone to theaters and HBO Max during the eye of the pandemic, the flick still managed to rake in 200 million, becoming another bonafide hit for the franchise. Despite that, there’s been no chatter involving The Conjuring 4 (except for a dozen websites running “here’s everything we know” articles that conclude absolutely nothing is known), and none of the previously announced spins offs like The Crooked Man and The Nun 2 appear to be moving forward. I would, of course, welcome The Conjuring 4 – also, of course, depending on who’s at the helm.

Jul 27, 2021

TEOS TURNS TEN


This blog is exactly ten years old today.

FUCK.

I started The End of Summer three houses, two jobs, and one pandemic ago, and for no good reason. Sure, I may have taken a couple-three years off to focus on other things, but here I am once again filling the coffers with writings new and old, and once again for no good reason. I had a lot of different ideas for things I wanted to cover, especially movies I wanted to highlight that I felt never really got their due, but that was all I had in mind. Since then, it led me to writing for several different dot commers, including Daily Grindhouse, which for some reason continues to let me crack wise for them on a regular basis. I've also written or co-written several books, one of which takes the name of this very blog, and it was because of my self-imposed challenge to write something at least on a weekly basis to practice my chops that made all of those books possible.

I humbly offer sincere thanks to anyone who has remained with me all these years, who took the time to read and respond, who continued to send emails during TEOS' downtime to offer their hopes that it would return in some manner. This blog has never commanded huge VPMs, but those who visit do so with loyalty, and that's even better.

I won't end this post with "here's to ten more" because thinking that far into the future causes me too much anxiety. Instead, I'll end with a quote from one of my all-time faves:

"Why don't we just wait here for a while... see what happens?"

Jul 25, 2021

CHUCK (2017)

The boxing movie is coming dangerously close to eclipsing the baseball movie as the most prominent sport depicted in cinema. There have been the major or minor classics (most of them starring Sylvester Stallone), the very okay (starring…Sylvester Stallone) to the downright pitiful (um….yep). But between the first and most recent Rocky/Creed films, there have been the well-made and sappy Cinderella Man, the well-made but overwrought Million Dollar Baby, and…whatever Grudge Match was. (Besides terrible). They have been founded on true stories, semi-true stories, or complete works of fiction. What sets Chuck off from the pack is that it’s a boxing film that doesn’t focus much on boxing, instead spending its time focusing on lead pugilist Chuck Wepner, whose reputation as a “bleeder” in the boxing world, as well as his somewhat stunted presentation (Whoo! New Jersey!) would inspire Stallone not just to write Rocky, but to fashion his Rocky Balboa character after him. And that’s where Chuck’s conflict comes into play. While one might argue that every boxing film is about your hero fighting him or herself, this more obviously plays out when he or she fights an insurmountable foe by film’s end, declaring victory either in or out of the ring. Instead, Chuck looks at Chuck, the man, not Chuck, the boxer. It looks at a man suddenly struggling with his own identity after the fictionalized version of him has been washed across silver screens and earned a multitude of Academy Awards. Chuck doesn’t culminate in that final fight against the insurmountable foe because the insurmountable foe he fights the entire film is himself – his demons, his reckless lifestyle, his selfishness, and his sense of worth.

Chuck features an eclectic ensemble of actors, all of whom do absolutely phenomenal work, from the lead performance by Liev Schreiber all the way down to comedian Jim Gaffigan, who appears only in a handful of scenes. Character actor Ron Perlman, face shaved and beneath a bald cap, delivers a small performance that allows him to go beyond just being Ron Perlman. Elizabeth Moss, too, excels as Wepner’s wife, Phyllis, nailing both the Jersey accent as well as the attitude. And then there’s Naomi Watts, nearly unrecognizable beneath the wig and the fake boobs, stealing every scene in which she appears. (And yes, Stallone – or rather, Chuck’s version of Stallone – also appears, portrayed by Morgan Spector, who nails the actor’s voice and intonation, but not quite the look...mullet notwithstanding.)

Chuck’s tone, too, helps set it off, as right off the bat it’s clearly more interested in being an American Hustle-style boxing film rather than just another overly dramatic story about the successful underdog. Marrying together genuine footage from Wepner’s career, along with recreations seamlessly weaved within, Chuck tells a story that you think might be familiar because you know the Rocky series by heart, but by film’s end, you’ll realize you don’t know anything about the real fighter who went the distance.

Despite the impressive ensemble, Chuck is one of those films that’s easy to write off before giving it a chance – “inspired by a true story” has become the new go-to for marketing films that have even a casual connection to reality – but Chuck impresses with its excellent performances and its reliance on a boxer’s fight against himself rather than a larger, meaner foe. It’s not taking things as seriously as the best Rocky films did, but it doesn’t pull any punches, either. 

Jul 23, 2021

LOST AFTER DARK (2017)

Unless you're someone who enjoys a nice slice of cinematic cheese every so often, the majority of audiences hope that whatever film they've chosen to give the next two hours of their lives will be good, or at least entertaining. No one ever hopes for a bad film. On top of that, certain films command certain higher expectations, either because of the pedigree of talent involved, the source material that's inspired the plot, or because of the gimmick being utilized. Lost After Dark is one of those latter examples. A film built on resurrecting the dead teenager flicks of the 1980s, Lost After Dark had its heart in the right place and its blood all over the walls, but it didn't quite nail the mood, look, and feel it was attempting to evoke.

Speaking of heart in the right place, one thing that can be mentioned in the film's favor is that its adoration for the genre is ever in place, and director Ian Kessner and his co-writer Bo Randsel know their shit. From the cast of characters being named after beloved horror icons (the guys after horror directors, the girls after their muses), to lines of dialogue lifted from famous horror film sequences, even down to the poster design that is pure Jack Sholder's Alone in the Dark, the love that Lost After Dark's creators hold for the slasher genre is palpable and cannot be questioned, but unfortunately that love did not put them on their own path to contributing a memorable edition to the genre, either as a film itself, or at the least as a successful homage.

And that's where things get hairy: straddling the line between successful homage and standalone film. Throwback horror has returned to the genre in a big way over the last decade, ushered in by the likes Ti West's House of the Devil, Jim Mickle's Cold in July, and the Tarantino/Rodriguez opulence fest Grindhouse double feature. However, what Lost After Dark's filmmakers have failed to realize is that titles like House of the Devil or Cold in July or The Guest have something in common: not only do they successfully preserve the era of horror history they are homaging, but even if that aspect sails completely over a viewer's head, on their own they're still excellent films. Your having failed to see titles like Race with the Devil or The Tenant won't lessen your enjoyment of House of the Devil because on its own it still works quite well. If you've never seen a John Carpenter film in your entire life (what a dope!), you'll still be able to enjoy the eerie lunacy of It Follows.

The same can't be said for Lost After Dark, which is depending on your having seen a healthy dose of '80s horror to "get" it, but not offering a fresh take on well-worn concepts. Typical character archetypes are certainly on hand: the virginal lead, the wholesome boy next door, the asshole prepster, his bitchy socialite girlfriend, and yeah, the token black guy, complete with gigantic fake wig and hair pick. Rounding out the cast are the overweight pothead clearly emulating Shelly from Friday the 13th Part 3 (nice touch) and Frank Cunningham, aka Mr. C, who embodies The Shining's Dick Halloran in the form of the kids' high school principal (played by an utterly wasted Robert Patrick). And the filmmakers took great pains to utilize an '80s-infused visual design and texture, right down to the print damage and white speckling (which, weirdly, only show up every once in a while) attempting to give it the appearance of a film that's spent the last thirty years in storage. But very few moments of praise are reserved entirely for when it does circumvent expectations (which can't be discussed without spoilage), but not nearly enough of this kind of free-thinking was on hand to warrant separating Lost After Dark from the rest of its well-meaning but vapid colleagues. 

The more romantic horror fan may find a lot to like about Lost After Dark, being that, as previously mentioned, its heart was in the right place and the dozens of odes to the horror genre (including a cameo from Rick Rosenthal, director of the pretty-good Halloween 2 and pretty-bad Halloween: Resurrection) will possibly make said horror devotee feel warm and fuzzy. As an homage, it ranks somewhere near the bottom of the pile, and as a standalone film judged entirely on its own efforts and not what came before, is hardly worth the effort or your time. Still, with it being a mindless, bloody and seldom clever ninety minutes of mayhem, sometimes for the less discerning horror fan, that can be enough. The throwback movement is still going strong, and thankfully has churned out some great titles, but unfortunately, Lost After Dark is left wandering around in the woods.

Jul 19, 2021

BLOOD MONEY (2017)

  

Day by day, the “boys club” of Lionsgate continues to increase their output. What is this boys club? Why, it’s a cadre of actors who seem to be making a large part of their living by appearing in quiet Lionsgate releases destined for the VOD and DTV market. If there were a President of this club, it would be Bruce Willis. Nicolas Cage would be Vice President. And John Cusack seems to be gunning for a seat at the table.

Shaking loose of the generally underwhelming and tepid thrillers that these actors tend to grasp onto, Blood Money is actually fairly well made and pretty entertaining, stressing characterization as much as plot machinations. This comes courtesy of Lucky McKee, the cult director whose career so far consists of mostly horror titles, including May, his debut and still most celebrated of his career. In my write-up, 20 Alternative Films for Halloween Night, where I covered his second film, The Woods, I’d wondered just what in the world McKee had been up to. And now I know: directing John Cusack thrillers.

And speaking of, John Cusack is a lot of fun in this, trying on a villainous role (which he’s done before), but playing his character as a guy entirely new to crime and sort of recognizing along the way that he’s in over his head. His Miller is an underachiever; someone lazy, uninspired, and not that disciplined, and he derives a lot of unexpected comedy that somehow works. As he frantically fires bullets into the woods at our terrorized kids, he actually apologizes — and you can tell he means it. It’s a little bizarre, but Cusack makes it work, and it honestly makes you like his character, even if you probably shouldn’t.

Helping that conflicted take on his character is the extreme unlikability of another character: Lynne, as played by Willa Fitzgerald. You’ll never encounter a more unlikeable character who is still supposed to be a “good guy” in cinema — ever. Of that I’m confident. Early on she reveals her ruthlessness and selfishness, and from then on it only gets worse. (At one point, even Cusack’s villainous Miller says to her, “You are just a terrible, terrible person,” which is not just the best laugh-line in the movie, but one that puts her entire character in the audience’s crosshairs: I mean, if the villain thinks she’s terrible…) She transitions into such a cold and unfeeling person that the more her two male friends, both of whom are smitten with her, follow along, the more you begin to wonder if McKee and screenwriters Jared Butler and Lars Norbergare are making Blood Money less about an easy payday and more a statement on the utter spinelessness of men and the abuse they’re willing to suffer in the presence of a pretty face. (One of these spineless men is Ellar Coltrane, whose acting has only marginally improved since his appearance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.)

Blood Money is worth a one-time viewing, if for no other reason than to witness Cusack’s odd and at times hilarious villain and some nice directorial flourishes by McKee. Otherwise, it’s a fairly ho-hum thriller with an ending that will leave you extremely aggravated. 

Jul 17, 2021

MATINEE (1993)

Lots of filmmakers, especially those in the horror genre, were just kids during the 1960s when the Cuban Missile Crisis was a real threat to the existence of America and stability of the overall world. (If you’re a fan of the horror genre but have never seen the documentary The American Nightmare, you absolutely should, as this topic is discussed by all its horror director participants.) Living through this experience, while at the same time escaping to the cinema to see an array of B-pictures made by filmmakers eager to exploit this fear with their tales of gigantic insects or mutants caused by radiation, directly inspired many of them to become filmmakers. Joe Dante is definitely among them. 

Matinee is Dante’s ode to both that era of filmmaking as well as the turbulent political times of unrest that inspired it. Primarily known as a director adept at mixing horror and comedy, Matinee is more removed from Dante's generally utilized horror/comedy hybrids, though the genres are still a huge part of the overall experience. What results is an almost Capra-esque look back at what’s still considered to be the height of American exceptionalism, despite the recent memories of World War II still looming large in the minds of citizens and the threat of nuclear annihilation. America (especially the Baby Boomer generation) looks back on the 1950s and believes this was the last time society made sense. Dante captures that blemish-free illusion in spite of the international unrest, and like the fictional Lawrence Woolsey (based on the very real William Castle, director of the original House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler), he looks to the power of cinema as escapism, especially in a genre that would allow Americans to exorcise their fears of the real world and lose themselves in a silly monster movie romp.

In this regard, Matinee is a success; where it falters, however, is in trying to tell too many stories and involving too many characters. Along with the international tensions, the drama of a young boy dealing with his father being stationed on a battleship, and the delight of John Goodman hamming it up as a shuckster filmmaker/promoter, we get not just one, nor two, but three teen love antics, a pair of shadowy and mysterious men covertly subduing crime while working on behalf of Woolsey, and a last-act “destruction” sequence that feels more perfunctory and confusing than it does exciting or thematically appropriate. Dante’s original intention for Matinee was much more mystical and esoteric, and much more firmly rooted in the horror genre, so that the finished product seems unfocused isn’t a surprise.

As a nostalgia piece, Matinee is a delight. As a cohesive narrative, it’s less effective, but Dante’s love for the time period and the silly radiation monster movies of the 1950s’ and ‘60s definitely comes through. This is Joe Dante at his most nostalgic and mature, so with that in mind, Matinee is easy to recommend.

Jul 16, 2021

MISSING ROMERO


In honor of George A. Romero on the anniversary of his death, let's take a moment to remember his cameo in his masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, in which be broke the fourth wall like a total fuckin' boss.