As far as conventional horrors go, The Conjuring (2013) was one of the best we’ve had in recent years. Despite the clichéd haunting plot we’ve seen countless times, legendary Aussie director James Wan was able to make the most of it with his reliable bag of tricks, combining a creepy atmosphere with well-timed “Boo!” moments to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Wan did not direct the failed prequel, Annabelle (2014), but he’s back again to helm the sequel to The Conjuring, imaginatively titled The Conjuring 2. This time, the world’s most renowned ghost-hunting duo, the Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), have returned to tackle the infamous Enfield Haunting in the UK. There was actually a recent TV mini-series called The Enfield Haunting starring Timothy “Mr Turner” Spall and Matthew “Mr Darcy” Macfayden, which was actually pretty decent and most likely closer to what really happened than the hyper-sensationalized version told in The Conjuring 2.
Anyway, like The Conjuring, the sequel focuses on both the Warrens and the family being haunted, the Hodgsons — a single mother (Australia’s very own Frances O’Connor) and four children living in suburban England — in particular the second-eldest daughter Janet, played superbly by Madison Wolfe. Some of you might already know the story because the haunting is perhaps the most well-known in British history, but if you don’t, brace yourself for some scary shit.
The film shifts back and forth between the Warrens and the Hodgsons, telling essentially two stories simultaneously. To Wan’s credit, splitting the screen time actually adds to the film rather than take away from it. The Warrens get a bit more of a personal story this time, and it’s good to see actors the calibre of Farmiga and Wilson strut their acting chops. They’re both really good, and their fantastic chemistry helps make their relationship the core the movie.
As with most haunting films, this one plays out as you would expect, starting with a few little weird things here and there to whet the appetite before all hell breaks loose and the ghostbusters come in to save the day. Notwithstanding the boiler-plate structure, Wan works his magic again, turning the first half of The Conjuring 2 into one of the most terrifying movie experiences I’ve sat through in years. I’m sure watching in the cinema definitely helped the atmosphere, but it really is due Wan’s masterful control over everything that is happening – from the atmosphere and the characters (it makes a huge difference when you care about them) to the use of darkness and lightning, and especially the blaring score and sound effects. I’m not going to lie: there were a few sequences where I had an anxious inner debate with myself on whether to shut my eyes for a couple of seconds.
After the nerve-wracking first half, however, the film does settle down, and the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as frightening. Though the rhythm picks up and tensions are supposed to rise, by the time the Warrens arrive to do their thing I had started to get that “here we go again” feeling. While Wan was fantastic in making me forget about how conventional the film was in the first half, in the second half he was less successful. There were still some decent moments as the film ramped up to its finale, but for the most part I found myself significantly more relaxed that I was in the first hour or so.
I also didn’t like the way the script wrapped up the story in a way that connected the dots and made the different strands converge. Frankly, in trying to find a way for help the story make sense it actually made things more confusing and make less sense. And of course, the movie definitely is too long at 2 hours and 14 minutes. It’s never boring or slow, but shaving 15-20 minutes off would have been welcome.
On the whole, The Conjuring 2 is a solid follow up to its predecessor. The first half was decidedly scarier than the latter, though even with a fair share of flaws, the film is still a top-tier horror flick, the type that only comes around a handful of times a year.
4 stars out of 5
PS: A new spin-off called The Nun is apparently in the works.
I’ve been trying to fill out my list of worst movies of the year, and the Paranormal Activity franchise has never failed to help me out in that regard.
And so it fills me with a mixture of glee and grief to declare that the sixth and final (really?) instalment, The Ghost Dimension, is indeed one of the worst films of 2015. What, you were expecting something else?
Where do I even start with this piece of found footage crap? Again, it’s about a family who loves to film absolutely everything for whatever reason. They move into a house and weird shit starts happening but they stick around and keep filming anyway and read old books that amazingly explain everything, until shit gets really crazy and they bring in a priest who miraculously knows exactly what to do, except he’s not much of a help, and they keep getting terrified while still filming until everyone gets possessed, dies or disappears.
The story, if you can call it that, is connected to the previous movies, not that I care or can remember. It’s the same thing every damn time anyway, but it’s cheap to make and it makes money, so that’s why I must endure this hell once again.
My problems with found footage films are well documented. Rather than trying to make things a little more realistic this time, Ghost Dimension actually embraces them more than ever. Honestly, I thought they would have thought of the idea of a camera fixed to a pair of glasses or something by now to make it a little less moronic, but of course it makes infinitely more sense for the protagonists to keep filming with the camera right in front of their eyes the entire time despite running for their lives, looking around for their missing child and peeking around while hiding from horrifying monsters. Smart move. Did I mention the film was made to be in 3D?
Ghost Dimension even goes a step beyond by being even less scary than the previous instalments. Instead of good old fashioned apparitions and creepy atmosphere, the film goes for a combination of Insidious‘s idea of multiple dimensions, Poltergeist’s idea of a little girl getting abducted into another realm, and even — SPOILER for those who still give a shit by this point — time travel. I’m not making any of this up!
The only positive thing I can say about Ghost Dimension is that it at least met my expectations of what it was going to be like. As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me six times, shame on Paranormal Activity.
When I first caught a glimpse of the trailer for RIPD I thought, man, this looks a lot like Men In Black for ghosts. A young guy joins a clandestine organization dedicated to eradicating threats common folks don’t know anything about — for their own good — and gets paired with an older partner who is somewhat wacky. Throw in some special effects, light humour and an anagram for a title. Sound familiar?
And so I watched RIPD and my thoughts were confirmed. Yes, it is strikingly similar in idea and tone to MIB, except it’s not as good — and I don’t even think MIB is particularly good.
Ryan Reynolds plays a young cop who does something a little dodgy with his partner, Kevin Bacon, but then his conscience strikes and he has a change of heart, which of course inevitably leads to his demise. Given his skills, he is given an option (which he naturally accepts) by Mary-Louise Parker to join the RIPD, which stands for the Rest In Peace Department (so clever). He is teamed up with an old gunslinger from the 1800s, played by Jeff Bridges, who is quick with his gun and has a fetish for hats and ankles. The two are sent back up to Earth where they take on “deados”, essentially demons disguised as humans. Somehow, they become embroiled in a case where the whole world is at stake and they have to save the day.
As it turned out, a derivative premise is the least of RIPD’s worries. The biggest problem with this film is that it is boring and unexciting, even when our heroes are driving around, chasing and shooting at comically grotesque monsters. The plot is painfully predictable. The progression is flat. The jokes are not funny or fresh (they try to milk this gag where our RIPD officers are in avatars of a hot blonde woman and an old Chinese man — for far too long). The special effects are some of the worst I have ever seen in a recent movie, with the deados looking less authentic than creations in most modern video games. They essentially look like cartoon characters — no joke. And the tone of the film was clearly designed to appeal to a very very young audience.
RIPD might be a passable 96 minutes of fun-ish entertainment for audiences with very low expectations, but the truth is that it is one of the worst comic book adaptations, possibly ever. I won’t lie. I missed a bit of the movie because I fell asleep. It really was that bad.
1.25 stars out of 5
PS: I pity anyone who paid extra to watch this in 3D.
Sure, Invictus was just okay, but it seems to me old Clint Eastwood can do no wrong these days. There is a quiet confidence in his approach, a lovely subtlety in his pacing and pauses. And no matter what, he manages to evoke powerful, genuine emotional responses from his audiences (I mean, come on — Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino…).
Eastwood’s latest effort, Hereafter, is no different. It’s a dangerous project because, as the title suggests, the film is about death and what comes after, which makes it prone to soppy melodrama and manipulation. And of course, the afterlife is a topic often subject to ridicule and parody, so there’s the additional hurdle of keeping the film serious without tipping it over the edge.
Somehow, some way, Eastwood delivers. Pound-for-pound, Hereafter is perhaps not one of Eastwood’s greatest films, but it’s certainly one of his better ones — and it holds great potential to be one of his most popular films.
It tells three separate stories about three different characters — Marie (Cecile de France), a well-known French television journalist; George (Matt Damon), an American factory worker who just gave up on his old job; and Marcus (Frankie McLaren), a British boy with an older twin brother and a crackhead mother. I won’t say much more than that except that each of their lives is touched by death and what lies beyond.
Perhaps it’s just my fascination with the film’s themes and/or my appreciation for Eastwood’s direction, but I was totally engrossed by Hereafter from start to finish. Sceptics might have a natural bias against the film because it lays quite a lot out on the table (similar to say atheists towards The Passion of the Christ or fundamentalist Christians towards The Da Vinci Code — even though it’s fiction), but those who keep an open mind will find it hard not to be moved by at least one of the three stories in the film. It’s a shame that many people will simply scoff at this film because of its subject matter and try to discredit it on other grounds. I’m just glad religion played an almost non-existent role in all of this.
Anyway, I loved it. Eastwood butchered the ending in my opinion with a pointless sequence but apart from that I found it beautiful, absorbing, poignant, and ultimately very satisfying.
Yesterday I watched the ‘based on the true story’ film The Haunting in Connecticut.
First, a short review
To be honest, despite the poor reviews the film was received, it wasn’t all that bad. It was just average, and for a supernatural horror film, ‘average’ is pretty good these days. In my opinion, it was one of those rare horror films that actually got better as it progressed. In the first half or so, the attempted scares were your stock standard ‘boo’ moments and the bloody, visceral shocks you’d expect to see in any regular PG-13 horror. I don’t know why, but for some reason I found myself actually frightened a few times in the second half, and that’s a rarity for me nowadays. I even forgot how insanely and ridiculously stupid and non-sensical (even within the confines of the film’s own logic) everything was. And for that, 3 out of 5 stars!
Fact or Fiction?
After I got home, I started wondering just how much of the film was really ‘based’ on the true story? Was it even a true story to begin with? Which characters existed and what parts of the film actually happened in real life?
And so I turned to the trusty old Internets for some answers. The results were…interesting.
The film is ‘based’ on supposedly true events that happened to the Snedeker family in 1986 when they moved into a house that turned out to be a former funeral home. Naturally, spooky stuff started happening. Their oldest son, who was 13 at the time and being treated for Hodgkin’s disease (the ‘Matt Campbell’ character from the movie) started behaving strangely and their 17-year old niece said she was fondled by unseen hands. The mother, Carmen Snedeker (the ‘Sarah Campbell’ character from the movie), also claimed to be the victim of demonic sexual assaults. There were many other alleged disturbances (such as water to blood, putrid odours, crucifixes going haywire or disappearing etc) but these were the most serious.
Eventually, Carmen Snedeker brought in Ed and Lorraine Warren, the infamous old ghostbusting couple that covered the ‘Amityville Horror’ haunting. The Warren’s nephew, John Zaffis, also joined in for observations. They became convinced that the house was haunted by demons. A Catholic priest was brought in and the spirits were exorcised, and things went back to normal after that. The Snedekers left two and a half years after they moved in.
With help from the Warrens, the Snedekers’ story was first brought to light by the book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting by Ray Garton, a horror fiction writer, and was also the subject of an episode of the TV show A Haunting titled A Haunting in Connecticut. From what I’ve read about the book and the TV show, both were incredibly frightening.
I wanted to know how credible the true story behind the movie was, so I dug a little further.
What John Zaffis said
John Zaffis is the nephew of the Warrens that were brought in by the Snedeker’s for help. Here is the full article he wrote about the Snedekers and their funeral home house.
In short, he discusses some of the background and events detailed in In a Dark Place and talks about his own experiences in the house. Here’s an extract:
This is the case where I had my first encounter with a full formed demon and it is something to this day that I will never forget. I was sitting at the dining room table when it started to get ice cold in the room, at this point I knew something was getting ready to happen. I tried to get the other researchers or family members to respond to me by calling out to them but they did not. I knew at this point this was meant for me to experience alone. I had gotten up and walked into the hallway and looked up at the top of the stairs, I began to smell something like rotting meat which was all over this area and it was unbearable. As I continued to look up the grand staircase, I started to see something begin to form, as it slowly descended down the staircase. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, it had come to the last step on the staircase and it said to me “do you know what they did to us, do you know”? That was enough for me, I left the home and did not return for three days. I do not think I’ve ever encountered anything that has scared me as bad as that, I would not speak to anyone for days after the encounter, but I did go back to work on the case, the family needed our help.
Sounds pretty scary, right?
What Chip Coffey said
Chip Coffey is a self-proclaimed ‘psychic, medium, spiritual counselor and paranormal investigator’ who became involved with the Snedekers when the TV show was made. Here’s his blogger site.
Coffey also wrote an article about the haunting in Connecticut titled ‘Demons from the dark’ which mirrored a lot of the things said in Zaffis’s article. Here it is anyway.
I must say, had I only seen Zaffis’s and Coffey’s articles, I would have found it all pretty convincing (maybe not convinced, but it would have been convincing). But Carmen’s website smells funny – from the smiling ‘star-shot’ portrait to the shameless promotion of herself, advertising for supernatural investigators (including Zaffis), her touring lectures about the hauntings and (here’s the clincher) the brand new book on the haunting she is working on with Zaffis and Coffey! Now they don’t sound so convincing anymore.
Carmen also mentions the feature film, which she believes “will bring a new understanding of what went on in the house”. Clearly she had no idea of what the Hollywood producers had in mind.
From Carmen’s website, the Snedekers’ story began to completely fall apart.
What Garton said about his own book
From first publication of In a Dark Place, author Ray Garton has been savaging his own ‘non-fiction’ book and the Warrens. I’ve found numerous examples of him condeming what he wrote as, effectively, made up. By him. Fiction.
Probably the most complete account comes from his interview at Horror Bound Magazine (see entire interview here – worth a read because it’s quite funny and interesting – and has some good advice for aspiring writers at the end):
Q: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. In one case in particular, a book that was labeled “non-fiction” should have been labeled “fiction” (through no fault of your own). For those Horror Bound readers who have a huge interest in the paranormal and who have followed the careers of Ed and Lorraine, what would you say?
A: Ah, the Warrens. Ed, of course, has gone to that great haunted house in the sky, but Lorraine is still around. Back in the early ‘90s, I was offered a chance to write a book for Ed and Lorraine. As a kid, I used to follow their ghost-hunting exploits in the National Enquirer. I thought it sounded like a fun job, so I took it. I went to Connecticut and spent time with the Snedeker family. They’d moved into a house with their sick son and learned the place used to be a funeral home. They claimed all kinds of spooky things had happened in the house. They’d called in Ed and Lorraine, and after investigating, the Warrens announced that the house was infested with demons. Some of these demons had anally raped members of the family.
A little aside here. Back when I was reading about the Warrens, they were ghost hunters. Every house they investigated had at least one ghost, and there was always a spooky story behind it. But after The Exorcist was so wildly popular, first as a novel and then as a movie, Ed and Lorraine stopped encountering ghosts and began to uncover demon infestations. And it seems that wherever they went, people were being sexually molested by demons. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Carmen Snedeker was an unemployed wife and mother who was running an illegal interstate lottery business, about which she asked me numerous times to tell no one. I never met the son, who was said to be ill, although I was allowed to talk to him on the phone once, supervised by Carmen. When the boy began to talk about drugs and told me that he didn’t hear and see strange things in the house once he began taking medication, Carmen ended the conversation. As I gathered all the necessary information for the book, I found that the accounts of the individual Snedekers didn’t quite mesh. They just couldn’t keep their stories straight. I went to Ed with this problem. “Oh, they’re crazy,” he said. “Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary.” I didn’t like that one bit. But by then, I’d signed the contract and there was no going back. I did as Ed instructed – I used what I could, made up the rest, and tried to make it as scary as I could. The book was called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting.
As soon as it was published, I started telling my story, knowing full well that it would not be too popular with the Snedekers or the Warrens. I was right. Carmen Snedeker, now Carmen Reed, has denounced the book. She claims they had little involvement in it, which is a lie. Since the release of that book, the Discovery Channel has aired a “re-enactment” of the story called A Haunting in Connecticut, which, of course, presents the Snedekers’ story as hard cold fact. Now a feature film based on the story is going to be released soon called The Haunting in Connecticut. I suspect the movie will begin with the words “Based on a true story.” Be warned: Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn’t true. Last I heard, Carmen is working on a new book, to tell the real story – apparently they’ve settled on one. I don’t know if Carmen runs her little interstate lottery operation anymore, but now she’s claiming to be some kind of psychic healer. She says she’s always been a psychic healer, although I didn’t hear anything about it in Connecticut back in the early ‘90s.
These days, John Zaffis is the “investigator” being used to make this cockamamie tale look like something remotely resembling legitimate. Zaffis is the nephew of Ed and Lorraine Warren. He was around back when I was working on the book. He didn’t do much, just stood around. Lorraine told me he was learning the business. He told me a story about something he saw in the former funeral home – some kind of “fully formed demon,” or some such nonsense.
During my stay in Connecticut, Ed, Lorraine, and Zaffis repeatedly told me they had videotape of supernatural activity they’d shot in the demon-infested former funeral home (which I never visited because the current owners claimed the Snedekers were full of it and wanted nothing to do with the Warrens’ little dog and pony show). They assured me I would see that footage. Throughout my visit, they kept telling me the videotape was coming, that they were having trouble finding it, but they’d show it to me. By the end of my visit, there had been no sign of any videotape. After my experience with the Warrens, I talked to a couple of other writers who’d written books for Ed and Lorraine – and their stories were nearly identical to mine.
I found another message board thread on dejanews where Garton posted, and he had the following things to say about the Warrens:
I spent several days with the Warrens during that time. I spent time with them in their home and ate with them and went on long drives with them. Of the two, Lorraine is the sanest. She’s an “enabler”. Years ago, before their career in the “supernatural” began, Ed suffered from mental illness. It was bad enough to keep him from working, and the only way he could make money was to hand paint haunted houses on dinnerplates and sell them door to door. Once Ed decided that Lorraine was “psychic”, selling the haunted house plates eventually led to “investigating” haunted houses. At first, they found “ghosts”. But after the tremendous success of THE EXORCIST — both the novel and the movie — ghosts suddenly became demons. If you go back and trace their career, you can see the sudden change. Almost overnight, all ghosts were really demons trying to possess residents, and sooner or later, the demons anally raped someone. It never fails, every damned time, the Warrens’ demons bend somebody over a bed or a sink and beat down the back door, if you know what I mean. From my time spent with the Warrens, I learned from Ed that their job is not really to “investigate” so much as it is to take the stories told by these families — most of whom are dealing with REAL problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and/or domestic abuse, problems that are buried by their supernatural fantasies, which are supported and made tangible by the very eager Warrens — and arrange them into a saleable package that will make a good book, and hopefully a movie.
Not only are the Warrens frauds, not only do they give a bad name to people who are SERIOUSLY investigating paranormal phenomena, I think they’re EVIL because of the way they exploit families already deep in despair and ready to shatter. I can ignore a simple con job … but the Warrens are actually damaging people who are already damaged, who are desperate and vulnerable, using them for the sake of a book, maybe a lucrative movie sale, or another story to add to their traveling dog and pony show. Before I worked on that book, I’d followed the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren faithfully since I was a little boy. I was excited to work with them. Boy, was that a big disappointment. It’s nice to believe there’s a smiling, grandparently couple out there chasing demons … but not when you know they’re hurting people for the sake of publicity and the almighty dollar.
In it, Nickell discusses the background of the Snedeker family and why he thinks it was all made up for media exploitation. It’s particularly interesting because Nickell was actively involved in trying to debunk the story when it first came to light and was being discussed on talk shows. There are plenty of quotes from people who lived around the Snedekers who claim it’s all fake, and suggestions of how some of the paranormal activities could be rationally explained.
Concluding thoughts – so what actually happened?
After reading Garton and Nickell, I was ready to write the whole Snedeker haunting off as shameless attention-seeking and media exploitation. But then I came across this message board, where two posters (brothers) claimed to have lived in the house after the Snedekers. Well, the problem is that their identities can’t be verified, but what they’ve written seems genuine enough. And according to them, the house wasdefinitely haunted, just not to the extent grossly exaggerated by the Snedekers. There were voices, loud footsteps, swinging doors – but that was about it.
As someone who believes in ghosts, a former funeral home would be a prime candidate for a haunting. And as someone who has done a fair bit of reading on ghosts, I understand that different people have different sensitivities to these types of things. Further, people who are fit and healthy are less likely to experience things than people who are ill. So it is possible that the house was haunted, and perhaps the Snedekers, with their sick son and multitude of problems, experienced more of it than other people. But just about everything else points to shameless exploitation for a bit of money.
My guess is that there were probably a few spooky things that happened at the house (paranormal or not), but nothing as dramatic as they claim (and certainly none of the crap in the movie). But when the Warrens got involved, things just spiralled out of control and it became nothing more than a money-making venture. Assume you believe in ghosts for a minute – okay, it’s a funeral home, lots of dead bodies, so maybe a lost soul here or there – but why all these raging demons who like to molest people? In real life (unlike in the film) there were no explanations offered, no dark history of torture or mutilation uncovered, no ancient burial ground or corpses in the cellar.
And come on, if you had something as terrifying as demons trying to anally rape you, would you stay in the house for another second? I don’t care if you don’t have another dime in the bank – you wouldn’t just keep the lights on and go back to bed!
(SPOILERS!) FACT VS FILM (SPOILERS!)
Read on if you have seen the film or don’t plan on seeing it.
After looking into the facts behind the story, it seems there were only a few similarities between the film and the true story on which it was based. We know that a family did move into a house that was formerly a funeral home, and they did it to be closer to the treatment facility for their son, who was suffering from cancer (Hodgkin’s disease). We also know that the son did undergo some drastic changes in personality, and he would eventually recover, but he was probably nowhere near death as suggested in the film. There were probably some alcohol and financial problems too.
Apart from that, just about everything else was different. The Snedekers had 3 sons (aged 13, 11 and 3) and a 6-year old daughter. 2 nieces would move in with them later. There was another tenant living upstairs. Most significantly, there was no elaborate back story about a young medium boy who conducted seances, no stolen graves, no dead bodies stashed away in the basement, no dying reverend who happens to know everything, no carvings on the body, no box of human eyelids hidden under the floorboards, and certainly no burning down of the house.
As for the ghosts and paranormal events that happened in the house, only a few people know the truth, but the one thing we know for sure is that they were nothing like what was depicted in the movie. ‘Based on the true story’? Hardly. Maybe more appropriate would be: ‘Inspired by events that may or may not have happened’ – but I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.