Tag Archives: Haunting

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

ghost dimension

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.

1 star out of 5!

Movie Review: The Gallows (2015)

the gallows
The poster and the teaser trailers looked promising

Hory shet. Just when you thought found footage movies could not possibly get worse, here comes The Gallows, a strong contender for worst film of the year. I was stunned it got a theatrical release because you can grab any low budget horror movie off the video store shelf and it’ll be more watchable than this piece of shit.

The crazy thing is that the premise of the film isn’t that bad. In 1993, a school play called The Gallows results in the accidental death of a student when a prop error turned a fake hanging into a real one. Twenty years later, a new production gets underway, and a bunch of students end up trapped in the school as a malevolent force comes after them. There four main characters are: a footballer (Reese Mishler) who decides to star in the play so he can get close to his crush (Pfeifer Brown), his jackass friend who’s a bit of a bully and dickhead (Ryan Shoos), and the friend’s cheerleader girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford).

It’s not a great storyline, but it’s a workable one (if you ignore why the same school would ever want to stage the same production). And yet The Gallows manages to make the worst of it. For starters, it has no business being a found-footage film. It should have just been a “normal” horror film. Instead, the filmmakers had to come up with a lame excuse for some student to film everything. And yes, he films and films no matter what is happening. That alone makes the film lose all credibility, and what makes it worse is that the shoddy camerawork renders the visuals practically unwatchable. People who get nauseated from hand-held footage are warned watch at their own peril. Actually, that goes for people who don’t get nauseated from hand-held footage too.

Nothing makes sense. It makes no sense that a kid who has nothing to do with the school play would be filming it during rehearsals. It makes no sense why he would be filming when he’s badly hurt or running for his life. It makes no sense why they would want to break into school to trash the set. It makes no sense why some of the characters end up at the school with them. And it certainly makes no sense why anyone wanting to do something illegal would film the whole damn thing from start to finish. It’s one pathetic contrivance after another.

On top of all that, the film is not scary at all. Even ignoring that it’s just about impossible to follow what is happening on the screen at times, the tricks are ones we’ve seen a zillion times before. People freak out for no reason and walk around in silence for ages before some unseen entity snatches one of them into the darkness. Rinse and repeat.

Add to the dung heap a dose of bad acting, a lot of bad dialogue and completely undeveloped characters no one gives a shit about — oh and a laughably bad ending — and what you end up with is this sorry excuse for a movie that should never have seen the light of day. It may have been made on a shoestring budget of US$100,000, but that’s no excuse. It’s the worst. The worst.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

poltergeist

I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jessabelle (2014)

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Perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say about Jessabelle is that it’s better than this year’s slightly more high profile Halloween horror flick, Ouija. That’s not difficult, of course, but given an option between the two the choice should be a no brainer.

Yet another young Aussie rising star, Sarah Snook, leads the cast as the eponymous Jessabelle (or “Jessie,” as she prefers), who is forced to go back home to Louisiana following a tragic accident that confines her to a wheelchair for the foreseeable months. (You know, Louisiana, the land of the Haitian voodoo business that freaks everyone out) There, she must live in the home of her mother, who died giving birth to her, and her living father, whom she has barely seen since he gave her up to be raised by her aunt.

Naturally, scary shit start to happen in the house, with the typical shadowy presence, the weird noises, the whispers, and the classic spooky girl with long hair. In accordance with horror conventions, Jessie will continue to be haunted until she unravels the mystery behind it all.

The horror cliché of choice in Jessabelle is the found home-videos her mother (played by Joelle Carter from Justified) made while she was still pregnant with her. Yes, it feels kind of arbitrary and trite, but the film does its best to make the videos seem necessary. The videos act as the catalyst for Jessie to find out about her past, and with the help of an old high school ex-boyfriend (Mark Webber, who was in the very solid 13 Sins), she begins to piece the puzzle together.

I know I’ve made Jessabelle sound like complete garbage, but it does have a few good things going for it. The film does employ some not-so-original “boo!” scare tactics that don’t work on me as well as they used to, though director Kevin Greutert (best known for his work on the Saw franchise) also infuses the story with a surprisingly effective creepy atmosphere. There is a bit of surrealism that also works quite well as Jessie is unsure whether her visions are just the effects of post-traumatic stress.

The story itself is also relatively interesting, at least at the start, when you don’t really know what is haunting Jessie or why. There are a few decent red herrings thrown in to throw us off track, creating a nice sense of anticipation and build up as the film progresses. Unfortunately, as often is the case with horror flicks, the payoff does not live up to the build up, as Jessabelle‘s third act dissolves into a bit of a mess that some might even find quite distasteful. However, I do give the filmmakers some credit because it comes across as a planned mess rather than an accidental one.

A big part of the reason I liked the film more than expected is because of Sarah Snook. She’s not given much to work with, but she demonstrates through her nuanced performance (yes, for a horror film) that there’s a very bright future awaiting her in Hollywood. In lesser hands Jessabelle could have been a disaster. I also quite liked Mark Webber, who’s doing a commendable job of carving out a niche in the horror market despite not being dashing or a pretty boy.

At the end of the day, Jessabelle will be categorized as just another one of those routine, uninspiring horror flicks that get rolled out every year, but thanks to a compelling set-up and the presence of Sarah Snook, I think it manages to stay — albeit barely — above the pack.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Ouija (2014)

ouija

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Ouija, this year’s Halloween supernatural horror release, is really really stupid. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Ouija is really really stupid. And I don’t mean the idea that a board can communicate with the dead — I actually believe some of that stuff is real. Oujia is idiotic because of the poor execution of the idea, the unsubtle and shameless horror cliches, the trite dialogue, and the utterly incomprehensible human reactions that defy all common sense and rationality.

Try to come up with the most cookie-cutter plot you can possibly think of for a horror movie involving a Ouija board, and chances are you have just come up with the screenplay for Ouija. A girl (Shelley Hennig) dies under mysterious circumstances. Her best friend (Olivia Cooke), best friend’s sister (Ana Coto), boyfriend (Douglas Smith) and others (Daren Kagasoff and Bianca A Santos) try to contact her with a Ouija board — the same one she used before she died — and they end up releasing some demonic spirit. The spirit haunts them and kills them off, one by one, while the survivors try and figure out the mystery behind it all. People with knowledge of how Ouija boards work are contacted, and they must figure out a way to save themselves before it’s all too late. Feel familiar?

To be fair, Ouija is not completely devoid of scares. It’s a film that knows what it is and who its audiences are, and it makes no attempt to be subtle. You’re likely to jump at least a couple of times, but only because that’s all the film is trying to do. The attempts at scaring viewers are typical and almost always the same — silence, silence silence, BOO! It’s always a loud noise, and occasionally it’s accompanied by something coming at the screen, being pulled away from the screen, or some ghastly sight. They don’t even try to mix it up a little with the occasional feint. There’s the obligatory scene in the bathroom, you know, the one with the mirror on the medicine cabinet, and of course, a convenient need to go into both an attic AND a basement.

I admit the tactics got to me at first, making me flinch a handful of times, but as the film progressed the scares just became more and more predictable. It’s one thing to know that a BOO moment is coming, but it’s another to be able to anticipate exactly when it will come, and even how it will come. Towards the end I even predicted how the plot would turn out, including the so-called “twist,” the “climax” and the “epilogue” scene. I hate spoilers, but can I just say I almost lost it when the protagonist’s suggestively Latino grandmother is conveniently revealed, right towards the end, as an expert on Ouija boards.

I wish I could say Oujia‘s problems end there, but it gets worse. First-time feature director Stiles White has some craftiness in his direction, so I’d say most of the blame goes to the atrocious script. I expected the dialogue to be sub-par, but here it’s quite perplexing. Apart from the cringeworthy exposition tagged to every second line, characters would say things that made no sense at all. When you pop out of nowhere and scare someone, you don’t then say to their face, “It’s me!” They know it’s you. You’re standing right in front of them.

More criminal than the dialogue is the actions of the characters, which are designed so that the next “scare” can be slotted in. It’s as though the whole film began as a collection of scare scenarios, and the rest of the plot was written around them. Doors to buildings are left open for inexplicable reasons just so they can slam shut to scare us. Doors are purposely left open so they can swing by themselves. A guy would ride a bike very fast, as though he’s in a hurry to get somewhere, only to get off it so he can walk extremely slowly through a dark — and extremely flat — underpass. He’ll even leave his bike so he can walk into the darkness to check out strange noises. Two sisters would leave together their house to go to play with a Ouija board, but only one of them would be seen returning home without any explanation whatsoever. Characters would be totally freaked out by something extremely small and potentially innocuous, but suddenly become brave enough to keep going in the face of something 10 times scarier and obviously demonic. They would even voluntarily separate in extremely frightening situations so characters can be alone. Sloppy, poorly thought-through stuff like this just frustrates me to no end.

I’m probably being harder on Ouija than I should be because I find the spirit boards fascinating and wanted it to be more than your run-of-the-mill supernatural horror flick. Unfortunately, it was even more unimaginative than I thought it would be. That’s not to say those looking for a cheap thrill or two won’t get their money’s worth, but for me this was a huge disappointment.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Conjuring (2013)

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Generic title, generic poster, awesome movie

In 1971, the Perron family moved into a big old farm house on Rhode Island. What happened to them there was apparently so terrifying that the world’s most famous “demonologists”, Ed and Lorraine Warren, decided to keep silent about the haunting…until now.

At least that’s the way The Conjuring, directed by Aussie James Wan (Saw, Insidious), has been marketed.

Putting aside whether this so-called true story is a load of crap (and I have my views on this, which I will share after this review), The Conjuring is, hands down, the best haunted house/demonic possession movie I have seen in years. We’ve had a lot of similar films in recent years that have been good but flawed — from the aforementioned Insidious to The Possession to Sinister to Mama to The Haunting in Connecticut (also a Warrens’ case) — though none are as genuinely scary, consistently well-crafted and overall satisfying than The Conjuring.

It’s a testament to the skill of Wan, who has to surely be Australia’s best commercial film director right now (no offense to “all-style, little substance” Baz Luhrmann). He picks up what is a essentially boiler plate concept — a family moves into a new home, strange things start happening, they escalate, and they eventually seek outside help, resulting in a climatic final confrontation — and turns it into an absolute frightfest. You know when the audience gets so frightened and nervous that they have to laugh after scary moments just so they can take the edge off the tension? The Conjuring is one of those movies.

In fact, the first gasp in the screening I attended came from the very first image. And the tension is sustained pretty much all the way through. Wan pulls out just about every trick in his horror director’s bag to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. To be honest, there is nothing particularly original or inventive in what he does — he just does it in a highly effective way, gradually building up the dread, creepiness and suspense and infusing it with the occasional “boo” moment, then milking your anticipation for more. You may scoff at some of the old tricks Wan employs (for example, he took the “doll” a little too far for my liking), but he is so relentless in his attempts to unsettle you that at least some of them have to work.

That said, there are some notable concepts in The Conjuring that set it apart from your average haunted house flick. The first is that the film is centered more on the ghost hunters, the Warrens, than the family being haunted. The screen time is probably roughly equal, but you get the feeling that the story is more about the Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) than the Perron couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.

The second is that Wan seems to have figured out where to draw the line in deciding what to show audiences and when to show it. Horror movies tend to be scary because of what you don’t see rather than what you do see on screen. It’s that anticipation and the fear of the unknown that gets to us. Usually once the ghost/demon starts appearing and you can see them clearly the fear melts away. It’s a mistake that films such as Sinister and Insidious made, but Wan has cleverly avoided the pitfall this time around. You see just enough, but not too much, and not too soon.

The third is that, unlike most horror movies, The Conjuring has an excellent climax that keeps up the tension and doesn’t dissolve into silliness. Again, there is no new ground being broken here in terms of the plot, but it’s the execution that helps keep the film afloat all the way until the end.

Another point worth noting is that it was refreshing to see a family who isn’t sceptical. One of the most annoying things about haunted house movies is that no one ever believes the poor victims at first. In The Conjuring there is none of that crap. If my daughter tells me some crazy shit and I experience some crazy shit, I’m going straight to the ghostbusters.

If Wan deserves praise for his direction then the actors deserve recognition for their performances. It’s never easy to pull off a haunting victim (or demonologist), though the foursome of Wilson, Farmiga, Livingston and Taylor — all veteran actors — do a commendable job of making us believe in what they are experiencing. Taylor, in particular, is remarkable as the vulnerable mother and the most tormented of the bunch. I should also mention Shannon Kook, who plays the Warrens’ assistant, and John Brotherton, the police officer who serves an important function as the provider of comedic relief. Both of them are positive additions.

If I have any complaints about The Conjuring it’ll have to be the stupidity of the Warrens. For a couple known as the world’s most renowned demonologists (with a whole room of trophies, mind you), they were sure slow in figuring out what the heck was going on. I mean, come on, it wasn’t that hard to see what the demon was planning.

But all things considered, that’s a relatively minor quibble. Simply put, The Conjuring is the scariest, most well-rounded and satisfying “conventional” horror movie to hit the big screen in a very long time. Despite its stereotypical plot, cookie-cutter progression and standard fright tactics, The Conjuring is a visually impressive and surprisingly effective haunted house flick that will be hard to top as the best horror film of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: OK, so back to Ed and Lorraine Warren. This ghostbusting couple has given us The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut and now The Conjuring, so we at least have to thank them for that. But are they the real deal or are they just a couple of convincing fraudsters? After doing some research on The Haunting in Connecticut (and I wrote a lengthy post about it here), my opinion is that they fall somewhere in the middle, but probably leaning closer to the latter.

I just think there are real doubts on whether Lorraine was a real clairvoyant as she professes, and there have been some damning claims about their tendency to sensationalize the hauntings for publicity. You have to be curious why every haunting they attend to ends up having a demon who wants to anally rape someone in the family. My guess is that there was probably something in the Perron house that wasn’t quite human, but after the Warrens got there it suddenly became 10 times worse, and once Hollywood got its hands on the story it became 10 times worse than that. And look, if you’ve been terrified by a ghost, the least you could do is make a buck out of it.

Movie Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

Lots of awesome posters for this film -- this is my fave

Looks like Daniel Radcliffe might have a decent career after Harry Potter after all.

I was really looking forward to Radcliffe’s first post-Potter feature, the gothic horror The Woman in Black, not because I’m a fan of the kid but because it looked freaking awesome. Based on an 1983 novel by Susan Hill and set in the early 1900s, it tells the story of a struggling young lawyer (Radcliffe) struck by tragedy who heads to a small town to take care of some legal work, only to discover that it might be cursed by the titular character.

I’m a big fan of ghost stories and this one did not disappoint. In fact, I can’t think of a better ghost-related horror film from the last few years off the top of my head.

The story and progression is about as traditional as you can get: main character goes to new place, weird stuff happens and he has to unravel the mystery behind the haunting. In that respect The Woman in Black brings nothing new to the table, but as they say, it’s all in the execution.

Old dilapidated English mansions, freaky toys, pale kids with haunting stares, weirdos, psychos and shadows all over the place — the atmosphere is so brilliantly spooky it kept me on the edge of my seat even though it’s not a fast paced film.

And don’t worry, it doesn’t just rely on atmosphere — The Woman in Black also has some terrific ‘boo’ moments and some visceral scares too. Coupled with the perpetually grey, dreary backdrop, it creates an inescapable sense of dread that seems to keep pulling you deeper and deeper. And at a brisk 90 minutes, it never outstays its welcome either.

The film reminded me a little bit of the underrated Insidious from last year, except it’s set in the scarier gothic era and doesn’t crumble into silliness in its second half.

While it’s difficult to picture Radcliffe as anyone other than the boy wizard, he does do a great job here as the damaged but likable protagonist. Yes, his face seems doomed to be forever trapped in that bizarre transitional phase between child and adult, but I think with more performances and films like this he’ll have a long and successful career.

4 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: Insidious (2011)

Well-made horror movies about hauntings are a rarity these days.  Genuinely frightening ones are almost impossible to find.  For me, Insidious was both.

Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan (the Aussie duo who kick started the Saw franchise), Insidious is a unique spin on the haunted house genre, something I didn’t expect and was pleasantly surprised by.

It tells the story of a young married couple played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who move into a new house with their three boys.  Weird things start happening and a tragic event occurs — but that’s just the beginning.  At some point in the film the story takes a turn and takes us in a new direction.  Some will like the fact that we are being treated to something we’re not used to seeing.  Others will despise it.

You will have to either know a little bit about what I am referring to or be able to keep an open mind in order to truly appreciate it.  If you can’t, you’ll probably write off the film as silly and farcical.  But if you can (and I could), I believe you’re in for a real treat.

For those put off by the Saw reference, don’t be, because Insidious is nothing like those torture porn films.  It’s also nothing like Paranormal Activity (also referred to on the poster because it has common producers, including Oren Peli), which I thought sucked.  Whannell and Wan have shown their versatility with this one, using clever and authentically frightening situations, escalating tension and downright freakish moments to create one of the most suspenseful ghost films I’ve seen in years.  Sure, none of the tactics are necessarily original, but the execution was undoubtedly superb.

The film does have a few shaky moments, especially towards the end, but if it’s frights you are looking for, then Insidious definitely delivers.

4 stars out of 5