The Summer Blockbuster Challenge – Recap!

As of today, the summer season (at least in the US) has officially drawn to a close. The tickets have been sold, the films have been watched, the reviews have been written, the popcorn has been eaten and unceremoniously distributed on the floors by moronic teenagers… and so on. Therefore, I think it’s high time I saw how I’ve done with my predictions as to which films would dominate the box offices over these last few months.

Let me reiterate the rules of the challenge, as described by the good folks over at Slashfilm. By the way, whenever they come out (hopefully in the following days) with their results and the details of the scoring system, I shall make a note of it to see how I stand in comparison to the ‘big guys’.

First of all, the challenger gets to choose 10 films released in the period between the first weekend of May and the first weekend of September (inclusive) and arrange them according to the predicted domestic box office revenue from highest to lowest. Additionally, the challenger gets to name 3 Dark Horse entries that will gain extra points in case they make it to the top 10. The challenger will then be scored based on the accuracy of his/her predictions.

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Because I didn’t quite know the exact scoring rules, which I hope to learn in the foreseeable future, for a time being I decided to come up with a scoring system of my own that would reflect the accuracy of predictions, so let me walk you through it.

Quite logically, I assume that the perfect score would be to predict the ten films in exact order, for which the challenger would be awarded a score of 100%. From there, it’s quite easy to notice that in this system, predicting each entrant awards the challenger a maximum of 10%, which can be broken down further with regard to the accuracy in predicting its spot in the top 10. I think that in order to best reflect the real accuracy, a given film should be awarded 10% score if its predicted place on the list matches perfectly. A penalty of subtracting 1% from an individual score would be enforced on a film, if its predicted spot in the top ten differs by one from the actual result. For example, if the challenger predicted “Iron Man 3” to come up on top, which it did in reality, then no penalty would be awarded. But if he predicted this film to come up fifth, then 5% would be subtracted from the individual score. The Dark Horse entrant showing up in the top ten grants 5% score regardless of its positioning in the bracket. The sum of individual scores then gives the total score as a percentage.

Regardless of the actual rules of the Slashfilm challenge, I believe that this particular system doesn’t have any major flaws, as it awards accuracy and punishes its lack the most in its extremes. I think naming the top contenders is the easiest; therefore mistakes in that region should be punished most severely. The same goes for the bottom of the bracket.

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Above you can see what I came up with based on a quick analysis of the past top grossing summer films based on the release date, direct competition during release weekends and current trends in movie-going (left-hand column) against the harsh reality of the US summer box office results. Right of the bat, you can spot that I did a particularly terrible job at actually predicting the top 10, because as many as four films that I predicted never made it near the top. Plus, my personal Dark Horses (“White House Down”, “After Earth”, and “The Lone Ranger”) turned out to be the biggest bombs of the entire summer. How unlucky is that?

I also failed to listen to reason when I hoped “Man of Steel” would win the whole summer and show “Iron Man 3” where to go, which it didn’t. As predicted, though, I managed to pick the two animations that got to the top 10, but messed it up when it comes to the order and seriously underestimated the hype machine of the minions from “Despicable Me 2”. In other news, I failed to recognize the potentials of “World War Z” (which I thought would tank like the Titanic) and “The Great Gatsby”. “The Heat” and “The Conjuring” got me by complete surprise, because never in my life would I have thought that Sandra Bullock would stand a chance against a franchise like “The Hangover” (which under-performed severely). Plus, a horror film in the bracket? Nobody knew…

As a result, the collective penalties amounted to 53% which gave me a shameful score of 47%. Seriously, I need to work on my foretelling skills, because this is a joke. I know I might have included some titles in my list that were more like good wishes than actual cold calculations, but I didn’t think a film like “Pacific Rim” would bomb in the US. Well, I can only give myself a pat on the back for good effort and better luck next year.

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But wait, there’s more… Since I have already begun writing up the summer season for a proper analysis (and I will roll it out some time this week) I could put my predictions against the worldwide box office results to see how I did on the global market. Granted, I might not know the American trends all that well, because I don’t live there, so what the hell…

Well, it’s not that bad! I was actually pleasantly surprised to note that I managed to get 9 out of 10 films, which is already an achievement. Plus, I got one film – “Wolverine” that I ironically refused to see – perfectly on the nose. Still, I vastly overestimated “Man of Steel”, and apart from a slight miscalculation on “Despicable Me 2” and “Fast and Furious 6” (I’m baffled as to why this film was so popular), I did quite respectably. And one more thing – taking into account the foreign markets, my personal favorite “Pacific Rim” landed finally in the top 10, as if to please me in some way.

In the end, I scored 64% against the global top 10 this summer, a score that might not look impressive, but it’s nothing to sniff at. Still, I think I should re-evaluate my methods for the next year, but then again, if I take into account all the harsh assumptions I made, I should be rather glad the moviegoers proved me wrong. How can I be mad at the fact that a phenomenal horror made a lot of money? And the less money sequels make, the better for everyone…

 

“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.

Shortcake #19 – “One Last Dive” and “2AM”

It’s not my usual m.o. to blog when I’m at work, but since I have a short space of time to spare and nobody’s looking I decided to give it a bash and put something together. Right, so it happens that I managed to start off my day in a pleasurably disturbing way by having these two short films accompany me while I was finishing my coffee.

“One Last Dive” is a minute-long single-take film directed by Jason Eisener (“Hobo with a shotgun”), so I can’t really say that it’s an amateur job. There’s not much to say about something that lasts only 69 seconds; it was shot for a “3:07 AM Project” (conceived as a part of the viral campaign for “The Conjuring”) that actually imparts the format of the film (1 minute, 1 take) and the genre. I’ll definitely sit down and watch the remaining three shorts (that you can watch here), and I can already tell by “One last dive” that at least Eisener knows what he’s doing. The film is creepy and disturbing, even though there’s not much of a story there, but in being absolutely terrifying, it’s done the job pretty well, I must say. And the fact everything takes place under water with limited visibility only serves to amplify the claustrophobic sense of threat.

“2AM” is a freshly released short produced by Go For Broke Pictures that has managed to make a bit of a splash on Youtube by raking in a million views in under 72 hours. Directed by Michael Evans, the film is an adaptation of an allegedly true story found on Reddit and while by the end it might have strayed away from it, it still remains pretty disturbing. I should only hope that it was all made up and none of that was actually true, because I would not like to find myself in a situation like his. And if I did, I would probably never be able to sleep again. Nicely done, shot with a pro angle making nice use of the depth of field to capitalize on the fear, “2AM” makes for 4 minutes of decent horror. And if you buy into the story’s origins – well, then you’re in for a ride.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #2 – “Insidious”

Following a prompt discussion with myself (accomplished exclusively in my head without coming across as a raging lunatic) I decided that before reviewing the result of this weekend’s cinema excursion I’d like to quickly lay another brick in the bridge over the gap in my knowledge of modern horror.

I was really looking forward to finally watch “Insidious” (late at night again, as one should) – a James Wan’s departure from gore to explore the more classical nooks of the genre. I do realize the film didn’t reap the best reviews out there during its cinematic release, however upon my own private screening I have to admit it wasn’t all that bad. Although it ended up being miles away from what I hoped it would be, I think there’s some merit in calling “Insidious” a horror.

The story is dead simple: A family of five (a mom, a dad, two 7-8 year-old boys, and a baby girl) moves into a new house in order to jump-start their lives again after god-knows-what had happened to them and shortly thereafter weird events start to transpire. The usual patterns of things moving around, strange noises, whispers heard through the baby monitor is quickly followed with one of the boys – Dalton – suffering an accident while investigating these strange noises. As a result he ends up in a coma and the family has to deal with that on top of the seemingly haunted house. The increased activity of whatever is haunting the house forces the family to move home in hope to flee the horror that their lives have become. Little do they know (and the trailer kind of reveals it as well), it’s not the house that was haunted, so the horror begins once more.

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I have to say that I enjoyed the premise of “Insidious” wherein we are presented with a haunted house/poltergeist story with its usual genre set pieces and devices, but with a twist… I can definitely say I dig that approach, because it successfully threw me off balance in a way. Usually, everybody has some pre-existing notions about what to expect from a given film, which is especially applicable to horror. Therefore, when I sit down to watch a ghost story, I sort of expect a certain type of devices, certain type of jump scares and a very characteristic way of building up threat and suspense through a creative usage of sound, music, set design and camera work. What I thought James Wan was going for was to have me think I know what to expect and then drop me at the deep end by going from the poltergeist to possession. While the idea could be seen as viable, fresh and potentially scary, “Insidious” didn’t get anywhere close to using this device to its full potential.

Therefore, the composition of the story divides “Insidious” into two (almost equal in length) halves with the first one being more of a haunted house story with the mystery and threat, and the second being this really awkward mish-mash of demon possessions, other-worldly experiences and the confrontation with the malevolent being of interest. By the way, what separates the two is a tad-too-long soliloquy that explains far too much and introduces the twist together with explaining it – in short, it doesn’t really do its job.

Taking this little division into account, I have to admit that I liked the first half of “Insidious” far better  than the latter one. Why? The reason is simple again – it’s actually genuinely scary and plays out surprisingly fresh in the context of what has been done within the genre before. The scares are creative and not overly complex, the entirety of the shock factor is based on our own innate fears, which made the atmosphere more relatable in a way. As you’d imagine, “Insidious” was shot on a not so much shoe-string budget, but low enough to prohibit over-use of any pricy CGI, so most of the things you’d find there are old school practical scares – and good ones at that.

Unfortunately, whatever the first half of “Insidious” has accomplished for me, was wasted terribly in the final act. The premise was all over the place, the scares were scarce and the overall concept of the story became laughable – at best. And I am incapable of fearing something that I find ridiculous, I’m sorry… Without spoiling much I can only say that being exposed to that volume of ghosts and demons in a short space of time made me completely immune to them. In the end, “Insidious” spirals out of control and drops down to the level of a laughable second-rate horror flick that tries to be something it’s not; it looks to me that James Wan has clearly lost the plot some time into the story and even the scares stopped working altogether.

In the interest of honesty, I wasn’t completely displeased with “Insidious”. Sure, the actors (especially Rose Byrne) may have been a tad annoying, the story descended into chaos after a while and attempted CGI was adorable at best. But the bottom line is – was it scary? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. There’s a good collection of scares in this film (sadly, mostly in the first half of it) and some of them are really crafty. On top of that, Wan very often doesn’t get you by complete surprise, but will hint at what’s going to happen, so that the scare works on a subliminal level as well and if you are observant enough, you can take pride in noticing it as well. On top of that, the film has a few winks to Wan’s earlier “Saw” franchise with the Jigsaw drawing on the black board, or with the rather predictable, but ultimately scary sequence reminiscent of the ‘flash photography in the dark scare’ I loved in “Saw” so much.

All in all, “Insidious” was scary enough to get me on board, despite the tragically disappointing final act. I don’t know, how the sequel is going to work though, but horrors can override the curse of sequels by providing good enough scary experience in place of the overall originality. Nevertheless, what I am looking forward the most, is “The Conjuring” hitting the screens this summer, as it is supposed to knock your proverbial socks off with the level of terror it carries.