Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

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Ouija: Origin of Evil


Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute...

Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute…

(2016) Horror (Universal) Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Chelsea Gonzalez, Lincoln Melcher, Nicholas Keenan, Michael Weaver, Ele Keats, Eve Gordon, Chad Heffelfinger, Nina Mansker, John Prosky, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson, Gary Patrick Anderson, Alexis G. Zall, Halle Charlton, Sierra Davey, Lin Shaye. Directed by Mike Flanagan

sixdays2016-4

Some of us are fascinated by the occult. Science tells us that there’s nothing there, nothing that can be measured or quantified but anyone with even a lick of sense can tell you that science doesn’t know everything; often things that are currently unexplainable may seem like the mysterious or the magical. The fact of the matter is that we don’t understand more than what we do.

In the Los Angeles of 1967 lives a widow, Alice Zander (Reaser). Her husband Roger (Weaver) had passed away recently and their daughters – teenage Lina (Basso) and preteen Doris (Wilson) are grieving in their own way. Doris, in particular, is having a difficult time handling the death of her father, praying to him at night rather than to God. There are those at her school who think she’s a little weird. More than a little, in fact.

Alice makes ends meet by conducting fake seances in which her daughters help with special effects. Alice rationalizes all this by saying that they are helping people find closure which I suppose they are. Lulu is too young and naive to question anything but Lina finds herself believing in nothing.

In point of fact, Lina feels constrained in her house and wants to do the things that teenage girls do in 1967. So like any good red-blooded American teen, she sneaks out of the house and goes to a party with a bunch of her friends, including would-be boyfriend Mikey (Mack). There she discovers the magic and the mystery of a Ouija board. Unfortunately, her friends are discovered by an adult and Lina is handed over to an angry Alice. However, Alice is intrigued by the Ouija board and brings one home to help with the act.

Immediately Doris takes an unhealthy interest in the board – or vice versa. Desperate to communicate with her daddy, she has no idea that there are rules governing the use of the board or how dangerous it is to break them. She certainly doesn’t realize that she’s opened a door that may bring something into this world that wants nothing more than to terrorize – and to kill.

This is a prequel to the wildly successful but critically panned Ouija from 2014. There is an appearance by Lin Shaye in a post-credits sequence that links the two films (not for nothing, but she plays an older version of one of the characters in this movie) but there is little to connect the two films. We do see one of the apparitions from the first film alive and well (relatively speaking) in this film.

The acting here is okay but not memorable. There aren’t a lot of recognizable names here, although most of the cast has experience mostly on the small screen. Thomas, the waif from E.T. is surprisingly strong as a sympathetic priest/principal at the Catholic school that the two daughters attend. Reaser, best known for her work on the Twilight series, shows some promise as the single mom which is a very different role than Esme Cullen.

Flanagan, who had three films scheduled to come out this year (one, Before I Wake, has been shelved indefinitely by troubled distributor Relativity and is unlikely to come out before next year) is becoming a very solid director of horror films for the studios. While he might not have the indie cred of a Ti West or a Jennifer Kent or an Adam Wingard, he has proven that he can direct strong horror films while remaining within studio constraints. There’s nothing here that’s so over-the-top that it can’t tolerate a PG-13 rating (which the studios shoot for, with rare exception, for their horror movies) but it manages to come by some pretty effective scares without resorting to an overuse of jump scares which are prevalent in studio horror movies today.

And to be honest, the studio restrictions are what really drag the movie down in my opinion. In trying to make a movie that fits within studio horror film parameters, in many ways it feels like Flanagan has been constrained from making a horror movie that would really blow our socks off. There is plenty here to work with, but there is nothing here that really gave me a truly “wow” moment. It’s like eating vanilla ice cream when what you really crave is salted caramel.

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, mind you, but I would have liked there to be more layered flavor profiles here. The movie is exactly what you’d expect it would be. Horror movies are at their most effective when they push the boundaries. Those that respect boundaries will always be little more than a trip on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride; spooky but not scary.

REASONS TO GO: There are some pretty horrific moments here and some really good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: The film really doesn’t break any new ground.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty horrific and terrifying images, some violence as well as thematic elements that some might find disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Lina sneaks out to party with her friends in is the same house set used in the David Duchovny TV show Aquarius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lights Out
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Horror!

Ghostbusters (2016)


Uncorking the genii.

Uncorking the genii.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, Karan Soni, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Nate Corddry, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Garcia, Annie Potts, Cecily Strong, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Al Roker, Susan Park, Katie Dippold. Directed by Paul Feig

 

I have to make a confession; I was not pleased about the prospects of an all-female Ghostbusters team at first; for one thing, it seemed kind of gimmicky to me, a means of establishing a bit of notoriety before the movie opened. The more I thought about it though, I figured I was just using that as an excuse; I was being a sexist so as a critic I swallowed my pride, sucked it up and tried to look at the movie as objectively as I could.

That’s not to say that it’s possible; like millions of others, the original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite films. When you take on a remake of a classic that is so beloved, comparisons between that film and yours are going to be inevitable. Surely Paul Feig had to know that. But I don’t think he expected the venom that would be directed at his choice to change the gender the team; fanboys absolutely lost their minds, some going so far as to claim that it “ruined their childhoods” which is generally an indication that their childhoods probably should be ruined, if that was all it took.

The storyline here is pretty similar to the original; a trio of scientists – Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physicist; Abby Yates (McCarthy) a paranormal investigator, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an engineer – are brought together to investigate a haunting. Erin and Abby had once co-authored a book – Ghost from Our Past – but had a falling out. Erin was trying to distance herself from those days and when the book shows up on Amazon just as she’s about to become tenured at Columbia University, she and Abby are brought together. Eventually, Abby agrees to pull the book from Amazon on the condition that Erin allows them to investigate a paranormal activity at a local mansion that had been brought to Erin’s attention by the home’s curator (Begley).

When their investigation is successful beyond their wildest dreams, they enlist Abby’s new partner Jillian who is like a kid in a toy store on Christmas morning – she has all sorts of devices to try out, including a proton pack and a ghost capturing device. With Erin cashiered from Columbia who has found out about her somewhat unorthodox beliefs in the supernatural, the three decide to start up a ghost investigation business. During an investigation into a New York subway, they are assisted by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history, particularly the haunted kind. She joins the team as the fourth Ghostbuster (as they are now called, much to Erin’s annoyance).

They hire a receptionist to handle the calls which turns out to be Kevin (Hemsworth), a male model who gets the job because he dampens Erin’s panties more than anything – he proves to be an utter imbecile and not much use at all answering the phone. As they investigate, they discover that someone has been creating gateways allowing the ghosts to come into New York. That someone is uber-nerd Rowan North (Casey) who has some very unpleasant plans for a world that has rejected him and ignored him. When someone plans a paranormal apocalypse, who ya gonna call?

The special effects are spectacular here, which is definitely an unexpected plus – Feig has never really worked an effects-heavy film before but he does a fine job here with the CGI. It’s impressive without being overwhelming. The cinematography is gorgeous and most of the technical end of the movie is soundly executed. I also think that his casting is spot-on – on paper.

Unfortunately, on celluloid is where I have the issues. The chemistry between the team just isn’t as strong as it was for Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson (who all have cameos) and the late Harold Ramis, whose son appears in a brief cameo and who also appears as a bust outside of Erin’s office at Columbia. McKinnon is a little too over the top at times as is Jones who’s shrieking is almost anachronistic, sounding uncomfortably like depictions of African-American characters in horror comedies from say 50-75 years ago.

Wiig and McCarthy are both strong comic actresses who have given terrific performances in other movies, but they are both overly bland here. McCarthy is strangely subdued; I sometimes complain about her characterization in other comedic roles but I would have welcomed more of that energy she brought to those roles here. Wiig is generally an extremely understated performer and was completely miscast; they needed someone who had a little more of a presence. This may surprise some, but I think Leslie Jones might have been better suited for the role of the physicist/doubter, Kate McKinnon better as Abby, Melissa McCarthy more fun as Patty and maybe a different actress – Amy Schumer for example – as Jillian. But still, just reshuffling the roles might not have helped; the ladies just don’t seem as comfortable around each other as they should be.

Despite all of the issues I have with the team, the script isn’t half-bad and there are some very funny moments. The cameos are welcome, but also serve to remind us of how much better the original was than the remake and Feig might have been better advised to leave them out, particularly since he chose to do a reboot rather than a sequel, which I think might have been a better move. Still, one has to give him points for trying, but trying doesn’t save a movie that’s just average.

REASONS TO GO: The effects are impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: It simply doesn’t hold up to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: Some somewhat rude humor and a bit of supernatural action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The book Ghost from Our Past supposedly co-written by lead characters Erin and Abby, is really for sale on Amazon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Legend of Tarzan

Keeper of Darkness (Tuo di qu mo ren)


Ghosts at the window.

Ghosts at the window.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (EDKO) Nick Cheung, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung, Sisley Choi, Shi Yanneng, Philip Keung, Shawn Yue, Elena Kong, Jacky Cheung, Wai-Keung Lau, Lawrence Ng, Olivia Yan, Andrew Lau, Karena Lam, Angie Cheung. Directed by Nick Cheung

NYAFF

What lies in wait for us after we die is an utter mystery. Do we go to heaven or hell, or are we reincarnated? Do we simply cease to be or is there something else out there, some other existence for us? One thing’s for certain; life after life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Wong Wing Fatt (N. Cheung) is an exorcist, but not the kind who dresses in vestments and engages in ancient Catholic rituals. He has “the third eye,” or the ability to see ghosts. He generally prefers to negotiate them out away from troubling the living, although sometimes he uses more violent means. When he’s not taking care of the dead, he’s part of a Hong Kong triad with a boss who gets little respect from the police. “I’m the biggest criminal in the district!” he complains to a disinterested beat cop who is hassling Fatt.

A video of one of the exorcisms Fatt performs gets the attention of tabloid journalist Ling (Choi) who contacts Chung (L. Cheung), the erstwhile assistant of Fatt who is, unfortunately for Ling, disinterested in an interview. Fatt is living in the same house where his mother (Lam) committed suicide and where years before a beautiful young mistress named Cherr (Kuo) did the same. Cherr, however, is more benevolent than Fatt’s mom who has stayed away from her son; Cherr, on the other hand, is in love with him and he with her. They both hope to be united in the next life.

But that is the least of Fatt’s problems. A vicious ghost named Hark (Yanneng) wants vengeance for the death of his wife and daughter and has been murdering charlatan psychics when he discovers they can’t give him what he wants. When he discovers that Fatt is the real deal, he gives him three days to kill the offending still-living man…or else Fatt and his pre-dead friends are all going to be joining the choir invisible.

Exorcism movies are far different in the East than they are here in the West. Generally in Hollywood and Europe, the Exorcism movies are wrapped up in Catholic ritual and tradition. In the East, often Buddhist principles of Exorcism are used in which exorcists physically battle demons with “spirit weapons” and spells. There is some of the latter here, but this is far different than any other exorcism movie I’ve ever seen so it gets props for that as well.

Nicky Cheung has made a reputation as being one of Hong Kong’s top action heroes of this decade, but as a director he has gone the supernatural route with both of his films and there’s literally no action scenes involving Fatt in the film, other than him getting tossed around like a rag doll by Hark. He has a great deal of screen magnetism and commands the attention of the viewer whenever he’s on, which is most of the film as he’s in nearly every scene. Amber Kuo, one of Asia’s most beautiful actresses, makes a perfect romantic foil for him.

The special effects are inconsistent at best. At times, Cheung makes a very atmospheric ghost tale; at other times, the CGI are quite frankly subpar. There is a scene in which Fatt goes over to the “other side” to confront Hark and there is a bit of an Inception feel to the look of the segment, but it looks like it came from a special effects house circa 1996. Even though it depicts someplace fantastic, it looks computer generated which takes you right out of the film.

The romantic relationship between Fatt and Cherr is at the center of the film, which may prove disappointing to horror buffs and action buffs alike. That romance, which can never truly be consummated, lends a melancholy air which actually fits nicely in the overall theme. Some critics and fans might complain, but I thought that while the romance did slow down the movie some, it was actually part of what made the movie so compelling.

There are lots of cameos from some of Hong Kong’s most recognizable stars and faces including one at the very end which brazenly sets up a sequel which quite frankly I wouldn’t mind seeing. This isn’t scary enough for most horror buffs, not enough action for most fans of that genre and the romance is less physical than those who like those sorts of movies. It was the combination of the three that intrigued me and delighted me about this movie. It’s possible it might get a U.S. release but if it does it will be a brief and limited one. Look for it on your favorite Asian movie DVD or streaming sites in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The ghostly atmosphere is genuinely creepy. Cheung is an appealing hero. Interesting to see an Eastern take on exorcisms (i.e. non-Catholic).
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is pretty poor. A fair amount of plot holes and occasional inappropriate humor mar the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finding Dory

Ouija (2014)


The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith, Shelley Hennig, Sierra Heuermann, Sunny May Allison, Lin Shaye, Claudia Katz, Vivis Colombetti, Robyn Lively, Matthew Settle, Afra Tully, Claire Beale, Izzie Galanti, Morgan Peter Brown, Bill Watterson, Kathleen Coyne. Directed by Stiles White

It is inevitable in all our lives that someone we love will pass away before we do. It can be difficult to cope with it; we feel the absence of our loved ones keenly and often wish we could speak with them one last time. It is this desire that led to the creation of the Ouija board which is characterized as a board game – but has the reputation for being something much different than that.

Laine Morris (Cooke) is dealing with that right now. Her closest friend Debbie (Hennig) died suddenly and Laine was devastated by the beautiful young girl’s unexpected death. The two had been inseparable since childhood and had both grown to be seniors in high school. The whole world lay before them as it often does for beautiful young girls.

Laine isn’t the only one grieving. Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Smith), Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Kagasoff) and their friend Isabelle (Santos) are all hurting. With her dad away on business and Debbie’s mom travelling abroad to deal with her grief, Laine wants to hold a séance with a Ouija board in Debbie’s home where she died. Laine’s sister Sarah (Coto), a bit of a problem child, is brought along.

At first it seems to be a game to some but it becomes obvious that they’ve contacted someone who identifies themselves as “D” which Laine believes as Debbie. However, as the days past, the young people begin to die by suicide as Debbie did and Laine begins to suspect that the contact they made was with someone – or some thing – malevolent. Can they save themselves from the angry spirits and break the contact before all fall victim to it?

Although the Ouija board has been used in movies before, this is the first time that Hasbro – the current owners of the Ouija Board rights – has authorized as the subject of a movie as they did with G.I. Joe and the Transformers. Like nearly all of the movies made with toys as their subject – The LEGO Movie is a notable exception – the movie lacks a human center which is to be expected when the center of the film is made of plastic.

Cooke, a British actress best known to American audiences for her work in the Bates Motel series, is capable but colorless here. In fact, much the same can be said of the largely young and unknown cast, although veteran Lin Shaye shows up in the last third of the film as an institutionalized old woman who knows more about the entity than you might think.

The movie is blessed with terrific cinematography from director of photography David Emmerichs and the mood is kept unsettling throughout. However, the movie suffers from a script that seems cut together from other, better films and the trope is largely a group of teenagers making bad horror film choices. That’s rapidly becoming a pet cinematic peeve of mine; why would teenagers that are portrayed as being sensible and smart then do things no rational person would do except in the throes of panic which the teens aren’t? If you’re going to portray them of sensible, make them act sensibly. It’s lazy writing.

Most of the scares are of the practical nature; there are some CGI moments of eyes turning white which indicates possession by the malevolent entity and other ghostly effects but one must give the director kudos for keeping it real, as it were.

I had high hopes for the film; the Ouija board is a natural for a horror movie and there is a terrific film to be had with the board at the center of it. This isn’t it, however.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely creepy. Beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: Borrows too much from other films. Could have utilized the board better. More “teens making dumb decisions” again.
FAMILY VALUES: Horrific images, supernatural violence and thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a Hollywood remake of a Filipino horror film. There’s also an Egyptian version with a similar plot, although it is not “officially” a remake.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Birdman

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones


Smile...you're on catastrophe camera!

Smile…you’re on catastrophe camera!

(2014) Found Footage Horror (Paramount) Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renee Victor, Noemi Gonzalez, David Saucedo, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratt, Juan Vasquez, Alonso Alvarez, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Wallis Barton, Lucy Chambers, Jessica Tyler Brown, Diana Danger, Gigi Feshold, Molly Ephraim, Maralyn Facey. Directed by Christopher Landon

If you believed the movies, supernatural terror only takes place in creaky old Victorians or lily-white suburbs. I don’t think it has occurred to Hollywood to put many of their horror movies in urban settings which is senseless; urban audiences make up some of the largest segments of the horror film audience.

However, the honchos of the Paranormal Activity franchise aren’t fools. They’ve set this film within the continuity of their franchise but with a completely different setting and cast. Here, we are brought to Oxnard, a racially diverse town 35 miles west of Los Angeles in Ventura County. While there are some lily-white suburban sorts in Oxnard, there is also a pretty sizable Latino population (about 73.5% of the overall population).

In a working class apartment complex lives Jesse (Jacobs) who has just graduated high school along with his best friend Hector (Diaz). He lives there with his grandma (Victor) who speaks little English and apparently his dad (Saucedo who appears very little in the film). He gets a compact video camera for his birthday and of course boys being boys has to record everything including the stupid stuff boys in their late teens do.

However, as all neighborhoods do, there is someone creepy in this case Anna (Sandoval) whom it is whispered is a bruja, a witch. Strange noises are often heard coming from her apartment whose windows have been taped over with newspaper so there’s no seeing inside. However when the boys rig up a spy cam to look down into the apartment, they are shocked – and delighted – to see a gorgeous naked woman…until a naked Anna comes in and starts painting strange symbols on her belly. The creepy neighbors where I lived never had gorgeous naked women in their house – at least as far as I know.

Anyway shortly after that Anna turns up dead and the class valedictorian, Oscar (Pratt) is the unlikely suspect. You would think it would be his gang-banging brother Arturo (Cabral) but no. And not long after that, Jesse finds a strange bite mark on his wrist. Strange how the word “strange” keeps popping up in the text.

Things start going sideways after that. Jesse develops super strength and a hair-trigger temper, not a good combination. People in the neighborhood start turning up missing…or dead. Jesse begins acting more distant, almost like he doesn’t recognize the people he’s closest too. Hector is very concerned as is the pretty and sweet Marisol (Walsh), Jesse’s cousin. They begin looking into what went on in that downstairs apartment and before too long Jesse’s camera begins to capture some pretty strange things. There, I’ve done it again.

The fifth movie in the franchise is a bit of a departure from the other four. It is set apart from the main films in the franchise although some of the characters from previous films – Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Molly Ephraim – all put in cameos. Think of it as an off-shoot (there is a Paranormal Activity 5 planned for this October) that follows a different path but has the same basics (it is still a found footage movie) and actually helps build up the mythology around the franchise nicely, which leaves future directors some latitude to play in.

You don’t go to see a movie like this for the acting, but there is some good chemistry among the leads, particularly between Jacobs and Diaz who banter as naturally as two guys who have grown up together and know all of the skeletons in each other’s closets. Walsh also is game although I have to admit that Cabral actually shows some promise. Hopefully he won’t be limited to tattooed gang banger roles.

However, you do go to a movie like this to get some scares and while there are a few they’re mostly of the misdirection variety (“oh look, it’s just a cat”) and while there isn’t a ton of gore here there are some relatively disturbing images. This is far from a game-changer for the horror genre sports fans. There is an acceptable number of scares but just barely.

There were some things I liked about this entry into the franchise but there were some I didn’t. It’s one of those movies that will not make new fans of the franchise nor should it send too many off the reservation either. Mainly, it’s kind of a continuation of things, a placeholder until the next big event PA film comes out which hopefully is the one in the pipeline for Halloween. The franchise could sure use one.

REASONS TO GO: Cool idea. Rounds out the franchise mythology considerably. Good chemistry between the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Not very scary and generally not well-acted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a crapload of foul language, some graphic nudity, some mighty disturbing images, some drug use and a fair amount of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs actually has several tattoos in real life in among other places his arms, hands and neck. While these were covered up for the film, while he is kneeling at the vending machine one of his tats can be seen just above the right knee.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Possession

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Vertical Limit

The Rite


The Rite

Even dilapidated boarding houses are mainly CGI these days.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Arianna Veronesi, Andrea Calligari, Chris Marquette, Torrey DeVito, Ben Cheetham, Marija Karan. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

Ever since The Exorcist Hollywood has periodically unleashed movies in which Roman Catholic priests do battle with demonic possessors, generally of innocent young girls. Some of these movies have been essentially visceral knock-offs meant to test the limits of our squeamishness. Not all of them are like that though.

Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is a young man with some heavy baggage in his past. His mother died when he was young and his father (Hauer), the undertaker in a small Midwestern town, is as cold to him as the snow that blankets the town each winter. As he has grown from childhood, he’s become increasingly convinced that there is no God, much to the dismay of his dad. He is also quite convinced that the mortuary business is not for him, to the greater dismay of his dad.

Michael enters the seminary, mainly for the free education but also to test his atheism. While he questions his faith, the Father Superior (Jones) senses something inside Michael, something good and decent and suggests that he attend the Vatican’s exorcism school. Michael is skeptical; he is planning (as he has all along) to opt out of his vows until the Father Superior tells him that the cost of his education will then be placed into a student loan of over $100K which Michael will owe. Reluctantly, Michael flies to Rome.

At the Vatican, Michael continues to question, drawing the attention of Father Xavier (Hinds) who advises Michael to spend some time with a veteran exorcist. Michael is then paired with Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an acerbic and quirky priest who lives with a whole lot of cats he despises in a dilapidated old rooming house in Rome.

He’s working on the exorcism of a pregnant teenage girl (Gastini) but the results seem to be less spectacular than in the movies. “What’d you expect,” barks Father Lucas, “Spinning heads? Pea soup? ” That should give you all you need to know about the movie you’re watching.

As the exorcism progresses over a period of weeks, things get a little more strange and chilling. A lovely journalist (Braga) trying to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s involvement with exorcisms befriends Michael and he’s quite inclined to help her get her story. To be honest, Michael believes that this girl – and indeed, most “possessed” by demons – need psychiatric help more than exorcists. But the farther things go along and as unexplainable events occur, it is not Michael’s faith that will be tested but lack thereof.

That really is the difference between this movie and other demonic possession movies with maybe the exception of The Last Exorcism and even in that Cotton Marcus does have religious belief – he’s just not a believer in exorcisms. Here, Michael flat-out doubts the existence of God and the Devil which makes it more interested when confronted with evidence of the latter.

Hafstrom, who helmed the excellent 1408 (one of the better Stephen King adaptations) makes this almost clinical in places but takes the basic conceit of exorcism movies and turns it on its ear. I don’t know how much this was taken from the book this is based on (which I understand only provides a framework for the movie) but it is a bold move nonetheless.

The usually reliable Hopkins is a little over-the-top here. This isn’t a very subtle performance at all, and there are a few Hannibal Lecter mannerisms that are a bit startling. Most of the rest of the performances in the movie are more understated and nuanced; Hopkins stands out and not in a good way. In all honesty however I have to admit I’m not sure if he could have played it any other way.

This was advertised (and continues to be on DVD) as a horror film and in a lot of ways it isn’t, although there are some genuine creep-outs and some good startle scares too. However, most of the time it tends to be more of an examination of faith and the testing of it in a world which has moved more into a Missouri frame of mind – as in show me. We have become more used to a “just the facts” mindset and that’s not always a bad thing.

Faith implies a willingness to set aside fact and proof to take it on faith that something is so. Even science asks us to take some things on faith – for example, that faster than light travel isn’t possible. And, of course, it isn’t – until someone finds a way to make it happen. Science is a world limited to what we know and can prove. Faith is a world that tells us that there are things that not only we don’t understand, that we can’t understand. Art is a bridge between the two, allowing us to imagine things that are possible but also might not be and making them real. M.C. Escher to me comes closer to touching God than anybody.

But faith vs. science ranting aside, the movie may not necessarily be what you’re looking for when you want a good scare. It is a little smarter and a bit more practical but addresses some issues that most horror movies aren’t willing to tackle. It’s a well-made movie and for those interested in bigger questions than “how did they make that girl’s head do that,” it might be a good fit on a stormy night.

WHY RENT THIS: More of a psychological thriller than horror still packs some nice scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopkins chews the scenery and a little bit of him goes a long way here. Otherwise much more clinical than terrifying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of shocking and disturbing images, not to mention the adult thematic matter, some of it sexual. There’s also a bit of supernatural violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the Hungarian phrase Hauer utters several times in the film regarding his wife is “My love, my flower, my bliss.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual Vatican school of exorcism which includes interviews with the authors of the book that inspired the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $36M production budget; the movie made decent money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Melancholia