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A Ghost Story (2017)

Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.

This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.

And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.

This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.

It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect

A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Blair Witch (2016)

blair-witch-2016-poster-1As is mandatory with all reviews, let us acknowledge the tremendous impact of the original Blair Witch Project, a full-borne cultural event that tapped into the zeitgeist. It was a rare indie movie that curated a must-see reputation and became a blockbuster. The found footage format was highly influential afterwards as were its low-fi thrills, community interactivity, viral marketing, and experimental construction. I remember having heated arguments with people about whether the movie was indeed real or a work of fiction. I pointed to the TV once and said, “Look, the actors are promoting it on MTV.” Naturally imitators followed suit and the studio looked to eagerly turn a curiosity into a franchise. 2000’s hasty sequel Book of Shadows was quickly rejected and just as quickly the Blair Witch phenomenon had slipped away. It remained dead until this summer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) and frequent screenwriting partner Simon Barrett had recently made a horror movie called The Woods, but at 2016’s Comicon the secrecy was finally dropped. It was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, filmed in secret J.J. Abrams-style. It was a stunt that worked, and once again there was life in this franchise. This will only last until people see the new Blair Witch, a monotonous, confused jump-scare haven that’s too indebted to the original and discards anything interesting it stumbles onto.

Sixteen years after three backpackers went missing, footage has been posted that possibly shows one of these backpackers, Heather, still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is now an adult male and determined to find out if his sister is alive. Lisa (Callie Hernadez), a film student and maybe James girlfriend, tags along to record James’ hunt for the truth into her graduate thesis. Their friends (Corbin Reid, Brandan Scott) come along for the adventure into the woods, as well as a conspiracy couple (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry) responsible for posting that new footage. The conspiracy couple leads them into the woods and it isn’t long before people get lost, tempers get heated, and strange disturbing noises materialize from the never-ending night.

blair_witch_2016_pic02Much can be forgiven if a scary movie delivers the spine-tingling goods, and standing in the shadow of one of the biggest horror hits of all time is no easy proposition. It’s too bad then that Wingard’s Blair Witch is far more tedious than terrifying. I didn’t fall under the spell of the 1999 original but I could appreciate its slow-burn efforts and execution, which relied upon a lot of unsettling dread left to audience imagination. With the 2016 reboot, the filmmakers have upped the ante but don’t have patience. There are over six different jump scares, each punctuated by a loud, often shrill scream. At one point there are three in a row in a succession of mere minutes, enough so that a character provides a meta dose of commentary by saying in exasperation, “Why do people keep doing that?” Calling attention to the annoying trait doesn’t make it better. The sound design is also, in a word, amplified. It sounds like Bigfoot or a dinosaur is tearing through the woods and wrecking havoc. It was enough that I hoped the movie would just reveal the Blair Witch never existed and instead it was some other sizeable monster of legend. I’ll give Wingard credit for the found footage cinematography not being self-consciously  overdone. The characters have an incredible stash of cameras, from GoPros to flying drone cameras, which makes the editing less choppy and the movie easier to watch.

There are exactly two scenes that unnerved me. One is the sheer numbers of an expected item upon waking up, the immense quantity and variation in size providing an eerie sight as it fills the screen. The other is a late sequence that involves squeezing in a tight space, which allows Wingard to employ some nice claustrophobic tension. Short of these two moments, and they are mere moments, the movie was boring me so profoundly that I considered just leaving, and I’ve never walked out on a movie before. It felt like it was going nowhere fast with characters I didn’t care about and without any relevant suspense. The found footage filming elements are even used to enhance the jump scares with sudden visual and sound glitches amplifying the tired attempts to constantly startle its audience. This is a movie more concerned with startling its audience than scaring it.

When the movie does start to tantalize your interest, it’s like a mirage that soon vanishes and you’re once again left in your dire predicament. Getting lost in the woods is not interesting minus interesting aspects. However, finding out that time is operating at a different level, now that’s interesting. The characters set their alarms for seven A.M. but it’s still dark out. The possibility of the Blair Witch manipulating time to trap hikers was the first moment in this entire movie that made me sit up in my chair. It took the movie in a different direction that demanded my attention, and it opened up the possibilities of what had been a rather lifeless enterprise up that point. Show me this movie. Alas, it’s an aspect that is quickly shoved aside and largely forgotten even with the timeline of events regarding the footage. There’s a scene where the stick figures directly communicate a powerful connective relationship, and yet this too is never touched upon again. There’s a new threat introduced that takes the movie in a body horror direction and raises questions about whether the woods themselves can become alive. It’s another intriguing moment that culminates in what promises to be a memorable gross-out image, and instead it too peters out and then unwisely abandons the body horror angle. It’s almost like the movie is so single-minded in its path that it ignores the intriguing and preferable detours.

Wingard and Barrett are trying to expand the Blair Witch mythology but their reboot operates on the assumption that there is even a base to work upon and that its audience is familiar with heretofore unspoken rules that appear arbitrarily and randomly. This reboot operates in a world that acknowledges the release of the first Blair Witch movie, yet nobody seems to be any different from this. Obviously James is different having to lie with the legacy of the movie, but why venture out into the woods on a whim of hope to find his long-lost sister who vanished 16 years ago? Does he think she’s just been living off squirrels and twigs in the ensuing time? Why doesn’t James try and question who edited the footage from his sister into a narrative? Why doesn’t he try suing the film production for profiting off his family pain? Why hasn’t Burkitsville, Maryland become a counter-culture tourist destination from taking ownership over its supernatural legend, much like Salem or Roswell? The town should be swamped with adventurous backpackers who want to live the experience. The much maligned Book of Shadows did far more to discuss the reality of the Blair Witch phenomenon and the tenuous hold on reality that the Internet age was ushering in. Wingard’s version eschews this world-building context for narrative immediacy. James wants to find his sister, he gets a clue that she might be out in those woods still, so they all go into the woods. Once the conspiracy theory couple insert themselves onto the trip it seems odd that we’ve ignored the larger context of the legend, instead rehashing how the Blair Witch died.

medium_maxresdefaultAs things begin to fall apart in the second half, the events start to feel arbitrary and poorly defined. There’s a sequence during the climax that I’ll try my best to describe with some discretion but be warned, folks (spoilers): the remaining characters eventually find that same shack in the middle of the woods, though the exact number of floors seems unclear. The witch looks to finally confront our characters, though why she/it waited until this moment is also unclear since she/it seems to be entirely overpowering. That’s when a character declares, with no prior guesswork to arrive at this conclusion, that they have to stand in corners and as long as they don’t turn around and look they will survive. And this works. It’s not explained why this Raiders of the Lost Ark closed-eyes routine is somehow the secret to supernatural survival (ignorance is bliss?). When the character unleashes this tidbit it’s treated like the audience knows the rules of the Blair Witch universe, and we sure don’t. At no point has a larger system been established, so when characters start spouting rules it feels like the movie is making it up as it goes. This don’t-look-back trick is played out almost to a comical effect, which culminates in the rising question of whether a character is going to backwards walk out of the whole stupid forest. The muddled world building (time dilation, voodoo sticks, tree monsters?) makes it feel like the doomed characters are ultimately trapped in a half-finished screenplay.

I was honestly expecting more from Wingard and Barrett after their previous genre collaborations. These guys know the underpinnings of enjoyable genre filmmaking and how and when t upend the conventions and expectations, zigging when others would zag. I felt these two would be able to take a studio gig like Blair Witch and find something new, something interesting, and certainly something scary with the property. I regret to say that this Blair Witch might be new but it sure fails to be interesting or scary. The characters are meaningless and interchangeable and boring. Their decisions are often illogical and stupid. The scares are stacked too high in favor of cheap jump scares, and the movie lacks the patience to develop its tension and horror. It can’t even properly establish rules for the audience to follow. It’s like the filmmakers are being upfront with their lack of faith in their final product. I think the key missing ingredient is, surprisingly, humor. Both You’re Next and The Guest balance along a delicate tonal line that can veer into macabre comedy any moment to lighten or heighten the tension. There are no (intentional) laughs to be had with this retread into the woods. I think the newest Blair Witch has done the unthinkable: it’s redeemed Book of Shadows.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Ghostbusters (2016)

ghostbusters-2016-posterGrowing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place. The 1984 movie is such a perfect blend of buddy comedy, the supernatural, and action that nobody has really been able to fully replicate this special film alchemy as well since, including director Ivan Reitman (he tried in vain with Evolution). When the word broke that there was going to be a new Ghostbusters remake, some trepidation from fans could be expected. It’s sacred ground to many. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) insisted that he wanted to have an all-female team of Ghostbusters, and that’s when the Internet lost its collective mind. The movie and its stars have been beset with hateful misogynistic (and, in the case of Leslie Jones, racist) harassment. The Internet didn’t want smelly girls playing with its toys. It became part of a larger war between feminists and retrograde men’s rights activist crybabies. Some people wanted it to be succeed just because of he gender of its leads, and others wanted it to fail for the very reasons. I just wanted a good Ghostbusters movie regardless of what bathroom the busters utilize.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) is an esteemed science academic trying to turn the page on her past. Her friend and fringe scientist Abby (Melissa McCarthy) has republished the book about paranormal they wrote together, which ruins Erin’s chance at tenure from her colleagues. Her ire is short-lived as Erin, Abby and her wacky nuclear scientist associate Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) experience a real dead ghost. Their slime-filled encounter with the undead reawakens Erin’s love of the paranormal and the three of them join forces. Patti (Jones) is an MTA worker who leaves her job and joins the gals after her own experience with a ghost in the New York subway. Somebody is trying to open a portal between the living and the dead, and these Ghostbusters gotta bust some ghosts.

Ghostbusters-2016My initial apprehension melted away within the movie’s first twenty seconds when it already had me laugh out loud twice (“anti-Irish fence”). There’s a consistent genial absurdity that kept me engaged and entertained, and this is typified by the strong comic camaraderie of the four leads. I enjoyed spending time with these ladies and I enjoyed their interactions, so when scenes could creep up on overstaying their welcome from a pacing standpoint, something of a Feig staple, I gave them more leeway and felt my patience rewarded. I don’t know how to make it plainer than this: I am not a Leslie Jones fan and I liked Leslie Jones in this movie. I have found Jones to be all-too often on Saturday Night Live a one-note comic presence, always loud and brash and hitting the same joke again and again with little variation. With Ghostbusters, she actually plays a character, capable in her own right, and a straight man for the other characters. These women were goofy, gross (a queef joke within Holtzmann’s first appearance), but they also enjoyed one another’s company. There are internal conflicts, sure, but their enjoyment of working together, of displaying their know-how, of the joys of discovering the realm of the paranormal create a bond that helps seal the characters with the audience. Whatever the scenario, I was confident I would laugh from these characters, and I did.

There is a lightness to the movie that makes it all the more appealing, settling into pleasurable summer fare. This story is as much about the formation of the Ghostbusters as anything else. In the original film they just sort of have their ghost-busting gear all of a sudden. With the remake we watch the trial and error process of bringing all that tech to life. It’s a fun process to see their business from the ground floor, so to speak, and their fight for larger credibility. Murray himself even shows up as a paranormal debunker who scoffs at their claims. The ladies are the lovable underdogs in this world.

The real reason that Feig’s movies work is the interaction of his boisterous and often brilliant casts, and Ghostbusters is another example. Wiig and McCarthy have a natural chemistry together honed from Bridesmaids, and their back-and-forth banter will often find punch lines in odd places. McCarthy has always been her best under Feig’s direction (seriously go watch Spy if you haven’t). While Abby is a less outspoken character than we’re accustomed to from her, McCarthy still has a commanding presence and is the one who lassos the other funny characters back into a sustainable orbit (“You spell ‘science’ with a Y, and I don’t think you know that that’s wrong”). I’ve stated above my positive feelings on Jones. She brings a welcomed perspective to the team and often serves as the voice of the audience, like a moment where she looks inside a room filled with mannequins, calls it “nightmare stuff,” and wisely keeps walking. McKinnon is the true breakout star, going for broke in a deadpan, anarchic silliness that is Murray-esque. She also displays a funky, near pansexual sense of excitement with the world around her. She licks the radioactive barrels of her proton pack in jubilation. McKinnon is a constant source of mirth in the movie and has some of the best one-liners (“It’s 2040. Our president is a plant!”). Another breakout might be Chris Hemsworth in comedy. His dimwitted and inept receptionist is perhaps too dumb to even function. Hemsworth just commits to his character’s straight-faced stupidity and it produces big laughs.

Not everything in the movie works as well together as the ensemble. The movie’s tone takes a giant leap once the third act commences with its apocalyptic ghost showdowns. You can sense that Feig isn’t nearly as passionate about action heroics and CGI. Example: the movie sets up a large-scale dance sequence and we never see it until the scene appears during the end credits. That seems like a waste. The character arc between Abby and Erin isn’t quite as developed as the movie needs for the emotional re-connection at the very end to hit. As much as I loved McKinnon in the movie, her character is more a collection of quirks than a person. The cameos from the original cast are mostly awful and kill amusement. Watching Dan Akroyd as a cab driver say he “ain’t afraid of no ghosts” made me roll my eyes and wish I could delete this from my memory. The less obvious nods are better fan service, like a character referencing “mass hysteria” or Erin frantically pressing her body against a restaurant’s large glass window. The Stay Puft marshmallow man as a parade float is a nice touch, though. The main villain is feeble but I can see how a dude with a grievous sense of entitlement could itself be a feminist statement on the hostility that women face in today’s world. There are some logical consistency issues when the busters go from trapping ghosts to shooting them and blowing them up, but it wasn’t enough to derail my sense of fun. The worst thing about this Ghostbusters is the new theme song from Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot.

160708_MOV_Ghostbusters_light.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeIs the new Ghostbusters a significant step in terms of feminism or is it overblown as some critics contend? The topic is unavoidable given the spirited furor over this remake; it has the most disliked trailer in YouTube history, though to be fair that was not a good trailer. First I’ll acknowledge that the world doesn’t need the opinion of a heterosexual white male on the topic of inclusion, but I’d like to say that there is something about positive representation. It’s the same reason I approve of Sulu being gay in the newest Star Trek. It’s not for me to say what is and is not empowering for a group of people who often lack positive representation in media. Nor am I arguing that every representation of a group needs to be positive; that swings in a direction where well intentioned “protection” becomes condescending. People can be good. People can be bad. People can be brilliant. People can be dumb. No one pool of DNA has ownership over these human traits. However, the reality of Hollywood is that it is often a poor representation of diversity. It is because of this that I say Ghostbusters deserves some praise for portraying a plot around four women that doesn’t involve boyfriends, weddings, marriages, pregnancies, any sort of romantic coupling, and doesn’t pit them against one another. This is an action movie with a female ensemble, three of whom are in their 40s, and all of whom don’t exactly fit with Hollywood’s standard conception of the attractive female lead. They don’t dress provocatively for the male gaze (the default setting for “strong heroine” in Hollywood is often “sexy deadly”). They don’t make fun of one another’s body types. They stand up for one another when people in power attack. They love what they do. I think there will be a swath of the public that recognizes themselves on screen, maybe for the first time, and I think there is genuine merit to this.

Somewhere amidst all the hype and hate, the new Ghostbusters emerges as a pleasant and enjoyably silly summer comedy. Feig’s movie pays homage to the original, including borrowing many of the general plot beats Force Awakens-style, but steps out onto its own territory. The 2016 Ghostbusters is not slavish to the original but recreates what made it work, a strong core group that meets the experimental and outlandish with droll irony. I think I laughed more with the 2016 Ghostbusters than the 1984 Ghostbusters. It has some flaws and some pacing issues but I was enjoying these characters so much to mind. As a lifelong Ghostbusters fan, I would gladly watch a sequel with these characters and this world once more. This won’t replace the fond feelings I have for the original, nor was it ever supposed to. This all-female Ghostbusters doesn’t take away what fans have loved. It simply adds another chapter with a new batch of entertaining characters, and if a part of the audience can better imagine themselves strapping on the proton packs and going along for the ride, then I don’t see what the harm lies with representation.

Nate’s Grade: B

Macbeth (2015)

macbeth-posterIt’s a mighty task to boil the Bard’s classics down to a tight yet meaningful running time and maintain a degree of cinematic quality. You don’t just want to film a stage play with the mighty parameters of film, and yet giving in to the visual majesty means less time for Shakespeare’s stirring words and complex characterization. Woe unto thee who attempt an adaptation. It requires more skill than thou would believe. I had hopes for the latest version of Macbeth from its top-shelf cast, Michael Fassbender as the titular ambitious murderer-turned king and Marion Cotillard as his wife and co-conspirator. It didn’t take long for my hopes to be dashed. First, the good: the rolling hills of Scotland are lushly photographed, and the concluding battle is set amid a roaring hellish fire and flying embers that makes for a stunning backdrop. The actors are fairly fine. If you couldn’t tell from this faint praise, there’s not much to credit as an achievement with this Macbeth. It’s strangely narcotized and often listless. It doesn’t help that the actors speak 80% of their dialogue in whispers or mumbles, even when they discover the former king has been murdered. Director Justin Kurzel (the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, also with Fassbender) falls back on monotony, whether it’s an overabundance of mist, similar and low-rent locations, and a plodding score that feels like scorpions are in your mind. Some of the changes are also for the worse, especially making Lady Macbeth more “sympathetic” and neutering one of Shakespeare’s great characters. She no longer sleepwalks and instead confesses her unshakable guilt to a cross. Also Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of his dead son with the witches. And there’s some brief inclusion of awkward sex amidst monologues. The final showdown comes at the 90-minute mark and the entire proceedings feel rushed and yet miraculously boring. Even the bloody violence is pretty tame considering its R-rating. If you’re looking for a truly cinematic Macbeth that enlivens Shakespeare, check out the Masterpiece Theater version with Patrick Stewart adapted into a 1930s Stalinist era. Now that was brilliant. Kurzel’s version of the “Scottish play” is one that only signifies disappointment.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

V/H/S/2 (2013)

220px-V-H-S-2_PosterThe second entry in the found footage horror anthology (and less than a year after the first to boot) is not as clever as V/H/S but more polished, better paced, and full of enough ingenuity to recommend, especially for horror fans. In my review of the first film I championed a shorter format, giving an audience the thrills they crave faster rather than slogging through an hour of slow buildup. The results are still fairly hit or miss, though none of the four segments is a misfire per se. The weakest is probably the last, “”Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” where the poor camera quality makes it hard to tell what is actually going on. The best, by far, is The Raid director Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” about a team of journalists picking perhaps the worst day to tour a creepy cult’s compound, notably during the apocalypse the cult predicted. This one takes a bit to wind up but when all hell breaks loose it goes nuts with glory. The wraparound segment tying everything together is more palatable and points to a promising mythology around the collection of these haunted VHS tapes that people keep watching and then dying over. All together, this is a concept that just works for horror and I’ll welcome presumed sequels as they come off the assembly line. This is found footage done right, with faster payoffs, more variety, and greater focus and ingenuity. If you enjoyed the first film, or are a fan of horror anthologies in general, then pop in V/H/S/2.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mama (2013)

1919Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the things that go bump in the night. He helped shepherd the horror film Mama to the big screen, and his love of heavy atmosphere and creepy, agile, lithe figures of terror is still evident. This is a rather effective and very creepy little horror movie that has enough little scares, big screams, and plain skin-crawling moments to recommend. The plot involves two little girls left to fend for themselves out in the wilderness. The two young actresses are fantastic, with terrific physical command of their bodies, able to slink and hop around like feral beasts. They help emotionally ground what could have been an otherwise ordinary ghost story. Oh yes, the girls prayed to a protector known as “Mama” who happens to be a malevolent and jealous spirit. Pity Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), not just for her Gothic haircut and heavy eyeliner, but also as the girl’s reluctant foster mom. I’m shocked at how disturbing it is to watch a highly articulated physical specimen bend and snap and scurry at odd angles, broken arms bouncing like insect mandibles. And director/co-writer Andrés Muschietti knows how to properly tease an audience with just enough show and tell. The end is rather rote and familiar but, due to the emotional connection, has moments of genuine poignancy. Credit the considerable talents of the little ones as well as the devious vision of Muschetti and the guiding hand of del Toro. Give Mama a look.

Nate’s Grade: B

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