The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death


Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast, Jeremy Irvine, Pip Pierce, Jude Wright, Amelia Crouch, Adrian Rawlins, Amelia Pidgeon, Casper Allpress, Ned Dennehy, Mary Roscoe, Merryn Pearse, Leanne Best, Eve Pearce, David Norfolk, Chris Cowlin, Julie Vollono, Hayley Joanne Bacon. Directed by Tom Harper

There’s kind of an unwritten law that sequels to horror movies tend to be less scary and of a lower quality than the originals. Hammer Films, the classic British horror factory however has been the exception to that rule for the most part, churning out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels that are just as good if not better than the originals. Would that record hold in the latest incarnation of the studio?

Taking place 40 years after the original Woman in Black with the Second World War in full bloom with the London Blitz in particular at its height. With the constant nightly bombing, the decision was made to evacuate as many children as possible out to the country and a group of school children with their principal  Jean Hogg (McCrory) herding them much like a shepherdess if given an unruly mob of sheep and one of her teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) to assist.

There is another Nazi raid the night before they are to leave and a direct hit to a nearby house leaves young Edward (Pendergast) an orphan. Rendered mute by the experience, he resorts to making sinister drawings which in turn draw out the cruelty of some children, the sympathy of others with the impatient and imperious Jean leaning towards the suck-it-up school of grief counseling. She is married to a Brigadier General, after all.

Of course with shortages in places  in safe places to stay, this particular group is sent to Eel Marsh House, home of the Woman in Black (Best) who still rages and haunts there after her son was taken away from her forcibly and later drowned. Now, she seems to be enraged at the children in the charge of Ms. Hogg and Ms. Parkins, although Edward seems to be a favored target and Eve’s own maternal instincts are flaring up like the hair on a dog’s back. However, Eve has secrets that have drawn the Woman in Black to her.

I have to say that the first film had much more atmosphere and better scares than this one, which has some good ones but not nearly as many. Whereas the first film was generally dark and gloomy, this one is brighter although just as fog-shrouded with the occasional rainstorm. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com suggested that the film would have been better off had it been filmed in black and white and I can’t say I disagree with him. In fact, it would have been a capital idea.

Whereas the first film had Daniel Radcliffe turning in a solid performance, the cast of lesser known Brits (at least in this country) do workman like jobs, although McCrory some might remember from the Harry Potter series (like Radcliffe) has some moments and Jeremy Irvine, who plays a dashing English pilot with secrets of his own, has others. Another thing missing from the first is the village of the suspicious people which has been changed to one single demented resident (Dennehy). Doesn’t quite feel the same.

Maternal guilt is a big theme here, particularly Eve’s and it is an interesting twist of normal horror conventions that the children are a means to an end – that end being punishing Eve. However, rather than further exploring that theme, the filmmakers are content to replay the same flashback over and over again, trying to be cryptic I suppose but only a dimwit would fail to realize that the dreams are about a traumatic experience in Eve’s life and why the Woman in Black is drawn to it. Perhaps showing how the event effected Eve’s life and brought her to her teaching position may have been a better use of the filmmaker’s efforts rather than replaying the same scene over and over again. That’s just lazy filmmaking.

This isn’t a bad film at all, although true horror fans might find it a bit lean on scares and atmosphere. However, the film is reasonably well-made and has enough going for it that I can give it a mild recommendation which for films released this time of the year is like gold.

REASONS TO GO: Some great views of misty marshes. Explores maternal guilt. Some effective scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough of those effective scares. Lacks a truly creepy or scary mood. Performances are merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some frightening images, as well as kids in peril. Not a lot of gore or foul language, some of the thematic elements are on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first sequel to be produced by Hammer Studios since 1974, although none of the events of the first film is referred to in this one, nor do any cast members return.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unbroken

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

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!

Sinister


Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Summit) Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King, Lorraine Aceves, Rachel Konstantin. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

It isn’t hard to wonder why people do the things they do. Why they feel compelled not just to take life but to do so in particularly gruesome and sadistic ways. There really is no explanation for it. No earthly one, anyway.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a writer specializing in true crime. A decade previous, he wrote Kentucky Blood which not only chronicled a lurid murder in the Bluegrass State but also solved it, making the police of the area look awfully bad in the process. Since then, a string of failures has left his career disintegrating before his very eyes. He has moved his family from New York City to a house in Long Island which they aren’t too happy about.

They would be twice as upset if they knew that an entire family had been murdered there weeks before and that the youngest daughter of that family was missing. Ellison means to solve the murders and find the missing girl which he believes would be enough to make him famous again. However, first things first; he has to get his study set up and the family moved in.

While exploring the house, Ellison finds a box of super 8 films in the attic. They have innocuous titles such as Pool Party ’66, BBQ ’79 and Family Hanging Out ’11. However when Ellison views them to his horror they turn out to be footage of entire families getting murdered, including the one that had lived in the house.

He chooses not to tell the police about his find, mainly because the Sheriff (Thompson) takes a dim view of a writer who wrote such uncomplimentary things about the police. However, his nebbish Deputy (Ransone) has a major case of hero worship and agrees to help Ellison in exchange for being mentioned in the book as a researcher or something along those lines. It soon becomes clear that the apparently random murders are all connected – and that a mysterious figure identified as “Mr. Boogie” in childish drawings of the murders is the connecting thread.

In the meantime, the pressure is getting to Ellison and he’s begun drinking much to the chagrin of his wife (Rylance). After consulting with occult specialist Professor Jonas (D’Onofrio) Ellison is worried that his family has now become the targets of Mr. Boogie. Can he protect his family from something that he can’t understand?

A couple of years ago this one made some big waves in Hollywood for making big box office numbers on an indie-like production budget; in fact, the movie was initially shown at South by Southwest and was picked up there by Summit, an unusual move for a major. However it paid lots and lots of dividends.

Derrickson used this as a springboard to get the director’s chair for the upcoming Dr. Strange movie coming from Marvel in 2016. You can see why; he has a talent for painting a mood and making the most out of a small budget. Hopefully with a bigger budget like James Gunn before him he’ll turn it into a flat-out global blockbuster.

Hawke has always been consistently good, one of those steady actors who never turns in a bad performance. It is only recently that I’ve begun to think of him as an outstanding performer and this movie is one of the reasons why. Ellison is far from being likable. He’s self-centered and puts his career ahead of the well-being of his own family. However, in Hawke’s capable hands we still end up rooting for the character.

Like The Legend of Hell House this is much more of an atmospheric horror film than a visceral one. There isn’t a ton of gore but the creepy factor is off the charts. Much of the action takes place in Ellison’s office space which is cramped and shadowy. That gives the movie a nice claustrophobic feeling.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie and really makes for negative marks in the film’s overall rating. While the use of found footage is cleverly integrated into the movie, this feels a lot like V/H/S which used the same concept much more gracefully. Those who are looking for real scares there aren’t a lot of them and those mostly of the jump scare variety. The movie is spooky rather than scary which may not necessarily be what you’re looking for, although the horror wimps in your household looking to show some Halloween bravery may find it palatable. The demonic figure and the children may be nightmare-inducing for those sorts however.

I liked Sinister more than it probably deserved but I’m rating it lower than I’d like. I just can’t get past the ending I’m afraid. However if you don’t mind being disappointed at the end of the movie and you like your horror to be more creepy than crawly, this might be what you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t overstate the gore. Relies on atmosphere and claustrophobia for scares. Hawke does some fine work here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending is a bit of a letdown. More spooky than scary. Trope of found footage murder reels has been done before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Disturbing images of violence and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer C. Robert Cargill came up with the idea after a nightmare he had following a viewing of The Ring. He also admits that the name of the lead character, Ellison Oswalt, comes from author Harlan Ellison and comedian Patton Oswalt.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A couple of interesting featurettes; one on real life true crime authors, the other of experiences the crew had living in a house where a murder happened for real during filming.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.7M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Four!

The Legend of Hell House


What a lovely evening for a haunting.

What a lovely evening for a haunting.

(1973) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough. Directed by John Hough

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we can explain and things we can’t. Some of it is simply our knowledge hasn’t expanded enough to come up with a rational explanation; it’s just a matter of our knowledge catching up with the phenomenon. In other cases, it is simply so far out of the realm of our understanding that we may never be able to figure it out.

What happens after we die, for example. There are those who believe that our consciousness simply ends, evaporates as our body shuts down. We enter an endless sleep, oblivion. Others say there is a heaven and a hell and that what we do in this life determines where we go in the next. There are still others who believe that we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of attempting to achieve enlightenment. And there are those who say that most of us just hang around here as spiritual beings.

There are skeptics though. The Belasco House in England is considered the “Mt. Everest” of haunted houses; in fact, the last team to seriously study the goings on in the house died terribly with only one survivor left to tell the tale.

The Belasco House was once the residence of one Emrick Belasco (Gough), a physically imposing sort who threw lavish parties in the 1920s. For the last of them, he shuttered all the windows and barred all the doors; in the morning, every guest was dead and Emrick Belasco was nowhere to be found. Soon afterwards, the house got its evil reputation.

Now, yet another mysterious millionaire (Culver) has enlisted noted physicist Dr. Barrett (Revill) to do a scientific study on the phenomena going on in the house. He’s bringing with him a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Franklin), reportedly one of the best there is. He’s also bringing with him his own wife Ann (Hunnicutt) and the only survivor of the previous expedition, Ben Fischer (McDowell), a powerful psychic in his own right. Now he’s a broken man, terrified of this place but motivated by the reward if he should be successful at surviving another attempt. He has erected psychic walls to protect himself but those are under constant assault once they arrive at the foreboding mansion.

At first there isn’t a lot going on, just some disquieting feelings which are mainly exacerbated by Ben’s resigned paranoia. Dr. Barrett, a pragmatic man, doesn’t believe in religion or supernatural phenomena although he is soon presented with events even he can’t explain away – furniture moving of its own accord, the manifestation of ectoplasm during a séance, and the erotic possession of his wife. Dr. Barrett scoffs at Tanner’s religious faith and the two get into heated arguments. His explanation is that there is unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house which he has built a machine to eradicate.

Tanner for her part believes that the house isn’t haunted by multiple spirits as has long been supposed but in fact by just one – Belasco’s tormented son Daniel. She sets out to prove it, opening her to unprecedented danger and putting the entire team at risk. Not everyone will walk out of Belasco House intact.

This is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson himself wrote the screenplay. Matheson is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone and for writing the books that such films as I Am Legend are based on. That book was set in New England but the action was moved to England so that the production could happen there. Therefore we get a happy fusion of New England gothic horror and old England supernatural horror. The two make an excellent mix.

There isn’t much graphic nudity despite the era in which nudity was far more common than it is now; the sexuality here is of a much more subtle, erotic nature. The subtext of fear of female sexuality comes out strongly as the two men in the movie seemingly reject the erotic advances of the women. It is the women who display the aggressive sexuality here. Something to think about as women’s liberation was making itself known at the time.

Strong performances abound here from all four of the four leads, all four veteran performers by that time. McDowell was strong here as the twitchy, nervous and clearly terrified Ben Fischer but it is he who has the final confrontation with the presence infesting the house and it is he who stands up to it. I’ve always been a fan of the actor ever since I was a kid and saw him in such movies as Planet of the Apes, Class of 84, The Last of Sheila and Fright Night. It was in this one that I found him to be at his best, albeit in a sanitized suitable for television viewing. And for those who have read the book by the way, they’ll know that the sex and violence is far more extreme on the printed page. Hough and Matheson were going for a far more atmospheric production and they certainly succeeded.

This is as atmospheric a horror film as you’re likely to ever see. From the muted electronic score to the fog-shrouded exterior shots, the movie chills you to the bone from the get go as indistinct figures walk from the car to the front door of the mansion. I think few films have used silence to their advantage as effectively as this one, as loud noises interrupt the quiet and put the viewer’s nerves on edge. This is gloom personified and for those who like their horror movies creepy and unsettling, they’ll be in heaven here.

This is a movie from a different era. Those who effects-laden need roller coaster rides with a digital signature, undoubtedly you’ll find this boring and tedious. The action doesn’t really gather steam until the final ten minutes and even then it is tame by modern standards. The attitudes towards women are also a bit on the Mad Men side, although none of the women here are victims really. Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you jump right out of your skin. It is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and you will either love it or hate it depending on how patient a movie viewer you are. You already know which side of that separation I stand on.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendously atmospheric and sexy. Fine performances by main leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some scenes of terror and supernatural violence, plenty of sexuality and some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tales of Belasco’s debauchery and evil were loosely based on the notorious exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a 30-minute interview with the director.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting (1999)
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Three!

Dead Silence


She's bummed because she's out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

She’s bummed because she’s out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

(2007) Horror (Universal) Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Michael Fairman, Joan Heney, Laura Regan, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Judith Roberts, Keir Gilchrist, Steven Taylor, David Talbot, Steve Adams, Shelley Peterson, Enn Reitel (voice), Fred Tatasciore (voice), Austin Majors (voice), Julian Richings. Directed by James Wan.

The thing with urban legends is that they tend to be more folklore than folk. Legends like Bloody Mary and Spring-Heeled Jack, both of whom are likely to have at least some basis in fact, have evolved into creatures who haunt our nightmares but can do little more than that.

Jamie Ashen (Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Regan) are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. They don’t have much, but they do have a ventriloquist dummy that arrived mysteriously on their doorstep. So what does one do when one receives a ventriloquist dummy from an unknown source? If you’re Jamie Ashen, you go out for Chinese.

Naturally while he’s out picking up his Mu Shu Pork, his wife is being brutally murdered and yes, the dummy figures into it. Detective Lipton (Wahlberg), being no dummy himself, figures that the husband is suspect number one because he was the last person to see his wife alive, and this whole dummy story is completely preposterous, right? Not as preposterous as the cops letting him head back to his home town of Raven’s Falls to bury his wife, nor as much as later leaving the dummy at Jamie’s apartment despite it being an important bit of evidence. We’ll get to that later.

Jamie meets up with his Dad (Gunton) with whom his relationship has been strained to say the least but latest stepmom Ella (Valletta) seems to have mellowed him. Unfortunately, Dad’s new attitude doesn’t make much headway with his son, whose bridges have apparently been bombed and burned. However, Jamie meets up with the local undertaker (Fairman) and his addled sister (Heney) who inform him about the town’s dirty little secret; a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Roberts) once was accused of kidnapping and murdering a local child and was herself murdered by the irate townsfolk, who didn’t cotton much to that kind of thing. Mary was buried with her collection of more than 100 dummies, and has had her cadaver deformed to resemble a doll herself.

Of course, being murdered by irate townspeople will give a spirit one gnarly mad-on, so her spirit is rumored to have come back and picked off those responsible for her untimely demise one by one. The rumor goes that if her victim screams, Mary yanks out their tongue as well as a good deal of their soul/life force/whatever. It makes for an unpleasant nursery rhyme, but is the vengeful ghost of Mary Shaw real, and if she is, how do you fight something that has been dead for thirty years?

A fairly likable young cast performs as well as can be expected, with the character actors thrown in for good measure delivering. Kwanten is pleasant-looking enough, but struck me as more whiny than heroic. Valletta is awfully nice to look at but had sadly little to do. Gunton is one of my favorite character actors, but again is given a thankless role that gets very little screen time and makes little impact. Wahlberg is solid playing a role he has already done in the Saw movies, which Wan and writer Leigh Whannell created. He does it well enough, I suppose.

Director Wan works the tension up nicely although the pace drags occasionally. There aren’t a lot of special effects to deal with other than the articulated dolls but the dolls are first-rate when they do appear. The cinematography was adequately dark and murky to suit the mood although the set of the old theater where the climax takes place was unconvincing to my eyes.

A neat little twist at the end is the icing on a well-written cake. Although the “urban legend supernatural villains” has been done before, it hasn’t been done much better than this. Wan and Whannell go for a more atmospheric and less visceral movie than Saw and excel at it.

Unfortunately, Kwanten is uninspiring as the lead, and Wahlberg walks through his part as if he’s done it all before – which he has. There are a few too many preposterous plot points that were completely unnecessary such as the police leaving the ventriloquist dummy in the crime scene apartment. In real life something like that would be bagged for evidence along with the package it arrived in if for no other reason to rule out that the dummy’s appearance wasn’t tied to the murder. Something tells me that even I, not a professional detective, would find it a bit unusual that a murder victim received a ventriloquist dummy on their doorstep minutes before their demise and being the unprofessional that I am would be inclined to investigate it.

There are some pretty nifty scares here and some genuine creep-out moments. Horror film buffs, of which I am one, will find it a fairly fresh take on a genre that has been somewhat weak historically – the supernatural urban legend. Fans of Saw might be disappointed at the lack of gore but this is a pretty decent spookfest for those who love their horror atmospheric more than visceral.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice atmospheric thrills. Some scary moments liable to give you the creepy-crawlies.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kwanten is not convincing as the lead. Lapses in logic throughout,
FAMILY MATTERS: Although the gore is cut down significantly from the Saw movies, the atmosphere is far too spooky for the impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the dolls seen in the climax are replicas of Edgar Bergen’s doll Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Nelson’s doll Danny O’Day and Jigsaw’s doll from Saw.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video for Aiden’s “We Sleep Forever” as well as a featurette on the making of the film’s villain.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.2M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental/Stream), Amazon (Rent/Buy), iTunes (Purchase only), Vudu (Rent/Buy), Flixster (Rent/Buy), Target Ticket (Purchase Only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: My Old Lady

As Above, So Below


Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn't an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Aryan Rahimian, Samuel Aouizerate, Kaya Blocksage. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Below the streets of Paris there is another city, a city of the dead. The legendary catacombs are where the remains of some say as many as eight million Parisians rest. Bones stacked neatly in ghoulish patterns – this is a real place, an actual tourist attraction in the City of Light. How perfect a setting it would be for a horror movie.

Scarlett (Weeks) is going to oblige us on that score. She believes that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which European alchemists of the 15th century famously believed could change base metals into gold and allow the possessor to live forever, also rests in a secret chamber off the catacombs. She is a bit nutty on the subject – her dad (Van Hool) searched his entire life for the Stone and was ridiculed by the scientific community for it. His suicide only drove her into further obsession to find the artifact.

After nearly getting buried alive in Iran to photograph an elaborate Rosetta’s stone-like thing that would allow her to translate a map that she believes will lead her to the stone, the determined young scientist – who has several PhDs to her credit despite her youth – heads to Paris to find George (Feldman) who can translate the Aramaic and allow the symbols to be properly read.

George, once abandoned in Turkey by Scarlett so that she could continue her quest, is less than enthusiastic about helping her and her omnipresent cameraman Benji (Hodge) who is documenting the search. However, he agrees to put her in contact with urban spelunkers Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar) who agree to lead her to the place on her map even though it appears on no credible maps of the catacombs.

Once they get down there beyond the paths where tourists tread, strange things begin to happen. George, who is forced to join them by circumstances beyond his control, is definitely uneasy and Benji who is a bit claustrophobic is downright ready to turn on his heels and head back to the world above, sense that there is something not quite right and Papillon, who knows the area better than anyone except for La Taupe (Castro), a mole-like spelunker who went down into a forbidden tunnel and never was seen again. Of course, you know which tunnel they’re going to head down into – and where it leads may be the last place anyone rational wants to go.

Right now is a really good time to be a horror film, with an abundance of talented young up-and-coming directors showing immense promise and delivering in some cases some extraordinary horror films. While Dowdle qualifies as the former, his latest effort doesn’t qualify as the latter but don’t be put off – this is a very solid and entertaining horror movie that takes full advantage of its setting.

The cast is largely unknown although Mad Men fans might recognize Feldman but do solid jobs in roles that are fairly rote horror characters. I have to say Marhyar has one of the best “oh, crap!” expressions I’ve seen ever. It does make for occasional comedy relief.

The film is presented in a found footage format, which to my mind was totally unnecessary. We spend large chunks of time wandering down tunnels lit by headlamps and flashlights. Sure, this can be creepy but over the course of an hour and a half it gets old, plus because much of the movie is shot with GoPro devices the image quality is murky in places.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an off-the-charts creepiness factor going on here and Dowdle knows what he’s doing when it comes to ratcheting up the tension to high levels. While there is a lot here that’s unremarkable, overall this is a much better than average movie when it comes to horror and in a year where the bar has been set fairly high for big studio horror pictures this one comes in right in the middle of the pack.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely creepy setting. Some terrific scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Found footage is definitely passé and in this case, unnecessary. Could have shaved about ten minutes off.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of terror and violence, some of it bloody. There’s also pretty much non-stop cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first movie to be released in Legendary’s new deal with Universal after years at Warner Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Intermedio
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mood Indigo