The Sleepless Unrest


A house ripe for a conjuring.

(2021) Horror Documentary (Gravitas) Kendell Whelpton, Cory Heinzen, Richel Stratton, Brian Murray, Vera Whelpton, Jennifer Heinzen, John Huntington, Anthony Cross, John Sparks. Directed by Kendell and Vera Whelpton

 

In recent years, television programs about amateur paranormal investigators have proliferated, with the 800-lb gorilla of the genre being Ghost Hunters. One of the places that TAPS never visited was the farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island where once lived the Perron family. Their experiences were later turned into the massive hit movie The Conjuring which in turn spawned a franchise. It seems kind of odd that TAPS which was based in Rhode Island never bothered to investigate a place supposedly as haunted as this – although it should be said that the owners at the time claimed that there was nothing particularly frightening going on in the home. In face, Norma Sutcliffe, ran a daycare center in the house for 20 years without incident.

The new owners, Cory and Jennifer Heinzen, were fans of the movie and when the house went on the market were eager to buy it. They currently operate the home as a kind of haunted Air BnB, inviting amateur investigators to spend the night.

Kendall and Vera Whelpton took them up on it and in fact spent two weeks there. Along with their friends and fellow amateur investigators Brian Murray and Richel Stratton, they set up dozens of cameras in the nearly 300-year-old house as well as motion detectors and other equipment, most of it homemade or repurposed. This documentary records their experiences.

Be advised first off – there is nothing here that is particularly spectacular, or definitive proof of spooks, spirits, or ghosts, malevolent or otherwise. Like most paranormal investigative programs, we get footage of doors swinging open by themselves, objects falling off of shelves, strange orbs flying across the screen (well, one only in this case) and plenty of bumps and knocks. Of course, anyone who has ever lived in a house that is more than a century old can tell you that these things aren’t unusual – old homes can be affected by changes in air pressure, and are often full of creaks and moans that have everything to do with the house settling into its foundation and less to do with the paranormal.

If I sound like a skeptic here, I’m really not – I like to think that I’m open-minded about the possibilities of the otherworldly. However, the Whelptons, The Heinzens, Murray and Stratton don’t even attempt to attribute their footage to anything other than the supernatural. One of the things that attracted me to the original Ghost Hunters was that their first priority was to actually investigate – they looked for rational, scientific explanations first and when those were all exhausted, then they might admit that there was a possibility of a haunting. There’s no evidence that they even considered anything like that.

What you get here are a group of people who believe what they want to believe and try to make their footage conform to that belief. I don’t doubt for a minute that they believe the house is haunted, or that the paranormal exists but they don’t even research the history of the home they’re investigating, or even mention what the Warrens (the real-life investigators who worked with the Perron family back in the 1970s) attributed the haunting to. That may be because much of the folklore surrounding the house has since been debunked; the Warrens cited Bathsheba Sherman, who lived on a neighboring farm, as a witch who was the source of the haunting (the film expanded greatly on the theory). In reality, there’s no evidence that Mrs. Sherman practiced witchcraft and most of the tales of her being a witch seem to be contemporary in origin. The murder that was attributed to have taken place on the property actually took place in Massachusetts. Town records also don’t verify the suicides that took place on the property which were alluded to in a book by Andrea Perron, one of the five daughters who lived on the property in the 1970s and who continues to assert that the property is haunted.

I certainly won’t contradict either Ms. Perron or Ms. Sutcliffe. Both women lived on the property after all and clearly love the house and the land it sits on, and who am I, a mere film critic, to doubt any of their experiences? If you want to see for yourself, the farmhouse is available for day tours, although stays in the farm are booked through the end of 2022. You can look into the farmhouse further at this site and if you’re interested in finding out more, the Heinzens would be happy to answer your questions. However, this documentary that was filmed entirely on their property is not mentioned anywhere on the website, although other programs, podcasts and blogs that did, are. It is conspicuous by its absence. Finding out the truth about the Conjuring Farmhouse is something you are unlikely to learn by watching this movie, though.

REASONS TO SEE: The researchers and the Heinzens are outgoing and genuinely believe in what they’re doing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Never delves into the history of the house – why is it haunted? – nor do they seem to attempt to find any non-supernatural explanations for any of the phenomenon witnessed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some spooky sequences and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Heinzens have two children who do not appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS:As of 9/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Reminiscence

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!