The Conjuring 2 (2016)

★★★★

The Conjuring 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: June 10th, 2016 (US); June 13th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

At one point in The Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson — as Ed Warren, paranormal investigator — attempts to play an Elvis track on an old record player that he immediately discovers isn’t working. The record player belongs to the Hodgson family, mother and four children. Wilson notices an acoustic guitar upright in the corner of the room, left behind by a cheating husband and father, and opts to give the instrument a whirl. He plays “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, his Elvis twang in full effect, and the children join in soon enough. Mum sobs a little; it’s her moment of reprieve. Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) cries too, envisioning a peaceful life with her husband, free from their hazardous occupation. It is such a sweet moment, quite possibly the sweetest of the year. And it occurs slap-bang in the middle of a horror movie.

I have long considered horror the genre most reliant on aid from other genres. Not because an exclusively scary movie can’t be successful in and of itself, but because it often takes added resonance for a scary movie to make that leap towards all-time great. The Conjuring 2 is not an all-time great. It is very good though, partially because director James Wan knows how to handle his surroundings (he’s been there before) and partially because those surroundings host reliable human drama. Just like in The Conjuring (a film I have seen again since this review and enjoyed a lot more), the sense of eeriness we feel as we watch holds more weight because we actually care about the characters on-screen. That’s good acting, good tone management, and good filmmaking.

Having exorcised demons aplenty, the Warrens decide it’s time to give up the ghost and focus on their own family. That is, until the Enfield case makes itself known: Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her offspring quartet, Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), are haunted by a spirit with historical ties to their flagging council house. At the request of the Church, the Warrens travel to England to observe from a distance, though we all know how that usually goes. It is worth noting that the decision to utilise a fairly unknown secondary cast, likely for budgetary reasons, proves a good one as it grounds those characters in a more believable reality. Since we don’t recognise any of the Hodgsons — Esposito’s role as Margaret is her first ever acting gig — it is much easier to get behind them as your average working class family.

The Warrens are roped into another paranormal investigation then, despite grievances. Lorraine has been struggling with the mental anguish brought on by her gift (she can see stuff) while Ed, though less pained physically, seems a bit fed up with the mainstream denial (we see this during a televised debate during which he sports a mean Wolverine hairdo). To his relief, England appears united in its belief that something spooky is going on in Enfield. One newspaper refers to the Hodgson home as “The House of Strange Happenings”. And the Warrens’ begrudging return to the fold becomes truly worthwhile when they meet their clients, a genuinely nice family due a break. Newcomer Esposito, playing the eldest, relays that same attitude of care for her brothers and sister as Emily Browning did in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The siblings can’t afford to argue because they can’t afford anything. The closest thing we get to a squabble lasts mere moments and is over food. As well as poltergeists, they are up against a social climate preempting Thatcher’s Britain (the film is set in 1977, a few years prior to her Prime Ministerial venture, but it might as well be set in the early 80s). Thatcher herself even appears on television at one point. Although Wan and co-writers Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, and David Johnson mightn’t have meant it, their movie does act as a symbolic decrying of the former leader’s era in government. Here we have a family isolated and afraid, troubled by a domineering force they themselves can’t touch, with no prospect of homegrown assistance. Their house, walls flaking and furniture dank, recalls The Babadook, another family drama disguised as horror. By contrast, the Warrens’ stateside residence is bright and sunny. A home.

Wan recycles a few elements from The Conjuring: the blunt, yellow text that opens the film, perversely serenaded by a malefic male chorus, is a stylistic consistency that works. The haunted house plot is a tad worn out, but when your central pairing are based on real people who often conducted haunted house visits, that’s a tough one to get around. For the most part any sense of tired repetition is painted over by the development we get character-wise. I’m not saying this is in the same ballpark as a Linklater sprawl or something of that ilk, not by a long shot, but it is a treat to watch well-rounded characters bear the weight of horror. Wan welcomes classic genre tropes, utilising Ouija boards and creepy toys as scare MacGuffins. It’s not really about how the characters use these artefacts but instead the emotional fallout of said usage.

Don Burgess delivers behind the camera, exuding initiative and variation. A jarring, jilted effect during an early séance sets the visual tone and justifies the sort of terror described shortly thereafter as “diabolical”. Later, we become part of the horror as the camera swoops around characters and spirits, flirting with disorientation. Sometimes it hovers above those below like an apparition. Perhaps it doesn’t add texture to the narrative, but Burgess’ work is different enough that it should engage viewers accustomed to the conventional. The cinematographer excels during quieter moments, when we expect a jump scare but instead witness unsettling portraits depicting faces that become unpredictable silhouettes in the dark. Wan and Burgess develop an eerie atmosphere that demands noise as silent scenes are unbearable — a Demon Nun sequence in the Warren household, or the odd actions of a firetruck toy back in Enfield.

It’s not perfect. There is a character arc that veers too near The Exorcist and a character, played by Franka Potente, who is drawn as thinly as can be. At over two hours the movie is too long to sustain its fairly straightforward story, which means the buildup to significant happenings is stretched beyond its narrative limit. The Warrens don’t start their investigation until at least an hour in, for instance, and we do miss the purposeful presence of both Farmiga and Wilson for large chunks of that hour. In fairness, the filmmakers are not doing nothing — they’re spending that time developing the plight of the Hodgsons. It’s just that there is sense of halted momentum, albeit momentarily.

Delighted with the financial prosperity yielded by their Annabelle doll spin-off (an incredible $257 million from a measly $6.5 million budget), Warner Bros. have announced the growth of another cinematic branch centred on the Demon Nun entity that haunts this instalment. Though efficient enough, Annabelle failed to match its elder’s genre know-how. The Nun is certainly a scarier visual prospect and a film based on it will undoubtedly rake in the cash, but I think The Conjuring series is at its best as it is here: more interested in its human characters, grounded by the performances of its human actors, and served admirably by its human director.

The Conjuring 2 - Nun

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

★★

Insidious Chapter 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: September 13th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Rose Bryne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins

The second instalment in James Wan’s scary adventure opens with a game of ‘Hot and Cold’, where Participant A uses temperature to gauge Participant B’s closeness to a particular destination. Only, it should be rechristened ‘Manufacturing Scares’ because that’s exactly what the game is implemented for. In fact, the moment is indicative of Insidious: Chapter 2 as a whole, a film that lacks invention and overly relies on horror commonalities. Before the final credits roll we watch as characters partake in a Ouija circle, find a ghostly videotape and visit an abandoned hospital. (Guess what? It’s haunted). Discounting the occasional splurge of genuinely creep imagery, Chapter 2 is much the same as the first chapter but without the benefit of a new-born shine.

After a brief venture down memory lane — the origin of Josh Lambert’s (Patrick Wilson) uncanny ability is relayed — we realign with the present where the Lambert household isn’t exactly settled. The grizzly death of paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) has caused a stir, and Renai’s (Rose Bryne) subsequent questioning by a police detective in regards to her husband Josh’s potential involvement in Elise’s demise is also inducing internal strain; he seems different, evidently cockier. Her beau’s strange demeanour ain’t even the worst of it: the evil spirits are back and once again preying on Renai’s family.

If retreading old ground was an Olympic sport, Insidious: Chapter 2 would be blaring out the US national anthem with a gold medal hanging not-so-proudly around its camera lens. The title sequence is a carbon copy of what came before; aided by a congregation of piercing strings, blood red letters boom on screen and form the once foreboding INSIDIOUS inscription. It is sort of scary but the impact is far lesser here than was felt at the beginning of the premier output. Said string instrumental is part of the same score as before and, again, might have been quite unsettling if not for its overuse.

The familiarities aren’t simply local though, they arrive from afar. Chapter 2 has a number of its hands in a number of stagnant terror traits — James Wan meshes together haunted houses, desolate hospitals, alarming photographs and more in a hodgepodge horror pie that more resembles eight undercooked slices than a well-done whole. We’ve seen it all before, just one film ago in fact, and Chapter 2 struggles to stand upright on its own as a result.

The various elements don’t converse fluently either. If the first half is often predictable, the second is occasionally undecipherable. It’s a mess, really. Leigh Whannell’s screenplay devolves into a plethora of timelines and various existences. The writer dusts off his acting chops when a singular focus might have served proceedings better. Older and younger selves meet, but they don’t really. (Or do they?) Jocelin Donahue joins in at this point but her previous genre achievements fail to rub off this time around. Indeed, as far as haunted house epidemics go, The House of the Devil is in another league. Some effort is made to tie up loose ends, it’s just a shame that these loose ends end up in a tangle. As far as the film’s predictability goes, we tend to know the plan before the characters do: “If only Elise were here to help us.” If only. Watch out for two tin cans and a string as well. Something spooky oughta happen there.

Given the film carries a tone that pangs with dishevelled nostalgia, it’s probably to nobody’s surprise that some of the acting is camp. Patrick Wilson plays Josh Lambert but with a noticeable sprinkle of added aplomb to his voice, so much so that you’d think something was wrong with the father/husband. Despite his attempt to be eerie and serious, Wilson’s allure edges ever closer to humorous as the film progresses. It’s not meant to be funny, but it is. Rose Byrne is always reliable and provides a solid anchor for the uninspired narrative. Ty Simpkins also has more to offer than first time around, though admittedly he did spent the previous instalment almost entirely in a coma. Leigh Whannell and Angus Simpson’s comedic duo is a completely jarring inclusion. Unlike Wilson’s turn as Josh, the pair are supposed to funny but spend their time on screen spouting cringe-worthy material.

Though infrequent, James Wan does unveil some of the well-furnished horror magic that he has deftly applied in the past. Much like in The Conjuring, Wan finds prosperity in some seriously disturbing imagery. Hairs raise as menacing-eyed, widely-grinning faces flash before us for only a split second, but it’s enough to leave a dent in our previously unscathed fright-barometer. Moments such as this one catch us off-guard, however unlike the inferior jump scares that consume the rest of Chapter 2, these images are themselves intrinsically ominous and therefore contextually justified. The film actually bares a well-oiled look and one of its better moments comes near the beginning: a slow pan from pitch black into a moody, dark room. Lugging a plot that can barely hold itself together without succumbing to old ways and characters that don’t really command our attention, Wan’s dexterity when it comes to imagery is at least one spooky success.

Insidious: Chapter 2 spends an hour playing with second-hand toys before it takes to doodling with permanent markers and resultant mess-making. Aside from teaching us not to have babies (they’re a real nuisance when ghouls attack) and treating us to one or two authentic frights by way of scary visuals, Wan’s outing is purposeless.

At one point Josh says, “All you have to do is ignore them and they’ll go away”. I’ve stopped listening.

Insidious Chapter 2 - Ty

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): FilmDistrict, Stage 6 Films

Prometheus (2012)

★★★★★

Prometheus PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: June 1st, 2012 (UK); June 8th, 2012 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba

Is Prometheus really that bad? Ridley Scott’s loose prequel to Alien digs an enormous hole and subsequently fills it with even grander musings; of humankind, creation, belief and life. It then plunges nose first into said crater, now as deep as the questions posed, before admirably clambering back to fresh air armed with purpose and answers. During this ascension we marvel at spectacle, engage in mystery, taste small bites of action, are disconcerted by horror and ponder classic science-fiction. To a certain extent Prometheus truly is a genre-splicer, but the outing always has its reels firmly planted in the wonders of sci-fi, exactly where they should be. In an era when summer often denotes the arrival of popcorn-churners, Prometheus survives on the front-line, waving the flag for intelligent and thought-provoking cinema.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archaeologists on the brink of silencing the most emphatic of all historical debates: who created us? The year is 2093 and a team of seventeen personnel including Elizabeth and Charlie have just landed on LV-233, a moon prominent in a number of ancient diagrams discovered by the duo. Aboard their vessel funded by Weyland Corporation is David (Michael Fassbender), a robot whose appearance resembles that of a human being, and whose thought process is occupied exclusively by sense. The landscape that enshrouds the team bustles with unknown activity, enticing the crew’s inbuilt need to forage, which they do unwittingly and at their own peril.

Zipping up his spacesuit, David is confronted by Charlie who queries the need for the machine to dawn such protective attire. “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose,” retorts David, summing up the philosophy of Prometheus in a single answer. The crew are on a voyage to meet their maker, but in doing so unknowingly present a case denouncing the ignorance of humanity. Collectively, we see ourselves as the pinnacle species yet we are wholly unjustified in our complacency. Damon Lindelof’s script explores how we not only rely on other genetic divisions — plants for medicine, animals for food, machines for everyday ease, Gods for belief — we even mistreat them.

Humanity’s naive demeanour is reflected in Charlie’s actions: he howls like a domineering wolf upon reaching a huge stone dome situated atop the uncharted moon, and proceeds to remove his helmet without approval, seemingly above any potential atmospheric ramifications. The film is an eye-opening critical analysis of human behaviour and although the results stop short at shining a positive light on us, they do beckon forth an important topic of discussion.

David’s response also reflects the insightfulness and opulence of Lindelof’s script, one that is not afraid enter to a room packed full of grandiose ideas, and is then brave enough to exit whilst leaving the door ajar. The occasional question is left unanswered which is absolutely fine (but we need some answerable continuity in the upcoming sequel). No issue remains unchallenged though, much to the filmmakers’ credit. Scenes prompted by deliberations over the various characters’ motives and beliefs are subtly tantalising; one involving David, Charlie and a snooker table particularly stands out.

These moments never overstay their welcome as they flirt with extravagant perceptions that are inherently connected to the science-fiction genre. Entering said realm we expect to contemplate life, the universe and everything and Prometheus encourages us to do exactly that. (“Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens to us when we die?”) Thankfully events refrain from boiling over into an indulgent territory; the aforementioned questions — unending in scale — are questions that cross our mind often and the significant consideration on show is warranted.

Reflective themes in the bank, Prometheus turns towards tension-ratcheting atmospherics. Alien is in part a horror franchise, there it is imperative that Scott’s prequel retains prequel retains an element of fear to complement the titbits of recognisable Xenomorph mythology on display. Marc Streitenfeld’s jarring soundscape is the genesis of discomfort; sequences that take place inside the aforementioned dome are accompanied by a chilling congregation of distant screaming. This eerie ambience disorientates us. The characters panic. A search buoyed by ambitious questions seeking conclusive answers yields unsettling possibilities. Never has the notion of being stranded in space upon an unknown entity felt so terrifying.

Then brass horns prevail, baring a deep verve that reflects the profundity of proceedings. The film’s stunning visual scale is just that, and its impressive execution qualms any potential worries over digital misfiring. Space vessels flow effortlessly, emitting a sense of authenticity as they embed into the landscape. At times, Prometheus’ sheen resembles that of Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychedelic Valhalla Rising; shots of unnaturally rapidly convulsing clouds remind us that we are in a foreign and undoubtedly hazardous environment. The weather too, another reminder that humankind is not the dominant species.

One element that doesn’t quite acclimatise is the occasional spouting of humour. Some may argue that without a light-hearted adage every now and again, the film would be taking itself too seriously. However, the ideas being batted back and forth along the outing’s grand narrative arc warrant a serious tone. Fifield and Millburn — geologist and biologist respectively — are the stock comic relief duo and though Sean Harris and Rafe Spall are solid in their roles, the characters are wholly unnecessary. In truth, the duo’s presence on the ship doesn’t really make sense — they’re buffoons, why would a multi-million dollar corporation hire them? If humour prevails at any point, it’s through Idris Elba’s suave poise and effortlessly blunt attitude as captain Janek.

There are no disastrous performances here by any means, nor are there any bad ones, but Michael Fassbender stands streets ahead of everyone else. One of two surprisingly ambiguous characters (the other being Charlize Theron’s practical Meredith Vickers, whose ethical mindset rides on a Ferris wheel throughout) Fassbender resonates a peculiar charm as robot David, whilst instantaneously channelling the nonchalant precision of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much like HAL, David’s actions take an increasingly perturbed turn; the combination of Fassbender’s astute portrayal and Lindelof’s creation of an opaque character adds up to compelling viewing. Noomi Rapace is another noteworthy performer as expedition leader Elizabeth Shaw. Her pained abdominal acting will have you grasping your stomach and wincing.

This dialogue-driven piece demands total engagement for just over two hours and justifies the attention it seeks. There’s a mountain of ideas here to sink your teeth into and, trust me, your jaw won’t ache. Scott’s film is a modern cinematic gem. Is Prometheus really that bad? No, it’s really that good.

Prometheus - Fassbender and Rapace

Images credit: IMP AwardsCollider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Conjuring (2013)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

After months of heightened anticipation built up through posters and trailers, The Conjuring hit cinema screens accompanied by scares more in tune with a series of pithy jabs rather than any fully blown knockouts. Even though it does hit the mark on a number of elements, the film is deceivingly weak on the horror side of things.

Set in the early 1970s, The Conjuring is based on a case undertaken by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. It relays the events the husband and wife pair experience as they attempt to assist the Perron family in ridding their new Rhode Island home of an evil presence.

Directed by the imaginative and twisted mind behind horror hits Saw and Insidious, James Wan, The Conjuring surprisingly relies heavily on drawn out sequences of tension-mounting silence. So much so that by the fifth time the spike in music arrives to signal a scare, the impact is lost on the viewer. In fact, any potential hair-raising moments brought upon through tension have already been screened in the trailer. The objective of any horror film is to frighten its audience, but there are other ways to do so as opposed to relentless attempts at jump-scaring (that is, solely depending on giving the audience a momentary and sudden fright). In fact the few times The Conjuring does deviate from this and instead opts for creepy imagery, it works very well and evokes that sense of fear and dread every horror film should strive for.

Another problem The Conjuring faces is the moments of incomprehensible decision-making by some of its characters. There is something about walking into a dark room which seconds before boasted a demented-looking ghost spewing eerie dialogue that does not exactly scream out as the most sensible option for somebody to take. This is not an obstacle exclusive to The Conjuring though, and is often an unfortunate nuance found in other horror films every year.

However, even when taking the aforementioned concerns into consideration, The Conjuring is still a very well-crafted, aesthetically on point film. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as the Warren family and strike up a well-oiled dynamic as the piece progresses. Both are enjoyable to watch and Farmiga in particular stands out as an anxious-yet-determined mother and investigator who has suffered some sort of psychological attack, and who also holds the safety of her daughter close to her heart. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play the heads of the Perron family and both do a more-than-adequate job as a slightly sceptical father and an utterly confused and worried mother, respectively.

James Wan has a tremendous eye for developing encapsulating visuals, as proven in his previous work. This time, everything from the Amityville-like house which looks and sounds like it could collapse into a pile of wood within seconds, to the wonderfully hideous make-up splattered across the ghoulish faces of the demons, adds to the somewhat diminished fear-factor the film possesses. The very short and ominous title sequence also deserves a mention, as the blend of screeching instrumentals and a menacing yellow text font provide an introductory chill worthy of a scarier film. Wan does capture the essence of most of the essentials needed to create a fully-fledged horror spectacle, but disappointingly misses out on consistent spooks.

It is probably true that The Conjuring has fallen victim to too much hype (an account “too disturbing to be told”) and it also places too many of its eggs in one basket as far as focusing on the true story element of the film goes. Otherwise, it ticks all of the boxes required to be an entertaining film and it succeeds on the few occasions James Wan does get the horror aspect correct.

Credit: The Times
Credit: The Times

Insidious (2011)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: April 1st, 2011 (US); April 29th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins

As far as haunted house tales go, Insidious certainly does not fall into the dud category and for 40 minutes is actually very good. Unfortunately, the high volume of tension expertly built up throughout the first half of the film is let down by an average, scare-lacking second half which delivers a hokey logical explanation of the goings-on.

The film depicts the lives of the Lambert family — husband and wife, Josh and Renai, their two young sons and baby daughter — after the quintet’s relocation to a new house. The parents’ hopes for a new start absent of problems are soon dashed when their eldest son Dalton falls into a coma, triggering a series of weird and unsettling events.

James Wan, whose first directorial role was the innovative Saw back in 2004, is in his primary element when he is establishing trenches of tension and utilising shiver-inducing imagery to impart fear. This is exactly what Insidious offers for the first half of proceedings, as an ordinary family falls victim to a tragedy which bats away any explanation, and are then the subjects of various abnormal happenings, which are also devoid of explanation. The two are obviously linked, but in attempting to uncover how or why this is the case, the seeds of dread and fear for both the Lambert family and the audience are planted. This, along with a variety of common but still efficiently adapted elements of horror (doors randomly opening, figures appearing), ensure that the film sets standards high going into its second half.

When that second half arrives, however, proceedings begin to unravel a little. For every disturbing image in part one, there is a corny one in part two. For every discreet moment of tension built earlier on in the film, there is a disheartening logical explanation later. Delivering a unique, scare-inducing haunted house film is difficult in the present era, and this is mainly down to the vast majority of the tricks and frights being over-saturated year upon year. The ironic aspect of Insidious is that Wan gets the clichéd parts completely right, and even manages to add a twist to them. By the time we reach the end of the film though, it is Wan’s attempts at doing something different that comes back to haunt him. The logical (and I use that term lightly) explanation of events the audience is given is not scary at all, rather it is groan-worthy.

With that being said, the second half of Insidious is not without merit. Again, when sinister, almost maniacal imagery is present on-screen, the film grumbles as it threatens to erupt in a flow of ominous atmosphere. Wan delivers such imagery in the climax, but not nearly frequently enough, causing the scares to be overshadowed by some uninspired plot developments leeching onto Insidious towards the end. The opening 40 minutes does such a good job of building an unsettling atmosphere that it possible the remaining hour’s inability to keep up with what came before exposes the misfire more than the film deserves. Wan can do inventive, as he has proven in the past with Saw, but this time his attempt at originality veers too near to nonsensical logic than spontaneous genius.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as the husband and wife pair and are thoroughly effective in their roles. Both come across as believable parents still trying to settle down into a comfortable way of living with their three young children. In line with the film separating into two parts, Wilson and Byrne appear to each take a turn at being the focal point of the piece. Byrne is at the centre of much of the spooky occurrences throughout the first phase of the film, and plays the traumatised, protective mother very well. Wilson on the other hand, sees much of the action in the second phase of the film, and is better than the hand he is dealt. Lin Shaye also makes an appearance as a paranormal investigator who fluctuates between calm and eccentric quicker than a tennis ball switches sides at Wimbledon.

The film’s tremendous box office returns have meant that Insidious: Chapter 2 has been scheduled for release later this year, and looks certain to be the autumn horror hit of 2013. James Wan will return to direct it and if he focuses on delivering a sequel more in tune with the first half of Insidious than the second, Chapter 2 will be as much of a critical hit as it will be a monetary one come September.

Credit: BoxOffice9
Credit: BoxOffice9