“The Conjuring” – A haunted house done right

Ironically enough, exactly 12 hours after I finished watching the ghastly “The Cabin in the Woods”, I ventured to the cinema to see James Wan’s newest and (allegedly) ‘bestest’ creation – “The Conjuring”. Now, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to have been following the hype train behind this particular release that’s been going on for months now. Anyone remotely interested in what’s happening in Hollywood will probably know that “The Conjuring” has managed to rake in quite a reputation even before a single person watched it by gaining an R-rating from the MPAA based solely on the constant sense of threat it projects all throughout. Now, that’s something to look forward to, because more often than not, an R-rating gets slapped on a film due to explicit content, harsh language, or extreme violence.

On a tangential note, Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” actually had to be trimmed down in order to get the R-rating, otherwise it would retain its initial (dreaded by masses, loved by the geeks) NC-17 category, which basically guarantees a horror experience to remember, but neuters potential box office revenue.

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Weeks of extensive viral campaign promoting “The Conjuring”, that included playing the ‘based on a true story’ card behind the film’s plot and releasing trailers that showed the very family portrayed in the film, have brought my expectations to astronomical levels. I’m not usually the one to jump on a band-wagon, but this time I had really high hopes for “The Conjuring”…

…And it delivered!

For those of you who don’t quite know, “The Conjuring” is a story (based on true events, but who knows… that term means absolutely nothing within the horror genre, as far as I know) about Ed and Lorraine Warren’s one of the most terrifying case – The Harrisville haunting. You can look it all up in the interwebs and if you’re susceptible to anything like that, then “The Conjuring” will play into your fears even better, than it did for me.

In the film we are introduced to the Perron family who have just about moved to their newly-bought house in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The stage is set in a very usual way with the Perrons moving in. The boxes are being unpacked, the children run around playing and discovering the house, while Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) dwell in the prospect of a slow and peaceful life in the country. Not long thereafter strange things start happening. Lili keeps finding bruises on her body, their dog refuses to enter the house, the girls keep complaining about awful stench in random places around the house, and to top it all off, all the clocks seem to stop every night at 3:07. It doesn’t take long for the Perrons to realize something’s off about the house and when the occurrences increase in intensity and frequency, they decide to seek help by contacting a well-known pair of paranormal investigators – Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). The couple quickly identifies the problem, as they reveal to the family that they are indeed being molested by a being of demonic origin solving the problem might require some desperate measures.

I find it truly amazing in this day and age, when we are being constantly exposed to top end special effects, that a film having none of it would actually be effective as a horror. It would seem that in the era of sensory overload, a horror film needs to push some serious boundaries by showing ultra-realistic no-holds-barred violence, or shock the viewer in some different way, because our collective senses have been numbed by the onslaught of shocker films that has been flooding the cinemas for the last 15 years or so. The only things you’d find in James Wan’s “The Conjuring” are sound and music effects, props and creative use of optics, but the end result is simply stunning.

I’m still not convinced, though, whether this film really is the scariest of them all, but it sure is effective with some creative jump scares scattered all throughout the film. I’ll have to be frank, however, in saying that for a horror veteran some of the scare tactics are well known, but even with that in mind, I had a blast watching it and while I might have anticipated some of the scary moments, they still were executed with perfection and creative thought behind them. What in my opinion helps a great deal to elevate even the most mundane of scares is the overall tone of the film, which reeks of threat from start to finish and doesn’t really slow down.

 

In short, in terms of horror effect, “The Conjuring” is everything that “Insidious” failed to become. While the latter had very successful scares and the mood was just right in the first two acts, it all went downhill the minute the cat was out of the bag. In here, though, the fact we learn what is troubling the Perrons together with the presence of paranormal researchers/exorcists does not provide the viewer with any sense of security. The dread and the scares keep ramping up relentlessly, becoming more and more frequent as the demonic presence becomes more and more hell-bent on hurting the protagonists. All that serves as a well-crafted build-up to a pretty powerful climax that serves the film justice. All too often a potentially great horror film will be destroyed by its third act, or even the last 5 minutes (“Mama” for instance), but this time around, James Wan seems to have learned his lesson. I don’t want to spoil the ending by discussing it and/or comparing it to a timeless horror classic, a name of which shall not be mentioned (and I can only take the ending as a reference to that classic), but whilst not entirely original, the big finale of “The Conjuring” fits very well within the plot development.

So, the story is nicely paced, the scares are pretty darn effective and “The Conjuring” in general makes the viewer feel uneasy the whole time, so as a horror, it’s almost a perfect 10 (not that I will ever start giving out marks). Nevertheless, this cute picture has a few cracks and smudges that could have been done better in my humble opinion. As it is usual with horrors, sometimes the writers take leaps in logic, or even omit certain aspects of the story, as if they weren’t interesting or relevant to the film in its entirety. While some potential logical flashpoints are addressed and explained within the story (like the reason Perrons cannot simply move out of the house), others, Like Ed Warren’s role in the climax, are completely glossed over for the sake of keeping the pace up. I am well aware that both the pacing and time constraints of the full-feature film do not allow exploration of all the tangents and side-line characters, but at times a sentence or two (or even maybe a single take without any dialogue) would suffice to keep the holes in logic from expanding.

In the end, I think “The Conjuring” might not have been the scariest experience of my life – this is a topic for a separate article – but it most definitely worked as a well-crafted horror movie. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that “The Conjuring” could be seen as a potential reference for other films within the sub-genre of haunted house/possession horrors, because James Wan has clearly shown that a good film of that sort doesn’t need much money or special effects to do its job.

My only worry is that “The Conjuring” leaves the door propped open for a potential string of sequels based on other Warren cases. While horrors are mostly immune to sequelitis and they handle proliferation rather well (until a certain point, of course) I fear that whoever is going to take over the gig after Wan might bastardize the image “The Conjuring” has built through its creativity and adherence to the classical rules of horror.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #4 – “The Cabin in the Woods”

At this point I think I am forced to call ‘bullshit’, because I am having a real difficulty understanding, why “The Cabin in the Woods” is being universally hailed by the critics as the most magnificent and genre-redefining horror in recent history; the 92% critical score on RT is not an easy feat to achieve. I have to say that during its theatrical release, I almost ended up buying the ticket to see it, but was instead coerced to see “The Hunger Games” and given my indifference bordering on disdain towards the latter, now I can safely admit I am glad to have seen Jennifer Lawrence run about with a bow in this mediocre young-adult version of “Battle Royale”.  That’s right, because “The Cabin in the Woods” sucked so bad, I couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind could enjoy watching it, let alone praise it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pay diddly-squat to watch it, as it is available on Netflix – not that you should go and watch it anyway…

Right, so I decided to give this film a go, sat down in the dark just after midnight, put my headphones on and pressed ‘play’. So theoretically, I had everything one would possibly need (darkness, solitude and sensory exclusion from the outside world) to watch a horror film and get the most of it, but by the end of this 95-minute-long ordeal I couldn’t stop laughing – and not for good reasons – as I could only think in memes that involved Patrick Stewart as captain Picard.

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Plotwise, “The Cabin in the Woods” is basically “Evil Dead” with a twist. You’ve got your bunch of friends (Kristen Connoly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams) who hop into an RV and head for the mountains to spend a weekend in a secluded titular cabin in the woods. Normally, in a horror scenario, there would be demon, a family of inbred cannibals, a serial killer, or a deadly virus waiting for them, but this is where “The Cabin in the Woods” serves you a twist to the genre. It turns out that their weekend excursion is a meticulously devised ploy to trap them in the middle of nowhere and rain horror on their heads. You see, beneath the cabin there’s an underground command center of some sort ran by God-knows-who, whose employees find young people, make them come to the cabin and unleash something bad onto them for some weird reason.

The group settles into the cabin, we get to know the characters and identify the archetypes here and there, so that we have a better idea who dies first and why. Soon thereafter, the guys find a ‘hidden’ cellar filled with various knick-knacks and they end up reading a passage from an old diary that somehow brings a family of zombies wielding farming tools to murder them… and the hunt begins…

I said it once and I’ll say it again: I have no idea why this film scored so many gongs. First of all, it’s not even a horror film, because there’s maybe one scene that made me feel not indifferent and it had nothing to do with the violence, the hunt, the zombies, or any other shenanigans that ensue in the third act; and let’s face it – by the end of the movie everything goes bananas and “The Cabin in the Woods” loses any shred of decency by the time the credits start rolling. And cheap-looking werewolves, Jabba the Hutt miniatures, or poorly designed CG giant snakes and spiders are not really helping… So, in the interest of clarity, “The Cabin in the Woods” fails terribly in delivering a horror experience. I understand that certain films within the genre don’t intend to scare like haunted house films would, but what I have just seen here is beyond reproach. I don’t want to draw any parallels towards this year’s “Evil Dead” remake, which would make a perfect example how a secluded cabin scenario can be played, so that the viewer ends up overdosed on adrenaline, but I think it would simply come across as cruel.

 

I didn’t care about wooden acting, as I see it more as a staple of the entire genre, but it’s the story and execution that made this film such a torment for me. What I was looking for, was an adrenaline rush filled with tense moments, a hefty amount of violence and a fast-paced survival horror. Well, I got nothing… “The Cabin in the Woods” is not scary at all and the violence it sports is far from what you’d want to see in a horror movie. It’s all cheap thrills and red sauce (and I’m convinced that most of the blood and gore was CG) punctuated with attempted comedic relief served in a salad that’s simply inedible.

I think I understand what the creators were trying to achieve with “The Cabin in the Woods”, with the not-so-subtle references and the overall comedic tone of the film, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t work for me. It seems that every now and again somebody out there will try and come out with a film that’s intended as pastiche that turns the genre on its head and plays on clichés and archetypes commonly associated with it to create a new and refreshing look at a horror film. But there’s a line which should not be crossed.

A perfect example of a genre-redefining pastiche is “Scream” by Wes Craven, which plays all the notes a movie geek will recognize, tells a story that’s very typical and filled with your standard character types, but serves the genre justice. The film stays true to its roots and retains seriousness, so the violence is real, gore is real and the scares are real. On top of that, we are all engaged in the story by trying to figure out who the killer is, and while the plot is simply a variation on the icons of the genre, “Scream” never ever crosses the line and descends into pointless comedy. Sure, I had a laugh or two while seeing it, but laughing with the film is completely separate from laughing at the film – which I did profusely whilst watching “The Cabin in the Woods”.

Whoop-dee-flippin-doo, “The Cabin in the Woods” not only crossed the line between a pastiche and a downright mockery, but pretty much danced a cha-cha on it, as if to piss me off. Simply put, this film is “The Scary Movie” of the survival horror sub-genre, because it comes really close to being disgustingly stupid and not at all funny. It’s a cheap hunk of poor horror that wants to be smart but isn’t. I am seriously considering taking the time and effort to track down all the critics who called this piece of garbage ‘genre-redefining’ and throw feces at their houses – that’s how terrible this film was. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, but some jokes are so stupid you actually feel sorry for the poor schmuck who came up with it while at the same time you feel annoyed at yourself for actually agreeing to listen to it in the first place. A waste of time – that’s what this film is…

And one more thing: Sigourney Weaver should really consider retiring… Just saying…

 

“Evil Dead (2013)” – The Rollercoaster Of Gore

Finally, the demons are out… This mind is clear… for a minute. I can’t believe I actually got round to writing this after a couple of rants I had to go on in order to keep my brain working properly. It was a busy week film-wise and in order to make the most of it I ended up spending my entire Tuesday evening in the cinema watching movies back to back.

Ok, that would be enough waffle, thank you very much. I’m not very big on remakes and if you had the pleasure to read what I think about Hollywood at the minute, you’d know that going to see the remake of “Evil Dead” didn’t come all that easy. Especially when it comes to remaking the horror genre in particular, the effects are most often piss poor, but that’s not why I’m here now, is it?

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What I think helped ease me into how Fede Alvarez envisioned bringing Sam Raimi’s debut feature back from the dead, was a simple fact that up until last week I hadn’t seen the original. I quickly corrected that little detail and thus went to the cinema prepared rather well (well, I failed to re-watch the sequels, but I’ll get on with them soon enough, just to keep the atmosphere alive for a little while longer).

Well, I should really emphasize that the final moments leading up the projection made my heart go a bit faster, as I clearly had fallen prey to “Evil Dead’s” viral campaign of ‘how this film is supposed to mess you up for life’. So, there I was sitting in silence surrounded a bunch of strangers. Some a-hole screamed, as if to reassure everyone that he wasn’t anxious. The lights went dim… I blinked… for one last time… And it was all over. All of a sudden, 90 minutes of my life just raced in front of my eyes and I woke up after the post-credit teaser (Yes, there is one. Stay there and look at it).

What I felt while leaving my seat can’t be easily put into words. The closest analogue of that would be the feeling you have having just left a rollercoaster ride, and not just a rollercoaster ride; it’s the rollercoaster ride you’d remember till the end of your days. The amount of adrenaline streaming down my veins could easily wake up a couple of corpses. “Evil Dead” made me feel happy to be alive, so to speak, as if I just had dodged death by an inch or something to that effect.

Emotions aside, “Evil dead” in the eyes of Fede Alvarez took Raimi’s debut made on a nonexistent budget and elevated it to the modern standards – in a good way. If anything, this is how remakes should be done, in my opinion. 30 years ago, the original “Evil Dead” scared the living poop out of countless thousands of people. Now, you can look at it only in two ways: either with reverential respect to a timeless classic, or with a weird grin on your face pondering, how something like that could have scared anyone in the first place. This is what time does to films like that – horrors especially. Films that draw on emotional responses (threat, fear, disgust) wear off after a while, and decades after, they’re simply dead. It takes a passionate individual who understands the matter he is sculpting to carve it out into a film that would revive said emotions and hopefully amplify them in a way, so that the remake can stand on its own two feet.

This time it worked in a phenomenal way.

2013’s “Evil Dead” starts off with the very same concept as the original. A group of friends travels to a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere. Contrary to the original, however, instead of trying to kick back in the wilderness, these individuals are on a mission. They are trying to help one of them – Mia (Jane Levy) – tackle her drug problem. Some people say that the film spends far too much time establishing the characters, but I don’t really have a problem with that. Fair enough, maybe we could theorize that the film doesn’t need David (Shiloh Fernandez) to spell it out for everyone, how messed up his relationship with Mia really was. But then again, a horror needs to do that; otherwise the butchering that comes next would be irrelevant. If I don’t care about the characters, then it doesn’t matter how many appendages they will have chopped off. I believe Alvarez was fully aware of that, so he spent nearly half the film making me care. Good.

 

Where was I? Right, a handful of friends arrive at the cabin, where they discover a variety of tools (their existence is well explained, no plot holes there), which makes the whole cabin look like a gigantic Chekhov’s gun, as you know these tools will be used sooner than you think to torture our characters. They also stumble upon some nasty witchcraft-related things in the basement, among which they find a book. A book written in blood, with some really nasty imagery, with a cover made of skin (human skin), wrapped in plastic and barbed wire – clearly someone went to ridiculous lengths to make sure no-one would read it. And of course, among our protagonists there’s Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) – a self-proclaimed scientist who sees challenges where everyone else would see a warning. Therefore he un-wraps the book and takes his time to decipher some incantations found within. When he reads them aloud (as I would too, fellow scientists would understand) – the horror begins… A demon wakes up in the woods and he will not stop until he has feasted on their souls… starting off with Mia. Initially nobody wants to believe her, when she spouts nonsense about things she saw in the forest or the dark presence she felt in the cabin, dismissing them as detox-related hallucinations. Shortly thereafter, people start dying and the blood starts spilling. And it doesn’t stop until the very last second of the film.

Hands down, “Evil Dead” is by far the bloodiest, most violent film I have seen. However, contrary to what I had expected, my stomach handled everything splendidly. Maybe the fact I knew I was watching a work of fiction had something to do with it, but I had worse reactions to “127 hours” and “The Impossible” in recent memory. Anyway, when the gore machine started rolling, it didn’t leave any room for breathing. In all actuality, the pacing of the film felt a bit like a rollercoaster ride, wherein you spent 90 seconds going up very slowly in waiting only to spend another 90 seconds screaming like a little girl. It was exactly like that. I would never think a horror movie could be that exhilarating. And by the end it was just bananas. Blood everywhere, severed limbs, nails, chainsaws, box-cutters – the whole shebang.

In summary, I had a blast. The special effects were very (!!!) convincing, the blood and gore were properly disgusting and the sense of threat was unrelenting. Each minute of the film – once the slaughter had started – kept cranking up the gain on the horror. As a result the big finale was simply unforgettable. Due homage was paid to Sam Raimi (a couple of his signature close-up wide-angle shots and a handful of props pointing to the original), but as a whole Alvarez managed to keep a good amount of individuality. His take on “Evil dead” is seriously scary and violent, but it manages to be funny at times of the greatest carnage. In fact, the whole idea of Pucci’s scientist character borders on hilarious, especially when you consider how big of a beating this guy takes in the film.

If there are remakes that stand above the shameful crowd of knock-offs, “Evil Dead” is surely one of them. It’s a nearly perfect horror movie that doesn’t have the desire to join the club of any mainstream sub-genres. If anything, I would expect others to jump on the “Evil Dead” band wagon soon enough and start the wave of ‘torture porn meets The Exorcist’.

The Blind Spot #2 – “Evil Dead” (1981)

It has just occurred to me that in my nearly 30-year-long life I have not seen the original “Evil Dead”. I’ve seen the other two, but the first one… stood there exactly in my blind spot. See what I did there?

Anyway, the reason I’m now sitting and writing is because I am planning to go and see the remake some time during the weekend (it opens in the UK this Friday) and I like going to class prepared. I have to come out and say that I have been a bit hesitant as I hear It’s supposed to be super gory and brutal. But we’ll see about that – challenge accepted. However, whilst plowing through tonnes of articles praising and/or bashing Fede Alvarez’s remake of the cult classic, it just hit me…

Holy crap! I’ve seen “Army of Darkness”, I’ve seen “Evil Dead 2” (exactly in that order – weird right?), but not the first one. Quickly! To the Batmobile! I mean Netflix… It’s not there… Quickly! Lovefilm! Boom! Jackpot! In less than five minutes since I have realized that, I was already watching Ash and the gang roll up to the cabin in the woods. Note to self: Investigate whether the motif of the rundown cabin in the middle of nowhere can be traced back further than Raimi’s “Evil Dead”…

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I realize it might hurt, but as of now, in 2013, and being my age, I clearly don’t understand the hype and consequently – I’m not going to join the cult. I’m sorry, but the original “Evil Dead” is just OK.  It’s bloody and all, but there isn’t enough for me to love it, which makes me think about how all the fantastic reviews out there are written by deadite fundamentalists who adore this movie with religious zeal. On top of that, it is annoying at times to be forced to sit through this ear-piercing shrieking and other infuriating vocal skills of the deadites, as if it was done on purpose. But anyhow…

I was really pleasantly surprised by Raimi’s camerawork, which was very inventive and unusual. He has clearly earned his place in the annals of horror with this one, but it may have been too late for me to be able to fall in love with it. I was taken aback by the amount of gore and violence (plasticky and old-school, but still very persuasive and serious) and now that I’m trying to put it in context of the remake that I’m about to see, I think Alvarez might have tried (and maybe even succeeded?) to pay due homage to Raimi. Because the way I see it (and apparently Bruce Campbell sees it this way too), had Raimi been born 30 or 40 years later and had he been planning to debut with “Evil Dead” just now instead, I think the result would be just as gory and scary as the media make the remake out to be. Raimi’s “Evil Dead” is no parody that his own sequel/remake and the third one all turned out to be. It’s seriously bloody and horrific – for its time. But nothing more than that, I was sorry to find.

 

At least I can cross it off my list of ‘things to see before I die’. It was nice enough 80 minutes (with the occasional ‘OMG, why can’t she stop screaming?!’), however, I failed to see the supposed Campbell’s charisma that apparently propelled the movie to its cult status. I understand that “Evil Dead” has managed to embed itself into the pop culture with its imagery and the horror creators to this day – knowingly or otherwise – wink towards Raimi’s debut one way or another. Maybe that’s where the cult is, though…

So, if like me, you haven’t seen the original “Evil Dead” yet, go and see it. Stream it, rent it or just buy it. Maybe it’s not a timeless classic by my standards, but it is – even now – a very good horror. It clearly broke new ground in terms of what you can show on the screen and still get away with it (the forest scene says hello) and every serious horror aficionado should know it. Also, the photography – really characteristic and unforgettable. And now, finally, after years of ignorance I can join the club. I didn’t love it religiously, but liked it enough to watch it again in some time.

Now if you excuse me, I’ll go and re-watch the remaining two “Evil Dead” movies before I venture to the cinema to see the remake.

 

Shortcake #3 – “Panic attack!” and “Mamá”

In a blink of an eye, yet another week has passed. It makes you stop and think about the transience of life… But who has the time. Instead of that, I’m just glad I get to have my weekend again. This also means I get to share some shorts again. I’ve been really hard at work trying to figure out the direction this column will have (I get to call it a column now, right?) and while I’d really like to showcase mostly new things that I dig out myself or stumble across while trawling blogs and websites, I think I’d like to reserve some space for shorts that already belong in the past.

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Tonight I’d like to share these two very short forms that have more in common that one would imagine in the first place. I specifically chose these films, even though initially I wanted to write about something different (I might do it next week still if nothing better falls in my lap). The reason I decided to put them side by side is that they had been the perfect vehicles for their creators to get fished out from the crowd and given an opportunity to show the world what they’re capable of.

And so, the first film of the day – “Panic attack!” from 2009 by Fede Alvarez – is a meticulously crafted account of aliens(?) attacking Montevideo (the capital of Uruguay). It’s very short and bullet-like and reminiscent of a video clip rather than of a movie in its traditional sense. What is the most interesting in my opinion about “Panic attack!” is that its budget amounted to 300$, which is quite impressive when you examine the quality of the film. It’s really well shot and the special effects hold up to the modern sci-fi standards. Certainly, you’re unable to smell the cheapness that is far too common among the amateur science fiction.

 

I dare say that the perfectionist quality and passion that went into this little project had something to do with the fact that Fede Alvarez – a film-maker who has done nothing more than father a couple of short movies – was chosen by Sam Raimi to direct a remake of “Evil Dead” – one of the most important horror movies of all time (have a look at the red band trailer if you dare) and by the looks of it, come April 2013 we’re going to experience a whole new level of ‘horror’.

The second feature of the day is “Mamá” by Andrés Muschietti – created back in 2008, but released in December of 2012 as a part of marketing campaign for a full-length feature of the same title. That’s right. “Mama”, that is now running in cinemas across the pond and is about to drop in the UK in a month’s time, is what “Mamá” could have never been; a properly funded horror story with a professional cast and everything.

 

“Mamá” is a ghost story about two girls whose mother doesn’t want to leave them alone. It’s not exactly a story even, but more of an extended scene. However, it was more than enough for Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to notice the young director’s talent and allow him to tell the story the way it was supposed to be told. Now, I haven’t seen the feature film yet, but I’m more than keen to watch it once it opens in The Rainy Isles.

All in all, I give you “Panic attack!” and “Mamá” – two films that share more than just Spanish-speaking directors. They both tell me I should pay closer attention to the short form, as one day I might be a witness to the birth of a glamorous career of a fantastic talent.