Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

I was about to write The Conjuring off as just another haunted house flick, but then I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the back story, and it piqued my interest. It's not simply an isolated story about a family moving into a haunted house, but it introduces the real life characters Ed and Lorraine Warren, a demonologist and clairvoyant, who spent their lives helping people deal with hauntings. Intriguingly, they spent a lot of their time debunking people's fears over everyday occurrences (like leaky pipes making noises at night), but also saw enough action to collect a whole room filled with haunted antiques and trinkets, almost like souvenirs of every ghost or demon they came up against.

The Conjuring introduces these characters (played by Patrick Wilson - I imagine not coincidentally, James Wan, who directed Insidious, also starring Patrick Wilson, directs this feature - and Vera Farmiga), then focuses on what has been described as the most disturbing case they ever participated on. That should be enough to get you interested, but in spite of the hype, it develops quite like other stories you've heard before (I'm looking at you, Amityville Horror). A family with five growing girls moves into a country house in Rhode Island and is subsequently tormented by a malevolent paranormal entity. The requisite noises, sightings, smells, and various poltergeist activity occur, prompting the involvement of the Warren team, before this demonic haunting escalates to the level of full-on possession, requiring an exorcism.

As a horror buff, I am quite used to going to the theater (on the rare occasion that I do), and sitting in a practically empty auditorium, while everybody else is watching the latest blockbuster or animated feature. To my surprise, the theater was packed for The Conjuring (and I mean packed - like, I think a few people were actually sitting in the aisles). This was probably because I ended up seeing it on a Saturday night, at the only theater in town, on opening weekend; but nevertheless, I was halfway pleased and halfway frustrated to learn that there were still people (including lots of young people) who are not genre buffs, who still like to go to a horror movie on occasion to get a good scare. I could tell that there was a lot of that sentiment in the theater that night.

Which is great, but also a little frustrating, because there was a lot of giggling at inappropriate moments (I know people have a tendency to laugh when they're nervous, but this was a bit much), and people breaking the tension in those suspenseful moments because you could tell they hadn't developed as thick a skin as you for those anticipatory scares (where you know something's coming, and you just have to wait for it to strike...or not (cue whimpering teenagers :p)). With that said, it's a credit to this movie that it still managed to genuinely scare me in some parts, despite the reigning atmosphere in the theater. It doesn't nearly reach the level of, say, Paranormal Activity - however, I'm glad to see that some of the techniques used in PA are being adapted to more traditional perspective ghost movies (night time leg pulling was particularly prevalent in this movie).

To sum up my opinion on this movie, I think it was a really fun and effectively scary haunted house movie. It builds to an exciting climax, and it certainly has some unique elements that set it apart from every other haunted house movie you've seen. At the same time, those elements are maybe not quite strong enough, and you do kind of come out of the movie thinking, "well, that was great, but it didn't really show me anything I haven't seen before". In the media, the movie is being compared to both Poltergeist and The Exorcist, and while it does create a captivating meld of the two scenarios, as an exorcist movie it simply can't compare (as no exorcist movie I've seen can) to the exhausting battle between good and evil in The Exorcist, and as a ghost movie, it still doesn't quite reach the level of extravagance that made Poltergeist so memorable.

And here's something a little more personal. When I see a ghost/haunted house/possession movie, I'm always excited when the medium or paranormal investigator explains that the entity in question is not a ghost - the spirit of a deceased person - but a demon - something far more sinister, and more powerful, that has never walked the Earth in human form. This is a popular trend in horror (as opposed to, say, paranormal drama), for obvious reasons - as it makes a more exciting (and scary) story. But I'm always inevitably disappointed because when I hear demon, I want to see some kind of evil, otherworldly, inhuman monster, but you almost never get to see it - only its indirect manipulation of physical objects, or if it possesses a human, nothing more than fx to make a human face scary.

I mean, Ed Warren describes himself as a "demonologist". I don't have any formal education or anything, but I've spent some time studying demonology because - even though I don't believe in it, I think it's a fascinating subject. And in a movie about demons and demonologists, I'd love to hear more about demonology, and get to actually see some demons wreaking havoc the way they love to do. I mean, if the only difference between a demon and a ghost is that a demon is more aggressive and less sympathetic, then it's still practically a ghost, just a stronger, meaner one.

And I would also love a deeper exploration of the supernatural rules that govern these spirits and the way they affect the physical world. I think there's typically the trend to rely on Christian (and sometimes other belief systems) mysticism, in this case presuming that there's a God, and that people have souls, and that if a demon possesses you, only the power of Christ can compel it to leave your body, and etc. I'm not saying you can't use that framework, but it shouldn't be a crutch to avoid explaining how all these things work. I know, if you just want to tell a spooky story to creep people out, the why of it all doesn't much matter. But I think that, not only would it be more original, but it would also be far more interesting if you went in to the mechanism behind what's happening, even so far as to dig into that spirit realm where all this turmoil is originating. Insidious actually did that, to some extent, which contributes to the originality of that picture. But I want to see more, and I want to see it as much in the context of straight horror as dark fantasy.

I swear, if I were a screenwriter or a filmmaker...

Anyway... I may not be able to say that The Conjuring is a groundbreaking or truly unforgettable movie, but (in spite of whatever criticisms I might have) it is an effective horror, and it does manage to make itself memorable among the recent slew of movies involved with the theme of hauntings and exorcism. And if you like those kinds of movies, then you should definitely see this one. Alternatively, if you're more of a casual fan, and just want something in a fun scare, it's pretty much guaranteed that your girlfriend will be all over you through this one. ;-)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012)

Just for the record, I probably wouldn't have sought out this movie on my own. Though I love zombie movies, I'm not usually much for comedies - they just don't get me excited like serious movies do. And I want zombies to be scary, not funny. Nevertheless, my roommate has been on something of a zombie binge lately (we saw World War Z together a few weeks ago), and it's practically the only subgenre of horror she sincerely appreciates, so I like to encourage it as much as possible. That having been said, she likes comedies a whole lot more than I do. But, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to see another zombie movie (hey, I even gave Zombie Strippers a chance :p).

In short, Cockneys vs. Zombies does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a humorous, tongue-in-cheek movie about the zombie apocalypse centralized in East London, populated entirely by a cast that speaks with Cockney accents. As someone who doesn't totally appreciate comedies, I can, however, say that it's a well put-together and entertaining movie, and I couldn't in all honesty say that it was a waste of my time. I still maintain that the only zomcom I really like is the original Return of the Living Dead. But, if you're into comedic zombie movies, and especially if you liked Shaun of the Dead, I think you'll probably dig this movie. If that sounds like you, then by all means, give it a try.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

So I borrowed a friend's DVD and finally got to watch Django Unchained, which came out at the end of last year. It's basically Quentin Tarantino doing a blaxploitation western (southern?). It's very much in the recent vein (of which Tarantino is a leading proponent, along with Robert Rodriguez - see Planet Terror, Death Proof, Machete, etc.) of homages to the classic era of grindhouse cinema. Also, in the same way that Kill Bill was Tarantino's take on the martial arts flick, this movie in some ways recalls the genre of "spaghetti" (Italian) western films, of which it draws much inspiration (the original "Django" - which spawned innumerable unofficial sequels - was one such film).

Django Unchained is a bit of a slow burner, with a runtime approaching three hours. But it's infected with Quentin Tarantino's signature style of humor and social commentary, which keeps you immersed, until it builds to its satisfying climax, which is unashamedly awash in Tarantino's typical brand of ultraviolence.

It's not only fun and exciting, but also racially rewarding, as although the film is populated largely with racist characters (the story takes place two years before the civil war), vengeance is ultimately exacted upon the racist characters by the badass black hero - Django himself - and there exists at least one black villain and at least one white hero, to avoid over-generalizing racial stereotypes.

As for the premise (for those of you who are curious as to what this movie is actually about), the story follows a German immigrant (the quirky and polite Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz) who is employed in the U.S. as a bounty hunter. He tracks down and frees a slave by the name of Django (an intimidating Jamie Foxx) to help him I.D. one of his targets, and the two become unlikely but amiable partners.

Eventually, in search of Django's wife, the pair come up against a sadistically enterprising plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio's Monsieur Candie), aided by his head house slave (an idiosyncratic performance by Samuel L. Jackson). Our heroes concoct a dangerous ruse that involves feigning an interest in Mandingo-fighting (think cock-fighting but with human beings), and march right into the belly of the beast: a plantation deceptively named Candie Land.

The resulting suspense and inevitable standoff is nothing short of cinematic fireworks, and I recommend you see it for yourself.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sinister (2012)

I heard about Sinister when leading actor Ethan Hawke did an AMA on reddit recently. Then I started noticing it being mentioned alongside Insidious as one of the great horror movies of the past few years. So I figured those two titles would make a good double feature (well, I put a couple of days between them, but still...). Insidious was good, and a lot of fun, but I liked Sinister even better.

It starts out with a fantastic premise. A true crime author moves his family into the house where a horrible crime was committed, clinging to the hope that his next book will be the breakout success that brings him all the fortune he needs to continue providing for his family. But here's where it gets really interesting. He finds a mysterious box of super 8 film reels in the attic, which turns out to be a collection of snuff films cleverly disguised as home movies, apparently recorded by a serial killer who takes the act of recording his crimes to the level of an art. (As an aside, that means it's sort of a movie about found footage but not actually a found footage movie). The author researches the crimes for his book, and some weird stuff starts happening and he gets a little closer to them than perhaps he ought to.

Depending on how little you like to know about a movie before you go and see it, you might consider the rest of this paragraph to contain some spoilers. So consider yourself warned. As intrigued as I was by the idea of an intelligent serial killer putting together this disturbing puzzle of a crime mystery, there turns out to be a supernatural element involved, as the crimes are ritualistic in nature, and seem to have been performed to appease an ancient demon that feeds on children. When the author consults a professor of the occult, we also learn that the demon (Bughuul, or Mr. Boogie to the kids) has, as the legends claim, the ability - otherwise rightly relegated to superstition - to affect people through the power of images (and in modern days, videos), causing them to perform terrible acts by viewing depictions of past atrocities. In real life, this belief frustrates me to no end, but in fiction it can be very powerful - especially as a metaphorical or symbolic tool. This theme reminds me of Cigarette Burns, one of my favorite episodes from the first season of Masters of Horror.

Alright, no more spoilers.

The film begins to edge somewhat into cliche territory toward the end, when we see how the author's obsession is tearing the family apart, and when he finally "wises up" and does what any rational person would do, instead of the things he'd been doing that actually make the movie interesting to watch (namely, getting closer to the murders and not steering clear of them). But, without saying too much, I think the ending makes up for it.

Sinister is a pretty creepy movie, that doesn't shy away from confronting the dark side of human (and inhuman) nature. But most importantly, it's an intelligent and a creative movie, the kind that doesn't just entertain me with blood and guts and a foreboding atmosphere, but one that actually intrigues me and inspires me, and starts my mind churning with ideas. And as not just a consumer, but as an artist and a writer and a creator, that's really one of the best things I can ask for from a movie.

Ultimately, your tastes may not match mine, but I am going to have to highly recommend this movie nonetheless.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Insidious (2010)

I didn't notice when Insidious first came out - it's one of those titles that flew under my radar. But recently, I've been hearing about it a lot, usually in the context of being touted as one of the few really good (and effective) horror movies to come out in the past several years, among dozens of flops and mediocre titles. And with the sequel being advertised now (I saw the trailer for it when I went to see World War Z), I figured the first was one that I had to watch.

I didn't really know what to expect from this movie, as I hadn't read much about the actual plot beforehand. I think I had some idea that it had to do with ghosts. So I started watching it, and I was thinking to myself, okay, what can they do with a haunted house story to make it fresh and original? And, truthfully, they pretty much hit it out of the ballpark.

The movie sorta has two acts. In the first act, we're introduced to a cozy family and get a peek at their home life. Then, in typical haunted house fashion, things start to get weird, the family members get stressed out, and the audience is treated to some nice scares. This is all stuff we've seen before - but it's done really well. The characters are genuine and likable, and they actually react plausibly to the haunting. I mean, when was the last time you watched a haunted house movie where the family actually moves houses after shit starts getting weird? Yeah.

So then we get to the second act, and this is where Insidious really pulls itself ahead of the pack. Without dropping the horror, the story takes on more of a sci-fi/fantasy flavor and - I don't think this is really a spoiler, but if you want to be as surprised at the change of direction as I was, go watch the movie now and then come back and read the rest of this review - introduces the theme of astral projection and spirit worlds.

And you know what? I'm not going to say that the execution is perfect, but I still think that's fantastic. So many movies tell a good old-fashioned human story of horror, but shy away from entering a world of fantasy and imagination. Imagination can be horrible too, you know. I'm talking about movies like Event Horizon, or Drag Me To Hell, which end right where they should be beginning - when the character gets to Hell. Or movies like The Silent House, which craft an effective atmosphere, but then are afraid to speculate on the world of the supernatural.

Insidious is, in some ways, a cross between Poltergeist and Beetlejuice (albeit with the balance tipped toward horror/drama rather than comedy). I also got a sense of The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez, also about a dream world populated by dangerous entities. Plus, Insidious has a certain style to it, and an idiosyncratic soundtrack, that at times recalls that old carnival haunted house aesthetic. Patrick Wilson (the creep in Hard Candy, or The Watchmen's Nite Owl, if you prefer) and Rose Byrne (the military chick in 28 Weeks Later!) are both excellent as the leading couple, and Lin Shaye is very charismatic as the medium who leads the affected family through one of the most original and action-packed séances I've ever seen on the silver screen.

I'm not quite prepared to list Insidious as one of my favorite horror movies ever, and my opinion of modern horror is perhaps not so picky as other fans, but this was a very good movie, very original, and I highly recommend it. I am now looking forward to the sequel, although having seen the ending to the first movie, I'm kind of wondering how what I saw in the trailer fits together. But I guess I'll find out when I see it!