by Steve Habrat
Two years ago, director James Wan took critics and audiences by surprise with Insidious, a ghostly funhouse that rose above the lowered expectations that surrounded it. Just two short months ago, Wan proved himself as a force to be reckoned with in the horror community with The Conjuring, a 70s-inspired haunted house throwback that became the sleeper hit of the summer and was hailed as one of the scariest films to come around in years. Apparently, there was no rest for the wicked. Tossed into theaters just in time for Friday the 13th is Insidious: Chapter 2, a slipshod cash-grab sequel that ranks as one of the worst horror films of 2013. What Insidious: Chapter 2 does prove, however, is that maybe Wan wasn’t the hack many thought he was when he was cranking out garbage like Saw and Dead Silence. No, it appears the problem is Whannell, who serves up a wretchedly muddled screenplay that desperately tries to explain nearly every little detail of the far superior original film. Even the cast, which is comprised of established actors and actresses like Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, and Jocelin Donahue, seem completely perplexed and lost within the film they are starring in, causing them all to give some of the worst performances you may see this year. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if this cast were up for the worst ensemble at the upcoming Razzies.
Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up with Renai Lambert (played by Rose Byrne) being interviewed by a police detective about the mysterious death of paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (played by Lin Shaye), who was found strangled to death moments after Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson) returned from the Further. Renai denies that Josh had anything to do with Elise’s death and she continues to insist that it was the spirit of a woman in a black wedding gown that was the one responsible for the murder. Renai leaves to rejoin her family, who has moved in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey), while the police continue with their investigation. Just as life seems to be getting back to normal, Renai and Lorraine both have separate paranormal experiences that suggest the malicious spirits have not moved on yet. Meanwhile, Josh’s behavior gets more and more bizarre, suggesting that his body has been taken over by one of the most violent spirits wandering the Further. Frightened for their lives, Lorraine and Renai seek out the help of Specs (played by Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (played by Angus Sampson), the duo who aided with Josh’s trip into the Further the first time. They also track down Carl (played by Steve Coulter), Elise’s former partner who has encountered these spirits before.
The biggest crime committed by Whannell and Insidious: Chapter 2 is the fact that it resorts to rehashing the scares that worked the first time around rather than attempting anything new. While there are one of two scenes that will curl your toes and cover your arms in goosebumps, everything is way too familiar to really give this installment any identity of its own. To make things worse, Whannell’s script goes to great lengths to explain away all the scarier moments of the first Insidious. Did we really need to know what was knocking on the front door and setting off the home security system in the first film? Was anyone truly obsessing over the identity of that shadowy bride in back that kept appearing in the Lambert’s photographs of Dalton? It’s highly unlikely, but Whannell seems to think that everyone needs to know. Apparently Wan didn’t explain to Whannell that the lack of an explanation for that phantom manifestation, bump, or creak just down the hallway is scarier when you DON’T know who or what caused it. At least those who were let down by the first film’s ending can rest easy knowing that the Darth Maul spirit that crawled across the walls and made dolls doesn’t dare make an appearance.
When you’re not cringing over all the blue-in-the-face explanation, the acting will certainly have you burying your face in your bag of popcorn. Nearly every single actor or actress that steps in front of the camera gives a glaringly rehearsed or robotic performance, leading you to wonder if anyone really cared how this movie actually turned out. Wilson is at his absolute worst as Josh, the crazed papa from Hell who wields a baseball bat and stands in the hallways at night whispering to unseen figures that command him to kill. By the end of the film, you’ll be secretly hoping that The Amityville Horror’s George Lutz will coming barreling through the front door with an axe and show Josh who’s boss. Byrne is basically asked to wander around the new setting with wide eyes and fake tears as toys go flying through the air and piano notes chime suddenly. Coulter is all anxious shifts and awkward fumbles, a new character that could work if he had just the slightest bit of personality or courage. Whannell and Sampson return as the geeky paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker, who are here to break the tension when things get a little too spooky. It’s just a shame Whannell’s jokes are mothballed gags that will have you shaking your head. Shaye does an okay job, but its clear she is a bit baffled as to why she is even here. Hershey is the only one who really attempts to sell the absurdity and in the process, she delivers the only performance that is worth anything. The House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue shows up in a handful of flashback sequences that you wish would have been left on the cutting room floor. If you want to see some truly awful acting, just watch the opening flashback sequence of this movie. I couldn’t believe that the studio didn’t demand reshoots.
As far as bright spots go within Insidious: Chapter 2, the best parts of the film are the small nods to classic horror films that Whannell and Wan place throughout. Even though Wilson nearly destroys them, there are a few little tips of the hat to Psycho, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror. These nods could have been even better had Wilson actually cut back on some of the cheese. There are also a few scenes that pay tribute to the striking lighting schemes that horror fans admired at in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This is unsurprising considering that Wan and Whannell cited Argento as a major inspiration for the first film. There are also a few stretches where Wan really finds a groove with the haunted house scares, but these are largely done in by jolt shocks or fake outs that just irritate you. As if Insidious: Chapter 2 needed anything else working against it, wait until your ears are treated to some of the film’s painfully awkward dialogue. Absolutely none of it comes across as natural and a good majority of it is unintentionally hilarious. Overall, it truly is a disappointment to see Wan slumming it like this, especially after crafting one of the most fiendishly frightening films to come along in quite some time. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a redundant and convoluted mess that nearly destroys the reputation of the first film. Hopefully, Wan has the good sense to back out of a third installment, as another Insidious film is inevitable. Come to think of it, the set up for a third film was probably the scariest part of Insidious: Chapter 2.
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when I thought that James Wan was a hack. In 2004, he failed to move me with his industrial indie Saw, the film that was responsible for igniting the torture porn craze that gripped the horror genre for a solid five years. While I’ll acknowledge that Saw offered a few clever surprises and a seriously wicked piece of rusty headgear, the film felt like a wannabe Seven that lacked the gloomy urban goth of David Fincher’s grotesque classic. It didn’t help that it was followed up with a string of pale and uninspired sequels (Wan only directed the first film) that stretched the premise to the breaking point. Wan offered up two more exercises in mediocre brutality (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) before he really made something worthwhile. In 2011, he made me a believer in his talent with his fiendish funhouse horror movie Insidious, a near perfect thrill ride that was tripped up by an overkill climax and a ghoul that looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars. It appears that Insidious was just a warm-up. A little over two years later, Wan returns to the horror genre with The Conjuring and he means business. The Conjuring doesn’t find Wan reinventing the haunted house horror movie formula, but it does find him at the top of his game and delivering the knock-out punch that horror fans have been waiting years for. Yes, this film is genuinely scary, folks.
The Conjuring picks up in 1971, with Roger (played by Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (played by Lili Taylor) moving their happy family to an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. As the Perrons settle in to their rural palace, the family begins experiencing a number of strange occurrences. At first, their youngest daughter talks about a new imaginary friend, they hear eerie noises throughout the home, their dog is terrified to come near the house, birds fly into the windows, they find strange bruises on their bodies, and they wake up every morning to find their clocks frozen at 3:07 AM. As the activity increases and becomes more malevolent, the petrified Carolyn approaches local paranormal investigators Ed (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (played by Vera Farmiga) Warren about coming to their home and investigating the activity. At first the Warren’s are a bit hesitant, especially after their last case, which took a severe toll on Lorraine, but upon arriving at the Perron house, they uncover the home’s grisly past and quickly come to the realization that this may be their most horrific case yet, especially when the supernatural forces begin fighting back.
Proudly sporting the “based on a true story” badge, The Conjuring finds Wan refusing to hide behind this fatigued gimmick. He could have peppered his film with the same old lazy jump scares and then argued in an interview that the film is scary because it supposedly really happened, but he resists at nearly every single turn. There are loud bangs and there certainly are plenty of sudden jolt scares, but for each easy “gotcha,” Wan balances it out with a nerve-frying moment of bloodcurdling intensity. He starts out small, with faint bumps, thumps, footsteps, and bangs that would make Robert Wise smile. He then graduates to poltergeist activity, with the Perron girls getting yanked out of their beds while they sleep, doors slamming on their own, people getting thrown across the room, and Carolyn getting violently shoved down the cellar stairs. When Wan shifts his attention to the full-on manifestations, The Conjuring takes a bit of a hit, mostly because the spirits seem a bit too familiar. They have the usual gray skin, blackened eyes, and dusty period clothing, all something that you might have spotted in Insidious. A few of them are eerie, especially the young boy that appears in the music box mirror, but for the most part, you wish that Wan would have left them in the shadows. Thankfully, they don’t take too much away from the film.
While the first half of The Conjuring acts as a chilly ode to haunted house classics like The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, the second half of the film becomes heavily indebted to demonic horror films of the 1970s like The Exorcist. While nothing comes close to the horror we saw in William Friedkin’s classic, The Conjuring certainly doesn’t go soft on us. The climax is usually where these types of horror films collapse on themselves, mostly because the filmmaker is under the impression that they have to outdo themselves and bring the story home with a deafening bang. Wan was certainly a victim of this on Insidious with his maroon nod to famed Italian horror director Dario Argento, but on The Conjuring, he fights the urge to go over the top. The climax here is fabulously tame, with only a few special effects that keep us from totally buying into that whole “based on a true story” thing. There is some bloody barf, nasty burns, and demonic howls that even Linda Blair’s Regan would chuckle at, but Wan never lets the film slip. He puts several innocent lives at stake and he even threatens the sanity of our heroes, who have already been pushed to the brink once before. I’ll be damned if you won’t be holding your breath.
While Wan’s expert direction certainly makes The Conjuring a winner, the film’s stars do a remarkable job seeming natural and authentic for the camera. Taylor is spot on as the sweet Carolyn, a loving housewife who oozes affection for her family. She shares many wonderful moments with Livingston’s Roger, a down-to-earth nice guy trucker who is powerless to protect his family. Taylor and Livingston work overtime to make us really like them and their hard work pays off when the spooks come knocking. While Taylor and Livingston hold their own, they take a back seat to Farmiga and Wilson, who elevate their real life paranormal investigators to horror movie heroes for the ages. Farmiga is on fire as Lorraine, a levelheaded clairvoyant who fights the urge to scream bloody murder when one of the manifestations gets right in her face. She is immensely likable, especially when her motherly affection comes forth. Wilson’s Ed doesn’t emit the warmth that Farmiga does, at least not at first. It takes some time to dig into him, as he is perpetually all business in his lectures and interviews, only softening when his young daughter comes calling. Rounding out the cast is Shannon Kook as the Warren’s techie assistant Drew, who gets a chance to play hero at the end of the film, and John Brotherton as Brad, a skeptical local cop here simply to add a bit of unnecessary comic relief.
While there certainly are a few little things that The Conjuring could have done without, the film is just way too strong where it counts. The scares are not always accompanied by loud music queues and there is a heavy reliance on atmosphere to keep us on the edge of our seats. The terror is consistently held and the moments that threaten to become cliché are thrown off to keep us uneasy about what Wan will do to us next. The Perron household is convincingly done up to seem old and aging, all yellowing walls, big heavy doors, and long hallways shrouded in shadows. The outside seems frozen in a perpetual autumn, complete with a blackened pond out back, dead leaves blanketing the ground, and a gnarled tree that was perfect for a satanic suicide. It is clear that Wan understands that the house itself is as much of a character as the flesh and blood ones we are invested in. The nods to past horror classics are all slyly placed and Wan even dares to work in a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Birds. He does effectively play with the “found footage” craze a bit, giving it a retro edge that feels oddly fresh. Overall, The Conjuring is carefully crafted in vein of 70s horror films (get a load of that gloriously retro opening credit sequence) and offers up enough moments that will sear themselves into your nightmares for the rest of your life. In a time when the horror genre finds itself unsure over how to scare the audience silly, Wan reminds it that simplicity is key.
by Steve Habrat
I’ve always been fascinated with The Amityville Horror and the real-life story of the Lutz family. In high school, I even convinced my English teacher to let me write an essay on the story and do some research into what took place in that legendary home. While the story told by the Lutz family may have been fabricated, the DeFeo family murders that took place in 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island still chilled me to my core. Naturally, while I was writing the paper, I also took a trip to the local video store to rent director Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film The Amityville Horror, which was based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson. While The Amityville Horror 1979 is infinitely better than the 2005 remake, the film is still plagued by a number of plot goofs that are extremely hard to ignore. Also troubling is the lack of a thrilling ending and the fact that the Lutz family, at least the cinematic Lutz family, never seems to be in grave danger as they make their hasty escape from that evil home. Still, The Amityville Horror 1979 does have some pretty snappy performances, especially from James Brolin as the axe wielding George Lutz, who seems to be loosing his sanity each day he remains in the home, and Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz, George’s loving wife who has to watch her family fall apart at the hands of cranky poltergeists.
Newlyweds George (Played by Brolin) and Kathy (Played by Kidder) Lutz purchase a seemingly peaceful Dutch Colonial home in Amityville, New York. The couple, along with Kathy’s three children, instantly falls in love with the home despite the gruesome murders that took place a year earlier. As the family moves in, Father Delaney (Played by Rod Steiger), a friend of Kathy, comes to bless the home. Shortly after Father Delaney begins his blessing, flies attack him and a booming, disembodied voice commands him to “GET OUT!” Father Delaney flees from the home without explanation and is slowly consumed by madness and plagued by bizarre demonic forces. Meanwhile, the Lutz family begins to have strange experiences in the house, each more terrifying than the last. To make things worse, George suffers a drastic shift in personality. He is testy and has a fascination with the axe that he uses to chop firewood. As the events in the home become increasingly more violent, Kathy begins to take a closer look at the history of the home. She also begins battling for George’s sanity.
Released by an independent studio, The Amityville Horror 1979 surprisingly has plenty of special effects and visual shocks ready and waiting for the viewer as they tour this legendary house of horrors. The opening sequence of the film, with Ronald DeFeo, Jr. marching through the home in the middle of a nasty thunderstorm and gunning down his family is certainly an eerie sequence. It is ripe with splashes of gore and heavy with an unshakeable evil atmosphere that cuts deeper with each crack of thunder and flash of lightning. Director Rosenberg has a difficult time topping his stellar stage setter and struggles to recreate that same atmosphere when the supernatural kicks into high gear. The film then snowballs into a flurry of slamming doors, disembodied voices, oozing ectoplasm, homicidal madness, and even a giant demonic pig with very little pay off. While the events are certainly creepy, the film botches a major plot point involving George Lutz’s striking resemblance to Ronald DeFeo, Jr. Don’t hope for any elaboration on this plot point because the film drops it just as quickly as it brings it up. Ignore the plot holes and just tremble at the black sludge oozing out of the toilets! Someone call a plumber.
Despite an uneven plot, the cast fully commits to the project, especially Kidder and Brolin, who appear to be having a pretty good time. Brolin has a nice time shifting from shaggy family man into perpetually freezing psycho who could snap at any minute and chop his family up with an axe. Kidder, who was coming off the high that was Superman, is a treat as religious housewife Kathy. The duo has chemistry, enough that it can cover for some of the other screw-ups in the script department. Steiger is over-the-top fun as Father Delaney, who falls apart from his memorable ghostly encounter in the home. His crowning moment comes when he is struck blind during a hair-raising church service sequence. Natasha Ryan ups the horror as Kathy’s young daughter, Amy, who has the creepiest imaginary friend on the planet. At times, Rosenberg seems well aware that children can be immensely disturbing so he works Ryan in any time he can and urges her to bring up “Jody,” her spirit chum who has a commanding hold on the young girl. Irene Dailey also shows up as Kathy’s Aunt Helena, a nun who gets physically ill from stepping inside that horrific home.
There is no denying that the build up crated by Rosenberg is actually scarier than the noisy climax. Once again set in the middle of a storm, the Lutz family decides to make a break for it as the ghosts unleash absolute hell on them. Walls ooze blood, doors slam, and the chandelier threatens to fall to the floor as they all speed walk to the family van only to realize that they have forgotten the family pooch. Brave George decides he is going back into the house alone and that he is going to venture down into the basement, where more horrors I will not reveal here have been discovered. The problem with the climax is that you never really fear for George as he makes his way through drippy funhouse. I was actually more afraid for the dog than I was for George. The film does have a creepy score composed by Lalo Schifrin will certainly send a few more chills your way and even aid in the creation of a sinister atmosphere. Considering an independent studio released the film, The Amityville Horror went on to be one of the most successful films of 1979. I’m sure it had plenty to do with the fact that the film was really wearing the “based on a true story” tagline on its sleeve. Overall, The Amityville Horror isn’t nearly as scary as you hope it will be but it does have a handful of jump scares that never cease to get you. The film is well acted, it has a nice build up, and it does have one hell of an introduction. Now if we could just ignore those glaring plot holes and that bunk ending.
The Amityville Horror is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You have to love William Castle. Even if he produced B-movie schlock, the man knew how to sell a cheese filled idea. Luring audience members in through gimmicks (buzzers on the theater seats during 1959’s The Tingler, a $1,000 life insurance policy should someone die of fright in 1958’s Macabre), Castle giddily scared the pants off people through marketing alone. Despite the flashy promotion, Castle did direct a number of fairly substantial horror films that have stood the test of time and earned a respectable cult following. One of those films happens to be 1959 haunted mansion film House on Haunted Hill, the Vincent Price funhouse that features several moments that will have you dashing off for a change of underwear. Flawed but certainly a whole bunch of fun, House on Haunted Hill is nothing but an excuse for five strangers to walk into a supposedly haunted house and simply explore the spooks it has to offer. When it sticks to this premise, the film is a horror gem but when it decides to tack on its messy final twenty minutes, things don’t turn out so well. Still, you can’t argue with that skeleton backing a shrieking woman into a vat of acid. That, my friends, is why we see horror films.
House on Haunted Hill introduces us to eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Played by Vincent Price) and his wife, Annabelle Loren (Played by Carol Ohmart), who rents out an old mansion that is said to be haunted and then invites five strangers to join him for a night of terror. The guests include Lance Schroeder (Played by Richard Long), Nora Manning (Played by Carolyn Craig), Dr. David Trent (Played by Alan Marshal), Watson Pritchard (Played by Elisha Cook Jr.), and Ruth Bridgers (Played by Julie Mitchum), all who appear to have never met Fredrick and Annabelle before. The group is told that whoever can last the night in the home will receive a check for $10,000. The group is given the history of the house, which includes gruesome murder and mutilation, and then they are taken on a tour. As some of the guests break off from the group, the ghosts begin to reveal themselves and certain guests hint that they may not be random strangers at all.
Like a tour through a Halloween haunted house, Castle hurls one pop-up scare at us after another. Blood drips down from the ceiling, a chandelier comes crashing down on the guests, ghosts float outside of windows, skeletons walk, severed heads wait in trunks, and a witchy ghoul emerges from the dungeon. It’s in this stretch that House on Haunted Hill isn’t exactly heavy with plot but dares to have a cheeky and spooky good time as the characters are scared half to death. Heavy doses of camp are added through the otherworldly score and Vincent Price as he richly sells the ghostly encounters. There are several moments where Castle has Price almost directly address us about the terror playing out in the twisting hallways and cobwebbed dungeons where vats of acid boil and bubble in anticipation for the victim that tumbles in. The home feels just cramped enough to gives us a claustrophobic chill yet big enough to assure us that terror could easily be hiding somewhere and just waiting for the right moment to leap out and scream “BOO” right in our face. It’s loaded with atmosphere on the inside and the outside certainly makes an imposing statement is it stands proudly in the dark.
Much of the success of House and Haunted Hill lies on the shoulders of Price, who brings his usual macabre purrs to the spook show. Only Price was morbid enough to play a character that has stuck around with Annabelle, his fourth wife who has tried to poison him. He takes great pleasure in the horror around him, chewing through a smile as he passes out guns tucked into little wooden coffins as party favors. You’re a mean one, Mr. Price. Ohmart’s Annabelle is just as devious, the lady who came up with this eerie party idea. She brings her own devilish charm to the soirée and she takes terror to a whole new level as a walking skeleton stalks her through that old basement. Cook is great as the scared stiff Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the home who fully believes that spirits wander the halls. Craig is one hell of a scream queen as Nora, who is consistently tormented by the ghosts or perhaps even one of the other party guests. Her run in with a ghoul is cellar has got to rank as one of the most shocking scenes in a horror film.
While the ending may subtract some of the supernatural creeps that flow freely throughout it, House on Haunted Hill still is a creaky winner in the haunted house subgenre. The scenes where the characters directly speak to the audience are immensely silly and certainly haven’t aged well at all. It actually causes the film to loose some momentum but it is blatantly Castle. At the time of the film’s release, Castle asked theaters to install an elaborate pulley system that would send a skeleton gliding over the heads of the audience members. I still think it would be very cool if theaters showed the film and included that Castle gimmick. It would certainly make for a nifty piece of nostalgia. Overall, House on Haunted Hill has zero depth but it does develop its characters quite nicely and it delivers scares at just the right time. It has plenty of camp throughout, which makes it perfectly safe for the kiddies to enjoy on Halloween night after trick r’ treating. In the end, the film belongs to Price and the disturbing reveal of his character in the final seconds of the film. For those who wish to get into Castle and really have some fun with his work, House on Haunted Hill is a great starting point. Be warned, this one may scare the pants right off of you.
House on Haunted Hill is available on DVD.
Hey boys and ghouls,
With only a few more days to go in Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular, I am shifting things from horror remakes to good old fashioned haunted house movies. This is, after all, the time of the year when the spirits make themselves known and roam free. So readers, let us celebrate the things that go bump in the night. Just make sure you leave a night light on…
-Theater Management (Steve)