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

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Meet the Feebles (1989) – Review

When asked to name films starring foul-mouthed, crude puppets many people will only think of the excellent Team America: World Police. However, 15 years before, a then little-known Peter Jackson unleashed his second feature film after Bad Taste; a pastiche of The Muppets, featuring Jim Henson-esque puppets running a small variety show, hoping to make it big on TV. The familiar set-up is really where the comparisons end, as the original tagline for this film suggests; “From the makers of Bad Taste comes a film with no taste at all!”. Behind the scenes of the show a wide range of characters display every vice and taboo one could imagine putting on film; adultery, alcoholism, drug abuse, S&M dungeons, rape, vietnam flashbacks, murder, STDs, and a number of things that would be difficult to put into words, often involving a particularly hideous journalistic fly whose scatological dining habits proved to be a tipping point for at least one person I watched this film with.

Yes, it is what it looks like

The general plot of the film is the run-up to an important show that will decide the fate of the theatre and the Feebles themselves, but much of the film is taken up by the sub-plots surrounding many of the disgraceful characters. Despite most of these plots being disgusting and/or shocking, the way the different plot lines tie into each other is extremely well done so that it doesn’t feel episodic, and the film is consistently very funny provided you have a seriously warped sense of humor. It can’t be said that the characters are well-rounded as all but a small handful are two-dimensionally abhorrent but the spectrum of offensiveness covered in these 90 minutes is quite marvelous and that is definitely the point of this film. It is a sign of relatively sound mental health to come away from this film feeling in some vague, unplaceable way violated, but if anyone is genuinely offended by any aspects I feel they might have missed the point by a mile. In a technical sense, I expected ropey puppets and crude animation but the puppets do have a high quality, Jim Henson-like authenticity and the performances are very good so the marmite quality to this film is drawn purely from the disturbing oddness and midnight-black humor rather than it being so-bad-it’s-good.

“Oh looks it’s the Muppe- OH GOD”

Barely available on DVD in the UK (a poorly-made release from 2003 is selling for £20+ on Amazon) I tracked down an old VHS copy to see this like many others will no doubt be forced to do, but it has been suggested by Peter Jackson himself that once he’s done with a small Hobbit project he’s currently working on he’d like to go back and restore his first films and re-release them with the type of comprehensive packages he is famous for.  I would jump at the chance to own this and see more about it’s production, to see how the hell they managed it for NZ$750,000 (about $600,000), though it ought to come with a warning on the box to prevent any stray, unassuming Lord of the Rings fans from ending up being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress. That said, for any retro-Jackson fan it stands alongside Bad Taste (which I intend to revisit for a review in the very near future) as a brilliant example of the man’s roots in brutal dark humor; a trait that still remains in many of his films, even if for brief glimpses. Until such a re-release I don’t imagine I’ll find myself wanting to be subjected to the horrors of Meet the Feebles again in it’s current VHS form, but that is not a criticism as it sets out to amuse & shock, and there’s no doubt that it does both extremely well, perhaps occasionally TOO well in the latter.

7/10

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

The Phantom of the Opera (1998) – Review

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The Phantom of the Opera is a story most people are familiar with, probably from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s brilliant musical version, the 2004 film adaptation of which, by Joel Schumacher, I’ve seen more times than I can count. When I discovered Dario Argento had made his own adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s classic, much-adapted novel I jumped at the chance.

I am quite forgiving of the bizarre events that often occur in Argento’s films, whether his early Giallos or his all-out horrors, they have a dreamlike quality that allows the viewer to accept certain twists and turns that in another director’s hands would be too outlandish to follow. However, there are moments in this that are quite difficult to come to terms with. Not least the opening sequence, a bit too reminiscent of Batman Returns, we see a screaming baby basket being cast into the river Seine and washed up against rocks in an underground waterfall. Since it’s an italian horror, we have some obligatory shots of rats but this time the rats become far more involved as one swims over to the basket. What would, given any sense of realism, have been one of the most horrific opening scenes in cinema takes a more bizarre turn when the rats take save the baby from drowning, take it in and raise it. After pausing the DVD & sitting, sobbing uncontrollably for a few hours I decided it was best to simply accept this was okay in whatever universe the film exists in an get on with it.

“Dad?”

In fairness, the film does improve once we reach the more familiar plot which has been tweaked somewhat to allow the Phantom to be a bit of a serial killer for reasons not 100% clear, but once again, given the genre in which it lies we shouldn’t have expected anything else. The art direction of the film, for a considerably lower budget, is pretty on par with the Joel Schumacher version that wasn’t made until 6 years later, the lavish opera house and dismal catacombs shot in saturated colours, surely satisfying hopes for Argento’s trademark visuals. Asia Argento is cast as Christine Daaé, in a decision that cynics wouldn’t be entirely wrong to suggest has a lot to do with her father being the director, but  it transpires pretty quickly that she plays the part rather well. Erik/The Phantom however, played by Julian Sands, is the weakest point of the film. Being the title character, it is a somewhat fundamental issue. It’s difficult to say where the blame for the soulless (and not in a good way), bland, and almost completely un-frightening depiction; the script is quite awkwardly written for his character, with stilted romantic language that sounds like the script was written in Italian then translated on google translator, losing some of the point intended – Erik & Christine’s first exchange includes this passage:

Erik: I said nothing. But I caught myself thinking about you. Thoughts that surprise me. And I’m not easily surprised.

Christine: Thinking about me? Why?

Erik: I wanted to tell you, your voice fills my heart with divine light. Listening to you is sublime, wonderful. This must be our secret. Tell nobody, then no one will know. We’ll meet again.

The blame can’t entirely go on the script however, because there have been plenty of roles with flowery language and odd metaphors that actors have pulled off convincingly enough. It really feels that Sands either phoned this role in, or simply wasn’t suited to it. We’ve seen Gerard Butler on film and countless others on stage toe the line of mysterious & seductive with a fearful edge of creepiness and danger in portraying Erik, but Sands errs far too far on the side of outright sleazy creepiness. What romanticism may lie in the awkwardly written script is delivered with a desire and emotion of a Tesco checkout assistant. While the film does well in creating an air of melancholy around the legend of the phantom and any scenes where he’s ominously present yet unseen, as soon as Erik has a major part in a scene, be it with Christine or in one of his kills, there’s nothing.

He’s even sent Christine to sleep

The horror elements of this film don’t all feel shoved in unnecessarily; while we’re not too sure why Erik kills people beyond protecting his ‘home’, the sequences do fit into the reworked plot and are pulled off with a skill that we’d expect from Argento, offering his trademark beautifully choreographed violence and one or two great chases in the labyrinthine, claustrophobic catacombs. The famous chandelier scene is recreated excellently here, referencing the 1925 silent movie’s already brilliant sequence whilst taking it many steps further with some gruesome shots that would never have been acceptable in those times. It’s this pairing of sumptuous period romance and gruesome italian horror that could have gone terribly but works well. As with this style of film, there are plenty of scenes that don’t make complete sense or are jarringly odd, such as rooftop scenes featuring horrendous computer effects and laugh-out-loud dream sequences, plus another scene with a brief suggestion that Erik may have grown closer to his rodent companions that we’d ever like to imagine, but for any Euro-horror fan it would almost be disappointing for there not to be such oddnesss. However, an incredibly derivative subplot that I can only imagine is meant to be comic relief does it’s best to destroy the film, featuring a rat-catcher and his dwarf companion building a steampunk-styled sweeper cart complete with spinning blades upon which they tear down the catacombs sweeping up, blending and slicing rats before a ‘hilarious’ mishap. If it were one single scene, I’d recommend anyone watching skips it on their DVD but it’s interspersed throughout the film so even that isn’t possible. This subplot has absolutely no bearing to the rest of the film so the decision not to cut it is unforgivable in my opinion.

They say seeing is believing, but even that isn’t enough in this case

It’s fair to say that I have very mixed feeling on this film. It being my first ‘modern’ Argento movie, it wasn’t the train wreck I’d been lead to believe his career had become and (rat-sweeper carts aside) I have come to expect a level of incredulity when watching these films. It didn’t feel like a video nasty with delusions of grandeur as I’d feared it might, the tone of the film was pretty spot-on for the most part, with the mis-casting of Erik being a massive shame, as with a good Phantom this could have been a great, if still flawed, horrific take on the dark tale. All in all it’s an entertaining (if sometimes baffling and frustrating) watch, especially for fans of Argento or other European horror greats who like other versions of Phantom of the Opera.

6/10