Curse of Chucky (2013) – Review

After 2004’s troubling Seed of Chucky, the near-decade lull suggesting the Child’s Play franchise may have ended was not entirely unwelcome. Inevitably though, a 6th instalment was produced amid a mixture of hopeful anticipation and apathy. The promise of a return to the horror elements of the original 3 as opposed to the splatstick comedy of Bride and Seed certainly had me interested.

Starting off rather slowly, some stock characters are introduced and the film really doesn’t seem comfortable with what direction it’s taking. However, as it progresses many of the stock characters actually develop personalities and their backstories become clearer in a surprisingly well-written manner compared to most horror reboots/sequels (that is, that there’s any characterisation AT ALL). The fact that the film is scaled back to take place almost entirely in a single house allows the plot to be carried along by these characters, the biggest issue again being that it does take a little while for them to become fully fledged characters. The intended suspense surrounding the titular Good Guy doll himself feels half-baked too, as though it’s accepting the inevitability but feels obliged to throw in some faux suspense regardless.

“OH WHAT A LOVELY DOLL I’M SURE IT WON’T TRY AND KILL US”

When Chucky finally does come to life, he brings with him a number of horror set-pieces that, despite the uneasy beginning, consistently hit the mark; be it drawn-out tension such as a Russian Roulette-style dinner sequence, or an all-out gore-filled murder, which are all joyfully explicit in a somewhat ‘Final Destination-esque’ cartoony way. These moments manage that perfect tone where half of viewers will cover their eyes in shock while the other half burst out laughing. It’s a pleasant change to see a horror that isn’t taking itself unduly seriously, and of course Brad Douriff’s non-politically-correct one-liners are present and correct. Chucky himself is obviously a pre-established character and they haven’t messed with his attitude or origins to try and give him an ill-advised ‘modernisation’, and though it seems the filmmakers were obliged to insert two or three naff CGI shots of him, 95% of the time he’s some type of animatronic as in all previous entries so there’s nothing to complain about there.

CGI has it’s place, but Chucky wouldn’t be the same any other way

It’s not until the third act that the film really reaches it’s peak; becoming comfortable with the occasionally brutal, darkly humorous tone it suddenly gets extremely clever, tying up a number of loose ends that more cynical viewers will have noticed, offering plenty of moments to appease fans of the series (especially in a brilliant post-credits scene), and making the film much more intelligent than ‘Child’s Play 6: Chucky kills some people’.

Every still I could find was a massive spoiler, so here’s a promo image

Despite a slow start, this film continuously picks up the pace to become a worthy Child’s Play film and a vast improvement on the last two comedy entries in the series. A tone is found that reflects Chucky’s character brilliantly. The greatest obstacle this film forces itself to overcome is the slow reveal of the eventually well-written characters and plot, whether this is intended or not. Impatient Netflix browsers & channel surfers may be tempted to switch it off after 15 minutes, but it certainly rewards you for sticking through just a little bit longer to the numerous reveals. A sequel has been greenlit so it certainly looks like this entry has put the franchise back on track.

7/10

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The Conjuring (2013) – Review

As a big fan of Insidious and Saw, I was terribly disappointed to see James Wan misstep with Insidious: Chapter 2. Fearing he may have run out of ideas or had been overrun by franchise-whoring producers I was tentative about seeing The Conjuring, worried that his supposed retirement from the horror genre would turn out to be a blessing.

The Conjuring tells the stories of two families in the early 1970’s that inevitably become intertwined; Ed & Lorraine Warren are paranormal investigators; while Carolyn & Roger Perron have just bought an old farmhouse to live with their 5 daughters, a farmhouse that it soon transpires has an unpleasant past that may have left some supernatural remnants. The 1970’s setting with relevant music, and the classic ghost story setup lend it a retro feel (in a good way) for the first part of the film and this feeling is carried through the slow reveal of the horror elements. Rather than relying purely on jump scares and gore, there are countless genuinely creepy scenes in this film. While many of the scares, one could argue, may be derived from previous films, they are pulled off extremely well, often feeling more in place here than in their ‘original’ source. That said, the film’s strength lies in the atmosphere it creates and the intelligence it allows it’s audience to have – at least half of the time a long, suspenseful setup leads to nothing. It knows that you know what may happen, and allows the unease to come from your imagination in these moments. Even most of the jump scares are incredibly effective, either being genuinely unexpected or by misdirecting you through the scene. Shot beautifully on a reasonably high budget of $13 million, camera movement is used to great effect in most shots, sometimes with incredible, head-scratchingly complex acrobatics that lend spectacle to scenes, or with subtle, ‘slightly off’ motions that can make a fairly understated scene feel just a little bit more uneasy.

If in doubt, a creepy doll will do the trick

A very strong cast sells the film even more; while films often struggle to convincingly portray a single central child character, this one manages six key child characters; all great actors that work together really well with great direction that produces some incredible terrified performances. It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving too much away, as it is really a film about a slow reveal and slow build in tension; it isn’t until the shocking finale that it is certain precisely what sort of supernatural element is being dealt with; despite the frequent presence of countless ‘experts’, never does the film’s suspenseful atmosphere get bogged down by trying to give a textbook explanation as to exactly what is happening, precisely what is tormenting them. Even what the presence wants is only suggested throughout the first two acts of the film, all lending a sense of dread and desperation as, since it is unknown what is at stake, it is not entirely clear how to stop it. I struggle to come up with any major negative points, really; only one or two moments felt the slightest bit silly, even to my cynical mindset. The seemingly compulsory suffix to the film that it is ‘based on a true story’ even turns out to be more accurate than I would have imagined, with the real Warrens & Perrons being involved in the making of the film and giving their support to the final product.

It’s behiiiiind you!

Eschewing the modern horror tradition by actually having an ending, a sequel is nonetheless already in development alongside supposed spin-offs, all with James Wan thus far unattached, true to his horror retirement announcement. Completely blowing my reservations prior to seeing this out of the water, if we all pretend that Insidious: Chapter 2 was never actually made, or at the very least that James Wan wasn’t feeling very well when he made it, he leaves behind a series of great horror movies that I say would certainly rank amongst the best of the last 10 years* and this definitely sits beside the first Saw film as one of my favourites of the genre full stop. If he truly has retired from horror I look forward to seeing what he has in store for other genres, starting with Fast & Furious 7.

9/10

*I haven’t seen Dead Silence yet so this statement may be unceremoniously retracted in the future

The Purge (2013) – Review

The Purge comes courtesy of Blumhouse Productions, the production company who in the last year or two have used their Paranormal Activity franchise millions to churn out numerous horrors that manage to balance relatively high production values for the genre and casting of known actors with surprisingly low budgets; never going over $5 million. It is this formula that allows them to take risks on unusual scripts that may be too risky for the Hollywood studios who insist on throwing tens of millions at anything they produce. As is the case with risks, some hit the mark while others don’t. In their defense, I would say more of their non-Paranormal Activity output has been a hit, but unfortunately The Purge is one of the latter ones. We open with a montage of brutal news footage of violent crimes set to the calming sound of Debussy’s Clair De Lune. It is seemingly comprised of a mixture of staged footage & real-life stock clips which really sat uneasily with me – this mixture was very discordant and unsettling and not in a good way. These points obviously don’t apply to the remainder of the film but the sequence distanced me from the film from the offset (understandably a terrible thing to do in a film) and I disagree with the artistic decision made here so I feel it relevant to outline. Of course if I’m wrong and it’s all staged I’ll take these points back.

Into the main film now, leaving the opening sequence behind as much as possible, we are introduced to the high-concept makings of the film; in 2022 the titular Purge is an annual event in America where all crime is made legal for 12 hours, allowing people to loot, rape and murder their night away to release all inner anger and stress. As a result, crime and (somehow) unemployment are at rock-bottom; seemingly everything is perfect; not least for our central family, the father of whom (Ethan Hawke) has turned his fortunes around by selling super security systems to the whole neighborhood. Beside him is his perfect wife (Lena Headey) and two children. The two children are taken straight off the screenwriting stock shelf; a moody teenage girl whose tantrums push the plot along at times alongside her brother who at once manages to be intelligent enough to build and use various Deus ex Machina technologies, yet stupid enough to bring about a number of plot points that had me rolling my eyes more and more each time until I wondered whether they would pop out and roll across the room on their own accord.

“I’m a complete idiot”

The annual Purge, as I mentioned, has brought about major change in what must have been less than 10 years since it’s introduction and the middle to upper classes at least seem to be almost unanimously keen on the concept, with TV events covering the 12 hours, and brief glimpses of the media build-up; radio phone-ins featuring people listing those they intend on murdering, suburban glee surrounding groups of people meeting up to have communal rampages. At once this is rather a cynical view of society; that people, even those who are under stress and pressure, will take such delight in an annual murdering spree catapulting it into a national celebration within a decade, whilst being an overly optimistic view at the same time; that this once-a-year event has in the same short time caused a massive decline in crime, as though the people who commited crimes before will have had their fill for the year thanks to the purge. The film offers some counter-argument from other media sources suggesting it isn’t such a great thing but this is never fully explored, never more than a brief suggestion of another side to the story. With the concept fully outlined in a  manner that is effective and efficient, yet nonetheless contrived, a plot is required, following our family as they aim to sit out The Purge in suburban safety around the creepily-smiley middle-class citizens of their neighborhood.

“Hahaha- I WILL WEAR YOUR SKIN.”

Without spoiling the plot (everything I’ve explained so far is outlined in the first 20 minutes or so), I will say as much as that almost every turn the plot takes and decision characters make seems to be unbelievably stupid. Once our A Clockwork Orange carbon-copy villains inevitably arrive, they regardless have a genuinely unsettling unhinged edge that improves the film somewhat, if detracting from the more original elements previously present (for better or worse). An unpredictable final act often does it’s best to claw back believability, but a key scene introduces a new perspective of The Purge that may have worked if it wasn’t so jarringly sudden and delivered so dreadfully by the actors responsible.

All in all, The Purge is a film that carries on Blumhouse’s trademark knack for high production value, with a great main cast, well-thought out visuals, good pacing and some great unsettling moments, often rather understated, though more times than necessary reverts to cheap jump scares with obnoxious loud noises. However, we all know what one cannot polish, and the basic premise & major plot beats are indeed that.

3/10

Carrie (2013) – Review

Joining the parade of remakes/reboots/sequels/prequels that have filed through our cinema screens for the past few years is this ‘re-imagining’ of the classic Stephen King book. Obviously though the biggest comparisons that will be made are to DePalma’s movie of 1976. Regarded as a classic, I think DePalma did a very good job but there were niggling issues that made me feel quite optimistic about this new version. Perhaps due to being made by a female director, probably simply due to it not being the 1970’s any more, there are no longer lingering, almost voyeuristic scenes of naked high school girls – a fact that no doubt will cause despair amongst the Chloe Moretz-obsessed forums, but this comparison sets the tone for a less gratuitous telling of the story, giving way to deeper exploration of themes and character ties, if still treading the same path as DePalma’s version for better or worse.

We follow Carrie through the story we already know, but Kimberly Peirce injects just enough originality to make it feel fresh, and we are given greater insight into Carrie’s mother, played brilliantly by Julianne Moore. While DePalma pitched her largely as the villain, here she has a more human quality to her, set up by a surprisingly dark opening scene. The emotional impact is dwelled on much more than any horrific element in these sections of the film. Though we want to hate Carrie’s mother for what she’s doing to her daughter, there’s a real fragility in her that prevents the relationship from being completely black & white. In another branch away from the original film, Carrie discovers her powers gradually and endeavours to control them; much to the terror of her mother; in a fairly obvious but effective parallel to any teenager of her age fighting for control of their lives over their parents.

“Pray they don’t try and make a sequel”

In the high school, events follow a path much more similar to the original; Carrie’s classmates and teachers played by a very competent cast it never feels that there’s anything wrong, but there isn’t a sense of much being introduced, beyond the obvious modernisations of the 21st century setting. Despite disappointment at a lack of change in the plot, Kimberly Peirce manages to avoid the exploration of teen bullying becoming too melodramatic that we feel we’re being lectured, but is depicted harshly enough that we feel genuinely sorry for Carrie. It is this sympathy we feel for Carrie that is the greatest success of the film; Chloe Moretz’s casting was criticized as she was considered too pretty to play Carrie, but her and Peirce make a strong case that Carrie doesn’t have to be plain or even ugly, she’s an outcast regardless because she has been raised not to mix with the other girls (and certainly not boys). Moretz plays her with a fragility easily comparable to Spacek, it is in the changes made that she is given the chance to show a strength that Spacek never had the opportunity to showcase.

Teenagers in 2013; still arseholes, just arseholes with technology

Despite all the small successes she achieves, we know that everything won’t be okay for Carrie and the film uses this inevitability to it’s advantage. By the time the prom comes around, everyone knows what is going to happen, but rather than hurry through, the scene is rather extended, really driving the point that Carrie is essentially living her dream, making even the most sociopathic viewer wish for there to somehow be a massive twist and the bucket of pig’s blood somehow doesn’t fall, but every piece of publicity for the film has taken delight in crushing our hopes for a happy ending. Eventually, when the pig’s blood hits the fan, the finale successfully walks the tightrope of giving us a much bigger, more brutal climax with a wider fallout zone than DePalma’s film, but doesn’t go anywhere near suffering from Man of Steel syndrome where the destruction is too big that it switches you off from the plot, nor do Carrie’s incredibly inventive means of despatching students come too close to looking plucked from a Final Destination film. Rather than the ambiguity of the original, the new Carrie definitely intends for all this to happen, and Moretz plays the scene with a disturbing power, really adding to the intensity of the sequence.

She’ll probably be okay…

The film ends, having followed the main beats of DePalma’s version which at times feels like the easy option, feeding the argument that a remake wasn’t perhaps necessary. However, the film was made whether we wanted it or not and I personally am happy with the changes made, giving an emotional impact lasting after the film ends which is unusual for any horror of this era. It doesn’t blow DePalma’s out of the water and it occasionally struggles to maintain it’s own identity but it certainly stands above the majority of remakes that have been carelessly thrown out of studios recently. As a standalone movie, which it should finally be judged as, I see it as one of the best big budget horrors of the last few years.

8/10

The Last Exorcism: Part 2 (2013) – Review

When referring to ‘The Worst Movies Ever Made’, it’s important to be clear on what exactly qualifies. There are films that an individual has absolutely no interest in, in my case that would include those melodramas they show on obscure Sky channels, and probably even many romantic comedies. In such cases, it would be unfair for me to say any one of them is ‘The Worst Movie Ever Made’. Films that are massive successes only for me to find I hate them, such as Mamma Mia!; a film that I despise with every inch of my being; could also not fit in as it is feasible to see how someone who isn’t me may enjoy them and they are capable enough if we consider the target audience. Then we move on to those we know to be truly terrible, but are so spectacularly off-the-mark that they become funny, such as Troll 2 or The Room. These also can’t fit in here I believe as (whether intentional or not) they have a comedy value that is unmatched by deliberately funny films, giving the films a bittersweet redeeming feature after all. There are many terrible films that were produced on essentially no budget, so the mere existence of the films is reflective of dedication and hard work by a small number of individuals so it is unfair to be unduly harsh on these I feel. So now we are left with those films that are produced on reasonable budget, with a supposed level of professionalism behind the production, that we ought to like based on genre and content, that we understand the technicalities of, yet are just absolutely atrocious in ways that make you wonder how they got it so wrong. A film such as The Last Exorcism: Part 2.

The improbably titled sequel to the 2010 found-footage horror didn’t have too much to live up to, after the third act disappointment in the first, where all the rather intriguing religious pondering and uncertain characters were cast aside for a generic occult-shocker explosive finale. Swapping out the found-footage for a standard cinematic style, we pick up very soon after the events of the first, with Nell recovering from the events and put into a doors-unlocked-at-night girls’ rehabilitation home despite firmly believing that the demon Abalam is still intent on acquiring her soul. The following 45 minutes or so feature nothing much in the way of excitement as we follow Nell making friends with her housemates, having completely unintelligent internal religious debate in the form of deciding whether or not to put her crucifix on, meeting a boy for some awkward romance scenes more applicable to a Disney Channel movie, and being terrified by street performers staring at her in carnival masks. Yes, this is an 18-rated horror and we’re somehow supposed to be scared, or at least mildly unsettled, by a normal person looking at us in a mask.

Terrifying. (This is an actual screencap)

Without spoiling the rest of the plot, in the second half of the film the terror is ramped up by a notch (putting it at level one), with some night-time oddness suggesting Abalam is indeed not as far away as Nell was starting to hope. We are now fast-tracked to the third act with a few key characters appearing out of thin air, exposition as to their purpose and how they come to be here explained away by single lines that outline the biggest gripe of the film; it feels like watching a first draft of the script, as though no one looked back and thought “Does this make sense?”, “Could that character be worked into the storyline any more?”, “Could a single bloody moment of this film be even the least bit interesting?”. Apparently they asked none of these questions, because unfortunately the answer to them all is a big “No”. We work our way to the inevitable exorcism scene which unfolds without any real menace or sense of crescendo to the wafer-thin plot.

You WILL watch it til the end!

As I may have mentioned, for what is intended to be a horror movie, this film is not at all scary. We are treated to one or two pooorly-executed jump-scares and the sense of impending doom never grows much stronger than the realisation that the film is still nowhere near finishing. In such a case, where the plot offers no intrigue, and the characters vary from dull to actively dislikable, a horror fan reverts to the promise offered by the 18 certificate on the box: there’ll surely be some delightfully gory or uniquely scary scenes. Well, the final part of the third act comes and sure enough a number of rather unpleasant things happen, the only thing is we don’t get to see any of it explicitly. An argument could be made that this is intelligent, eschewing the joyous brutality of modern torture porn-esque horror but based on the first 70 minutes of screenplay this is certainly not an intelligent film and the first film featured enough finger-snapping, cat-smashing, head-lopping horror that I really don’t think this was their intent. The film ends on a jarring note, on one hand an interesting turn for the story, but on the other hand very derivative of a certain iconic female-fronted horror. It does however leave us with the most terrifying moment of the whole piece; the set up of a Part 3.

The Last Exorcism: Part 2 is a film produced on a reasonable budget for horror of $5 million, with a decent cast; especially Ashley Bell, playing Nell with the same vulnerability she showed in the first film, in key scenes reminiscent of Sissy Spacek in Carrie. The failure of the film is that the screenplay has no polish, there is little to no direction and while shot technically well, it offers no interesting visuals of any kind, save for the aforementioned finale which even then is spoiled by CGI that seems to have been rendered on a PlayStation 2.

Is this the single worst film ever made? Probably not, but it’s certainly amongst the worst ‘well-made’ films I’ve seen, being produced with so many fundemental issues that could have been fixed very easily to salvage the bare bones of the plot that could have made a worthwhile follow-up to the first film. If not the worst of all time, this is certainly the worst I have seen of 2013.

1/10