Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

Ghost Team


Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

(2016) Horror Comedy (The Orchard) Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz, Amy Sedaris, Paul W. Downs, Tom Schiller, Joel Marsh Garland, Doug Drucker, Rob DeRosa, Martin Barabas, Clem McIntosh, Shane Velez, Vincenzo Vaccaro, Veronika Dash. Directed by Oliver Irving

 

For the most part, we’re all fascinated by the paranormal. Who doesn’t want to see proof of life after we pass on? The existence of ghosts certainly is one of those things that have fascinated us for centuries, and yet for the most part, ghosts still remain essentially mythical figures. That doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped searching for definitive proof of their existence.

Plenty of television programs have documented the search of paranormal investigation teams. One of the most well-known is Ghost Getters which copy store clerk Louis (Heder) watches religiously. When the team puts out the call for a new member, Louis is psyched to apply, but he wants to stand out – by conducting his own investigation.

It’s hard to do when one’s day is mostly spent printing Lost Dog fliers. However when a curmudgeonly old man looking to get some laminated No Trespassing signs printed up lets slip that the barn on his property is “probably haunted,” Louis realizes this is the break he’s been waiting for. He ropes in his sad-sack best friend Stan (Krumholtz) who was left at the altar and thinks the only explanation for it was that his bride-to-be was kidnapped by aliens. They need a computer whiz and happen to know one who works at Micro World, Zak (Downs). When a late night run to “borrow” some equipment from Micro World ends up in a confrontation with gung-ho security guard Ross (Long), the team has their security chief. They enlist phony baloney TV psychic Victoria (Sedaris) and to round out the team, Ellie (Diaz) who works as a beautician in the shop next door to Louis and whose job is to….well, crap, I’m not really sure.

The intrepid erstwhile paranormal investigators who have christened themselves the Ghost Team head out to the barn to conduct their audition but when they arrive, they realize they’ve stumbled onto something that they simply weren’t prepared for. Will the Ghost Team’s first case also be their last?

The field of paranormal investigation shows has been ripe for a comedy to be based on it (although some would say that the original Ghostbusters was kind of a preemptive strike in that general direction). Certainly the movie takes aim at shows like SyFy’s venerable Ghost Hunters, which the fictional Ghost Getters is essentially based on as are many other like-minded shows all over cable television.

But sadly, the movie devolves into a kind of live action Scooby Doo minus the talking dog although it does have a van not unlike the Mystery Machine. How it does that I will not tell you, but suffice to say that those who grew up on that show will undoubtedly make that connection. I don’t have an objection per se only that the tonal shift doesn’t work here; they needed a better transition.

Heder has always been a bit too laid-back for my taste as an actor but the more he moves away from his Napoleon Dynamite past the better I like him and this is certainly a step in that direction. Like most of the characters here, Louis isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he certainly means well and that’s the kind of thing that’s right in Heder’s wheelhouse. He gets some superb support from Sedaris as the fake psychic who can’t believe that anybody buys her particular brand of B.S. and Diaz as an atypical damsel in distress. Long is terribly miscast as a security guy who seems to be suffering from Roid Rage.

Inexplicably, the movie uses Gary Wright’s 70s synthpop hit “Dream Weaver” to almost annoying extent. It was one of my favorite songs growing up but let’s face it; it’s not the kind of song you need to hear more than once on any movie soundtrack. The most genuinely scary moment in the film is when the Ghost Team sings along to the music.

And therein lies the rub; for a horror film, there aren’t any scares; for a comedy there aren’t many laughs. It tries to be both and ends up being neither. Part of the problem is that the writer doesn’t appear to be sure just what he wants this movie to be and what it ends up feeling like is a bunch of zombies wandering around aimlessly, calling pathetically for brains and this is not a movie that has (or should have) a lot of them. All the right ingredients are here for a good little film, but sadly, it ends up tasting rather bland.

REASONS TO GO: A cross between Ghost Hunters and Scooby-Doo. Heder is at his most likable here.
REASONS TO STAY: Official overuse of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. It gets overly juvenile in places. The action sequences are unconvincing. There aren’t enough laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug material as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was available for streaming free on Google Play before it’s limited theatrical run. It will continue on Google until the end of August after which it will be available on other streaming sites.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team One
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Star Trek Beyond

The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Blood Creek (Town Creek)


Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Henry Cavill, Dominic Purcell, Michael Fassbender, Emma Booth, Rainer Winkelvoss, Laszlo Matray, Joy McBrinn, Shea Whigham, Tony Barger, Douglas Roger, Michael Ntumba, Razvan Oprea, Ana Popescu, Florin Piersic Jr., Gerald McSorley, Vlad Voda, Albert Gherasim, Wentworth Miller, Lynn Collins.  Directed by Joel Schumacher

Some horror movies one must admire for their ambition but criticize for their execution. Some are just the opposite. Most fall in between.

In West Virginia circa 1936 a family of German émigrés working on a farm receive a letter asking them to host a German occultist doing research on a Viking runestone that they found in their barn. As they are barely making ends meet in the Depression-era rural South, the $150 a month they would receive for hosting the professor would be a Godsend.

At first Dr, Richard Wirth (Fassbender) seems like a harmless academic but soon it becomes clear that Dr. Wirth has a far more sinister motive in mind. The family is forced to set a spell trapping Wirth in their barn and the family is also caught up in the spell, not becoming immortal as Wirth did but certainly not aging normally.

Cut to modern times. Farmer Evan Marshall (Cavill) receives a visit one night from his brother Victor (Purcell). This wouldn’t ordinarily arouse comment except that Victor has been missing for months and when he shows up he is hideously scarred and looks like a cross between one of the Deliverance hillbillies and Frankenstein’s monster. He ropes Evan into taking him back to the farm where he had been held captive and getting his revenge on the family that kept him there.

You can guess which farm and which family he’s talking about. What you couldn’t guess – or maybe you could if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies – is that Wirth has mutated into a kind of Nazi vampire zombie master with terrifying powers. Although the comely farmer’s daughter Liese (Booth) tries to persuade Evan that they’re actually the good guys keeping the monster at Bay for well over three quarters of a century, Victor is having none of it with predictable consequences.

Lionsgate had at one time in the studio’s history released a glut of horror movies onto the market and in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century began to be a little pickier about what they put their distribution behind. Therefore nifty little movies like this and Midnight Meat Train got microscopic releases, in Blood Creek‘s case a mere 25 theaters nationwide, mostly of the dollar variety.

I think this deserved better. Certainly it’s flawed but there are some pretty nifty elements that I’d certainly recommend. For one thing Fassbender, on the eve of his breakthrough as an actor, makes a thoroughly compelling and hissable villain. Cavill and Purcell both did competent jobs as the heroic leads and while Booth wasn’t given a whole lot to do is at least easy to look at.

There is an awful lot of hand-held camera work in the movie to its own detriment. At times it’s really difficult to make out what’s going on and some important plot elements become confusing and for those of us who are sensitive to shaky cam, the movie can be painful at times. While the movie builds up to its conclusion well, the actual ending is a bit of a letdown.

But then again as much as I would have liked more spectacle, you (and I as well) have to realize that this is a pretty low-budget affair – how tight a budget do you have to have when West Virginia is too expensive a location to shoot in? For the record, Romania stands in for West Virginia which makes perfect sense and quite frankly, it looks a lot of the West Virginia I’ve seen on the Internet.

Anyway, as low budget horror movies go this isn’t half bad. There are some genuine scares, plenty of gore and some nifty ideas. There are also some lapses in logic which is often a bugaboo in horror movies. If you like a good scare and want to try something out you haven’t seen before, you could certainly do worse than this. Not a hidden gem so much as a surprisingly good but flawed grindhouse flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Really nice concept. Fassbender rocks the villain. Smartly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of hand-held “shaky” cams. Ending lacked punch.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore as well as some pretty crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse Metcalf was originally set to star but had to drop out of the production for undisclosed reasons. Cavill was brought in to take the lead role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Snow

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues