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Posts tagged “demonic

The Conjuring (2013)

The ConjuringWhen I woke up this morning, I didn’t even have this movie in my mind, but a great endorsement by another review motivated me to switch off the spoiler filled review and look up showtimes.  The Conjuring is directed by James Wan, the man behind Saw and Insidious, a couple of horror films I have yet to see, but I’m more motivated to do so now, especially the latter.  When a director demonstrates the level of tight grasp on taut, wicked suspense and horror that Wan does here, it puts him emphatically on my radar.

Based on a true story, the film tells the horrifying tale of how world renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga) were called upon to help a family, the Perrons, terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse.  Forced to confront a powerful demonic entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

I love many kinds of horror from slashers films to vampire flicks and beyond, but what really gets me excited is a film like this.  A film that is all about the careful art of suspense and tension, and just thinking about what this film does to an audience gives me chills now.  As with any “based on a true story” movie, there are potentially some embellishments from the filmmakers for dramatic or storytelling effect.  Thus, that can allow an audience to slip a suspension of disbelief into this viewing experience.  However, whether it’s all dead bang true or not, this movie is terrifying as living hell.  My heart was pounding for five minutes after the film ended.  James Wan is clearly a master at this craft because I’ve rarely seen anything this well executed.  There is so much he doesn’t show you that utterly chokes the breath right out of your throat.  He uses the pitch black dark corners of a house, making you project your own anticipations and imaginations into what lurks there.  What these people say they are seeing will stand your hair on end, and when eventually Wan does reveal something to you, it will set your nerves on fire and jump start your heart like nothing else.  Yet, this is not a film of jump scares.  Every terror is subtly and brilliantly crafted and entirely earned.  Things don’t just jump out of the darkness at you, they creep their way in under your skin, and scare the crap out of you.  Wan does such a remarkable job showing you just enough to creep you out, and have the tension choke you up.  A demonic face will ease its way into the frame, but will smartly cut to the next shot, keeping you on edge.

The film does have moments that could have been false jump scares, if handled by a much lesser filmmaker, but this film has so much better stuff waiting for you that it doesn’t need to fall back on cheap tactics.  This film starts out ready to slam the fear factor into full gear.  From the guy who made Dead Silence, it’s no wonder that a creepy, demonic doll jump starts the looming, pounding terror, and weaves its way back into the film later on.  I just love that Ed Warren knows the doll is so dangerous, he has to keep it in a glass case with a sign that says, “Positively do not open,” in a room full of demonic artifacts completely out in the open.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga do an amazing job as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively.  You can tell these are two people who have been through some intense circumstances because their bond is extraordinarily strong.  All of these people, based on real life individuals, feel like fully dimensional, deeply human people.  The emotions are strong, and the depth of belief in one another between Ed and Lorraine shows that a rare love would have to exist to keep these two people together through the hell they have experienced, first hand.  Ed cares deeply for her safety after a terrifying exorcism incident really traumatized Lorraine, but seeing her strength constantly show through is amazing.  If this is at all an honest representation of these two legendary paranormal investigators, my respect goes out to them just for their unwavering dedication to one another and what they do.

This film does a great job of balancing the story between the Warrens and the Perron family.  Both of their stories are being told side-by-side and are interconnected.  The fact that this entity latches onto both families compounds their problems makes for a greatly more intense story, and Lorraine getting more and more visions that frighten the hell out her just drives the terror forward incredibly intense.

Lili Taylor is taken on a real rollercoaster ride, and she handles it incredibly well.  As Carolyn, she’s a wonderful mother and wife, but as these horrific experiences befall her and her children, Taylor sells the fear with grave importance.  She and Ron Livingston work very naturally together, and no one here feels cheated on character or substance.  All of the daughters are magnificently portrayed by an array of solid young actresses.  Everyone feels like a real human being, and have very realistic chemistry and dynamics amongst them.  Joey King has an amazing moment of paralyzing terror seeing something terrifying in the shadows that is never revealed to us.  There is solid talent all throughout this cast that is absolutely impressive creating a very grounded, convincing realism to this extraordinary series of events.

The Conjuring also looks excellent as James Wan works with his regular cinematographer John R. Leonetti.  They use light and especially shadow to brilliant effect.  Few horror films really utilize the unseen mystery of darkness remotely as well as this film does.  There are many moments where light bulbs are busted out, or very little light is present down to a mere match lighting up a whole creepy, spider web filled basement.  It puts you so precariously on edge that you don’t know where or when the terror will come at you through that thick blackness.  The cinematography really starts to get stylistic, in very good ways, during the climax.  Many unique angles and good movement is utilized to surprising, clever effect.  Yet, overall, the film is shot wonderfully never trying to distract or dazzle you with frenetic movement.  Instead, there’s a lot of great still shots and flowing steadicam work to make this feel like this is a horror film with its feet firmly planted in the ground.  It would’ve been easy for another filmmaker to make this feel like a 1970’s movie with a lot of film grain and handheld camera work, but again, this film doesn’t need much in the way of stylistic visuals to be amazingly effective.

And the score is greatly crafted and perfectly utilized.  Most commonly used is a very low rumble that will rattle you with an ominous, foreboding feeling.  The score never tries to over accentuate the scares.  It’s right there in line with the intensity of the moment, and only strikes out at you when needed.  This is a horror film that knows the value of silence, and the right time to tweak your nerves in the right direction with an appropriate music cue.  You won’t find any clichés in the work of Joseph Bishara here.

And as any haunted house movie begs the question, this movie clearly answers why this family doesn’t just pack up and haul ass out of there.  They’ve poured all their money in this new home as a family of seven in a new area where they don’t know anyone else.  They have no alternative but to stay here.  Yet, even if they did, the film has that great hook that the demonic presence has latched onto them.  It doesn’t matter where they go, this thing is going to follow, and so, there is no escape.  They have to confront and defeat this entity in order to move on with their lives.  This is a horror film that has good doses of exposition, but it is handled so damn well that you are intently invested in every word that Ed or Lorraine relay to the Perrons.  We see all of this come greatly to a head in a riveting third act.

When things ultimately go all to hell, the film ramps up the intensity so damn tightly.  Anyone who has seen their fair share of horror films is quite familiar with the exorcism scene formula.  While The Conjuring doesn’t do anything that will revolutionize that aspect of horror, James Wan still executes it will a lot of artistic merit and vision.  Having the possessed individual covered in a sheet the entire time allows for the audience to project their frightening imaginations upon it, and think of just what this demonic entity is doing under there screaming and shrieking.  The house shakes, birds crash into the windows, things are going insane, and just when you think the calm is setting in, it’s only elevating to the next level.  There is so much hair-raising terror to be sucked into throughout this film, but I think it’s best sequence is when the Warrens’ daughter is being haunted by the entity and the possessed Annabelle doll from the opening sequence returns.  Just thinking about it sends chills all over me.  Typed words simply don’t do it justice.  This is a film designed to tighten your every muscle, and strain every nerve across your skin.  If you read my review of Sinister from last October, you’ll know how much that film scared me, and I would put The Conjuring right up next to that if not above it.  The heart pounding terror continues to amplify throughout the film, and even the final moment of the movie still gets you in a really smart way that is never cheap.  This is a high grade horror film with sophisticated filmmaking by a director who is clearly a master of the genre.

If you love being scared at the movies, and really enjoy something that is taut, chilling, and suspenseful, it is all here in The Conjuring.  This film will indeed scare the living hell out of you.  It is one of the most frightening horror films I’ve ever subjected myself to, and I look forward to being scared by it again and again.  You should absolutely go see this as long as you’re not weak of heart because it will put a toll on it, for sure.  This film earns every scare so brilliantly.  There is just so much great terror on intense display that I could never cover it all, and there is no way I would spoil a single scare for you.  Backed by a stunningly strong cast, especially in the case of Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga, you cannot go wrong with The Conjuring.  This movie keeps giving me chills thinking about it.  It is worth every penny you spend on your ticket and then some.  This is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years.  Based on this film alone, I am going to check out Insidious, and then, hopefully look forward to Insidious: Chapter 2 coming this September.

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Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.


Sinister (2012)

I rarely go see horror films theatrically because, mostly, today’s horror genre just hasn’t been my style.  The few times I go, it’s usually a general letdown.  However, the trailers for Sinister were effectively suspenseful and scary to where I had to work up some courage to see it.  And now, after having seen it, yeah, I wasn’t courageous enough for it.  This is a damn good horror movie, one of the scariest I’ve ever seen.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime novelist who has moved his family into the house where a grisly family murder once took place.  He hides this fact from his wife and two children, but the locals know the home’s history, especially law enforcement.  The town’s Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) even attempts to convince Ellison to pack his things up and leave right away, but he is not deterred as writing this book maybe the one big paycheck he needs to get his family back on their feet, again.  When Ellison discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies depicting a series of family murders dating back to the 1960s, he believes they are all connected to the one he intends to write about.  However, what he doesn’t realize is that he has just plunged his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.  The evil that claimed the lives of these families is now threatening them.

I just have to start out with the fact that this film choked me up with tension and suspense so much, my heart was damn near pounding out my chest.  Even as the end credits rolled, I needed a few minutes to calm back down before standing up and leaving.  Sinister delivers on scary.  Usually, I view the word “scary” as a lightweight term, but here, I want to give it a full heavyweight treatment.  The film has a methodical pace.  It sets up the creepy atmosphere from the very first shot, and it sent chills up and down me, as much of the film did.  I like that it slowly eases the audience into a supernatural ideal.  Ellison is repeatedly skulking through the darkness of his new house at increasingly louder and more overt noises.  While it got to being that I just wanted him to flick on a light switch, as most anyone would do in near pitch black chasing weird sounds around the house, the sequences are just hair raising suspense at its finest.  These sequences gradually build upon one another until the supernatural element is impossible to deny, and becomes far more intimidating as they occur.  The biggest chill probably hits when Ellison is tracking the creeks around the house, and what he can’t see are the ghosts that are stalking him everywhere he goes.  Even the few false scares serve a purpose for the characters, and overall, every scare is sharply effective.  Sinister scared the hell out of me.  No other film has done that since The Strangers.

The story is smartly crafted setting up Ellison Oswalt’s situation hiding the truth of the house from his wife, his own struggles with whether he’s doing this for the financial security of his family, or just to bask in the spotlight, again.  There are nice moments where Ellison is watching old TV interviews from when he clearly had a more optimistic and altruistic attitude.  His younger self talks about how he writes these books for the sense of justice instead of money, and it shows just how desperate Ellison’s point of view has changed.  The decline his career has taken forces him to do something far more deceitful and amoral by moving his family into the house of a murdered family, and hiding that from them.  It puts more stress upon him, and eventually, coupled with the strain these snuff films put on him, he begins to drink quite frequently.  It pushes the inner turmoil to the surface, and further enhances the outer conflicts of the film.  Everyone can see there’s something troubling him beneath the surface, but he’s so hesitant to speak of it for fear that it will ruin his efforts with this book.  He might be selfish in that regard, but he’s not without conscience.

As Ellison views these Super 8mm films, we are right there with him feeling the gruesome, unspeakable horror that he is witnessing.  He is clearly disturbed by these films, and you can see the recoils and reluctance he has in sitting through them just for the sake of his book.  Beyond just seeing them, there’s the knowledge that every frame of film was shot by the murderer.  The killer wanted someone to see these as a foretelling omen of what will happen to them, and ultimately, the plot works this into the supernatural elements smartly and perfectly.  Ellison’s investigation is very smart as he uncovers more and more clues, revealing more detailed evidence as he digs deeper.  The film keeps the mystery alive all the time, and sucks you into it every step of the way.  As more is discovered, the more frightening everything becomes, and the danger increases with every passing night for the Oswalts.  The addition that their son Trevor has had night terrors for most of his life, and that it is acting up more than ever just builds upon the unsettling nature of the house, and the evil that is haunting and stalking them.  Of course, since Ellison is intent on keeping the truth of the house a secret for as long as possible, he refrains from taking more rational action to keep the family safe.  I also like that, early on, he has the impulse to call the police after watching the films, but backs away from it thinking about the best seller book he needs to write.  If he hands everything over to the cops, his book is inevitably done for, and he shies away from pursuing that course.  These actions never made him unlikable in my view as he is trying to do something that will financially put his family at ease, but eventually, he’s gone too far down this ill path for the police to realistically do anything.

Ethan Hawke really is damn good as Ellison Oswalt.  He’s in essentially every single scene, and gives a lot of dimension and relatability to the character.  Ellison is a caring father to both his kids showing deep concern for their well being, and always thinking about them, most of the time.  When it comes to his wife Tracy, portrayed strongly by Juliet Rylance, there is definite conflict.  She worries about his well being, fearing that he will become an emotional wreck, and fall down an ill path they’re both familiar with.  He tries to reassure her, and keep her away from the disturbing truth.  However, when the truth eventually gets out, the confrontational scene between them is immensely realistic.  The argument has a few bits of levity as Ellison spouts out pithy excuses for putting them into this situation, but ultimately, it’s a very emotionally visceral scene.  Hawke conveys the fear, turmoil, and horror of the character with powerful realism, and carries this film greatly, without a doubt.  It’s just an exceptional performance all the way through maintaining the humanity of the character, and Hawke keeps the tension and terror alive through his performance.

Juliet Rylance holds up equally well.  While she doesn’t get much chance to encounter the fear and horror of the film, she is a solid actress who has excellent chemistry with Ethan Hawke.  They both bring realistic depth to the history of their marriage, and the emotions that she puts in the role couldn’t be stronger.  Both child actors, Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley, do an amazing and commendable job.  Every single performance in this film is very sternly rooted in reality, and both Michael and Clare bring likeability and a strong dramatic foundation to their characters.  As a whole, this family feels solidly cohesive and real with their own sets of unique problems and personalities.  It’s excellent casting and stellar acting through and through.

Fred Dalton Thompson’s always impressed me with his authoritative presence, and he brings some of that with a dash of genuine fairness that a Sheriff should have.  He only has two scenes, but he makes a solid impression on an audience.  He tells Ellison that he’s not much of a fan of his books, and doesn’t appreciate the criticism and ill attention he brings with him.  Yet, he proves his fairness in his second scene with a concern for the Oswalt family’s safety.

I also want to acknowledge the performance of James Ransome as the local Deputy.  What starts out as an awkward and somewhat star struck character becomes a guy you can take more seriously with a show of intelligence.  Being a fan of Ellison’s work, the Deputy offers to assist him with some research, and as he does, he becomes more wrapped up in the gruesome reality of these murders.  He notices the patterns of the crimes, and shows his worth as a capable police officer.  Ransome offers up a fine balance of low key charm and heart with an honest seriousness.  He becomes concerned for Ellison when things start to become more stressful and disturbing for him, and gives him some sound advice while never disputing the validity of anything Ellison has recently experienced.  It’s a surprising highlight of this film, and getting those few moments of perfectly pitched levity are very welcomed.

Beyond just the dark scenes at night, this is a visually dark film all the way around.  I’m not sure of why even the daytime scenes are masked in heavy shadow and even silhouettes, but it sure adds to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.  Nearly all of the film takes place in that house, and it hardly ever feels warm or inviting.  Every scene is given just enough light for the purposes of that scene, but does lack a natural quality since almost none of the indoor lights are ever used.  When it gets very dark, it’s only highlights to make out a face, a figure, or a doorway.  It’s highly effective, but again, it is a little bothersome that Ellison Oswalt never does just switch on a light to see what’s going on.  At least one scene has the power go out entirely, and he has to navigate via his cell phone flashlight.  Overall, it is an amazingly well shot film with just the right compositions and framing to service the various moods and tension.  The editing is damn good as well allowing shots to linger in order to build up that choked up suspense waiting for the next chilling moment to unfurl itself upon your senses.

All throughout the movie, the score was shockingly powerful and effective.  When I saw the end credits, I knew why the score so fucking good.  It was done by Christopher Young.  This is the man who created the powerful and iconic scores for the first two Hellraiser movies.  For Sinister, he cranks up the nail biting, skin crawling, electrifyingly suspenseful music higher than ever before.  The tension gets so thick because of his prominent and intense score.  This is a masterwork of horror soundtracks that enhances every moment exponentially by its presence.  While a few of the clicks and clacks in certain scenes were a bit distracting, overall, this is nerve racking brilliance.  It’s especially effective over the Super 8 film clips which have no sound of their own.  So, it’s just the gritty visuals with this verbose score playing over them, and it just couldn’t be anymore heart pounding than it was.

This really is a horror film that treats its audience with maturity and intelligence.  The investigation aspect doesn’t have Ethan Hawke explaining every little detail to you.  It trusts in your attention to detail and intellect to put the pieces together.  Thus, it never gets redundant.  It keeps moving forward, and gives you enough information to keep you in sync with Ellison Oswalt.  You process things as he does, and the pace of the film allows you to do so.  Vincent D’Onofrio uniquely portrays Professor Jonas, a local expert on occult crime at the local university, and he is able to shed light on the occult symbols Ellison discovers in the film footage.  He explains what they all mean, and possibly what supernatural entity is stalking his family and is responsible for all these murders.  This aspect of the film is very smartly conceived and executed.  It’s another part of that gradual building of the supernatural elements.  You’re not bludgeoned with them from the start.  They subversively creep into the film until it saturates it completely.  It’s beautiful work that not enough horror filmmakers strive for these days.  There’s practically no gore, but plenty of graphic imagery to have you recoiling in terror.

Sinister is frightening to no end hitting you with shocking imagery and chilling sequences that are still sending a shiver over me as I type this.  The very last shot of the film is a very unnecessary jump scare, and I imagine it was just the filmmakers wanting to get that extra punch in at the end.  Still, that could’ve been done with a strong music cue, but I won’t fault the film over that cheap bit.  In a horror film so well crafted, I can afford them that much.  I am quite surprised that this was directed by Scott Derrickson who, a long time ago, directed the direct-to-video failure that was Hellraiser: Inferno.  Oddly, I caught a few minutes of it on cable the night before seeing Sinister.  It’s a gigantic leap forward in talent and skill that I couldn’t admire more.  Derrickson also co-wrote the Sinister screenplay with Christopher Robert Cargill, who is actually a movie critic.  So, it’s quite pleasing to see this sort of combination work so successfully.  Simply said, this is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and I strongly encourage you to go see it!  I don’t think you could at all be disappointed in it.  It’s likely to scare you right out of your skin.


The Exorcist (1973)

This used to be the scariest movie I had ever seen.  When it was theatrically re-released in 2000, I was paralyzed with fear in my theatre seat.  When I saw it theatrically in 2010, the film barely did anything for me.  I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I have theories.  Possibly a decade of exposure to numerous hardcore horror movies have hardened me as a movie-goer, thickening my skin and threshold for terror.  By comparison, The Exorcist III has been a consistently effective film that I have gained more respect for with each viewing.  This review is surely not a negative one in the least, but it’s important to know my experience with The Exorcist over the years.

Taking up temporary residence in Georgetown, Maryland is movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is having her troubles.  The script for the movie she’s filming seems inadequate, her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair), neglects to call the girl on her birthday, and the attic has rats.  Meanwhile, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith while dealing with a terminally ill mother who needs medical care he hasn’t the money to provide.  Meanwhile, the sweet and innocent Regan has undergone a slow, brutal change in both the way she looks and the way she acts, with violent outbursts on everyone who comes in contact with her.  Medical professionals prove to have no cure for her condition, and thus, her worried mother meets with Father Karras with the belief that her daughter is demonically possessed.  She requests an exorcism, which Karras and the church are hesitant to grant on a whim.  Another priest, the old and ailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), has just returned from an archeology expedition in Iraq with forebodings of evil.  He has faced this unholy evil before, and soon, will have to face it again.

I believe the main aspect of the film that made it so effective was its realistic quality.  William Friedkin shot this in a very textured way.  Lighting is very natural and subdued.  It never looks staged or stylized.  Friedkin intended to take a documentary approach to the film to give it sense of grim realism.  The scenes in Iraq are very gritty with an unsettling and harsh quality that is striking.  The scenes in Georgetown have a slightly gloomy autumn quality that boosts the foreboding and grim nature of the movie.  Yet, there is still eerie beauty at times such as the moment where “Tubular Bells” creeps into the score.  Friedkin simply instills a lot of subtle atmosphere with the lighting, camera work, and the score that gets in under your skin.  He uses the music very sparsely allowing that ambient reality to seep into your nerves.  That realistic tone in the visuals and the performances solidly grounded the film, and thus, when these horrific changes begin to surface in Regan, they are all the more unsettling and chilling.  The sound design is profoundly effective.  These disturbing auditory elements are mixed in together at a high volume to truly jump out at you in an almost unnaturally loud way.  It’s an example of using sound effects and design to establish an unnerving mood without resorting to a musical score, which supports the documentary feel Friedkin was going for, and it succeeds in spades.

Now, William Friedkin has been known to be quite the bastard of a filmmaker.  Him firing guns on set, and throwing his actors into hard stunts to get a visceral reaction out of them are just a few reasons why.  Personally, as a filmmaker myself, I don’t believe someone has to get hurt for the sake of art.  There’s always another way to achieve the results you want.  Still, regardless of how you view his methods, his results are very intense.  He always casts great actors, and does some challenging work with them.  With these actors, we are given a breadth of deep, hard hitting emotion that penetrates the characters’ souls.  The struggles of faith with Damien Karras are portrayed with deep heartache and weariness by Jason Miller.  You can empathize with his pain and fear as you see the dour aspects of his life.  It is a powerful performance that Miller poured deeply into his soul to achieve.  Ellen Burstyn put in a very warm portrayal that gradually morphs into something very raw and painfully emotional.  The grief she expresses as Chris MacNeil is heart wrenching and soul tearing.  It hits harder than anything in the film, and sells the terrible reality of the horrific situation she faces.

There is a fine, understated performance by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman.  He investigates the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, the drunken director of the film Chris MacNeil was involved with.  Cobb walks a fine line between earnest, probing investigator and kind-hearted soul.  He surely makes assertive inquiries about this unusual death, but treads cautiously amongst these people.  He questions as much as he observes them trying to decipher the deeper reality of what’s happening.  This made the character very intriguing and just endearing enough to connect nicely with an audience.  Cobb passed away less than three years after the film’s release, and was succeeded in the role in The Exorcist III by the acclaimed, powerhouse actor George C. Scott.  Cobb laid a solid foundation that Scott strongly built upon in that excellent film.

However, the most understated, yet immensely captivating performance comes from Max von Sydow.  While I feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent delving into Father Merrin, what von Sydow brings is substantially strong on its own.  Merrin himself is a few decades older than von Sydow was at the time, and his acting as a frail elderly man is pitch perfect.  He has a cautious grace in his movements and a sophisticated sensibility that comes with wisdom.  The calmness and power he brings forth in the final act tell much about Lancaster Merrin’s soul.  While he has his battle scars from a previous exorcism, his weathered soul still holds his faith and will solidly.

It’s also shocking and amazing what Linda Blair did in this role.  She easily endears herself to an audience with her innocence and playful nature.  She worked beautifully with Ellen Burstyn as a very natural mother-daughter relationship.  Of course, it’s easy to overlook the performance after the possession since all her lines were overdubbed by the grizzled voice of Mercedes McCambridge, but what she physically does is immensely impressive.  She was put through a lot of long hours in pain and deep cold to achieve what she needed to.  Even the make-up prosthetics were a challenge that she would not subject herself to for the sequel.  For being so young, only fourteen at the time of filming, she dedicated herself with a strong stability that should be highly admirable to any actor.  The overall performance is quite amazing, and in the darker areas of the film, rather disturbing.

I find the make-up effects work to be very effective.  As the possession gets worse, Regan’s flesh becomes cracked with open sores and discoloration.  It looks like she’s almost rotting away due this demonic evil within her.  The visuals of this can be disturbing to many viewers.  While times certainly have changed greatly since the early 1970s where this had people fainting and throwing up during screenings of this film, it can still hold chilling weight today.  It was a startling motion picture that blindsided audiences, and much of that is due to both those grotesque make-up effects and the style of editing.  Quick flashes of the demon face are what frightened me for the longest time.  It’s a face that sends chills all over me still.  It’s something that nightmares are made of, and a haunting vision that would be terrifying to see peering out of the darkness at you, which is exactly what it does.  It’s immensely effective, near subliminal trickery.

The Exorcist does give us a few sequences that establish something sinister or malevolent looming over these characters.  Father Karras has an ominous dream sequence about his ailing mother that does haunt him.  Also, Father Merrin staring down the stone statute of Pazuzu in Iraq has a fierce, raw unnerving quality which sets a foreboding tone early on.  It’s also your preference whether to watch the original theatrical or extended edition.  However, the extended cut does add in a couple of editing effects that throw that demon face into a few unsettling scenes.  Lights are flickering in the MacNeil house, hinting that a powerful force is at work, and that fearsome visage does make a small appearance.  Regardless of which cut you choose, the film truly is ripe with chilling moments that demonstrate the skillful quality of William Friedkin.

I will say straight out that I have no religious beliefs.  However, I can still perceive and appreciate how deeply this film’s subject matter penetrates into an audience with them.  In the least, it’s a film that explores a pure embodiment of evil that is able to corrupt even the most innocent among us.  If this timeless, demonic evil could possess this pure of heart young girl in the context of such a grounded, hardened reality, many audiences easily could be rattled to their core.  The Exorcist is just as much of a film that frightens with its visuals and sound as it does with its ideas.  William Peter Blatty truly constructed a deeply detailed screenplay built off a novel written with the help of a real life priest.  Everything was well researched and discussed where the church is concerned to understand exactly who these men of faith were, and the depth of knowledge with demonic possession and exorcism.  All of that detail comes through in Friedkin’s film who even cast several real life priests in key roles.  That casting was smart as they carry a certain weight and aura about themselves that is very natural.  They truly added to the realistic strength of character through the picture.

I suppose my only criticisms upon the film are that I do feel that Lancaster Merrin could’ve been fleshed out more for us to have a better context and perspective on the man himself.  He’s given a perceived poignancy in the film, but he ultimately has little poignancy to the story.  I also believe that the ending feels a little shorted.  With the grueling battle that Merrin and Karras were waging in that room during the exorcism, the conclusion did feel a little lacking in substantive pay-off.  The ending to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III would end up being very grandiose, almost seeming a bit too over-the-top, but still, it had enough direct, dramatic pay-off to feel like a satisfying conclusion.  With this film, there almost seems to be a lack of dramatic build-up to the very final moments.  It surely doesn’t end how one would expect it to, which is a good thing, but let’s just say that the Merrin character again seems to be slighted.  I can surely understand the idea that the film is more about Damian Karras, but Merrin is surely meant to be the climactic difference maker in this plot, yet he is dispatched with most unceremoniously.  He is supposed to be the title character of the movie after all.  Max von Sydow gave the character such immense depth with little to no dialogue that I felt he should’ve been a more purposeful element in the overall film, and given a proper story arc.  He’s given enough setup and build up to support that idea, but ultimately, he’s not given that weight of relevancy.  It’s just something that has regularly nagged at me with the movie.  A little more time spent with Merrin could’ve helped create a more gradual transition into the third act, and perhaps, motivated Blatty and Friedkin to actually conclude his story on-screen.  As it is, Father Merrin is more of a plot facilitator than a character with his own story to tell, and I believe that to be a negative mark against the screenplay and film.

While I supposed my skin has thickened over the years where horror films are concerned, I cannot discount the strength and quality of this film.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the horror elements here in the least.  However, it can be difficult to judge if people still call this “the scariest movie of all time” due to just blind reputation, or because they truly, personally feel that way.  Since the effectiveness of this film has lessened with me over time, and I have found new horror films that scare me more profoundly than this, I would have to question whether current audiences genuinely believe The Exorcist to be the scariest of all time.  So, I suppose this makes for an unusual review.  The Exorcist surely is an exceptionally well made film with intelligent themes and deeply frightening elements that have immense impact on a visual and auditory level.  Yet, it doesn’t affect me remotely as much as it once did.  Regardless, I cannot deny that it once did have a powerful effect on me, and likely still does on countless others.


Warlock: The Armageddon (1993)

I truly like and enjoy the original Warlock from director Steve Miner.  While the low budget restricted its overall production quality, the good script and high caliber acting talents of Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant really made it something worthwhile.  It’s one of those films which showed a lot of potential, and that with a larger budget and stronger production values, it really could’ve been amazing.  The rights for the film eventually ended up at Trimark Pictures which came to specialize in some decent genre and B-movie successes, mostly direct-to-video releases, but were ultimately absorbed by Artisan Entertainment and subsequently Lionsgate Films.  With the rights to the first film, Trimark decided to make a sequel with those better production values.  Warlock: The Armageddon brings the Warlock back from oblivion, but this sequel would’ve been better off staying in oblivion.  The golden-maned Julian Sands portrays the Warlock far more devilishly in this one with a darker charm, but has no worthy or even respectable adversary this time around.  Sands essentially carries the entire movie, and any scene without him is rather uninteresting.  His charisma and charm on screen is so electric that you simply crave more of it when he leaves the screen.  The plot doesn’t offer anything all that engaging or particularly special.

The Warlock is brought back to recover a collection of gems that, together, can destroy all of creation (yes, again) by bringing his father, Satan, into our world.  Meanwhile, in some rural town two teenagers are chosen by some most unimpressive Druids to be trained and fight the Warlock.  Chris Young and Paula Marshall, respectively, portray these two youths, Kenny and Samantha, who aren’t too fond of their parents having to kill them first before being imbued with these new special powers.  As the Warlock dispatches of several non-formidable obstacles to obtain these gems, these two teenagers in love try to come to grips with what they have been tasked with, and fear for the evil that is coming for them.

I can’t wrap my head around how we go from the amazing character of Redferne, portrayed by the exceptional Richard E. Grant, to a couple of teenagers who frankly care more about what they’re gonna do on Saturday night than being the saviors of all creation.  These two amateurs are expected to go up against the unholy spawn of Satan and prevail?  I can only suspend my disbelief so much before a premise becomes laughable.  Truly, I was more involved in the Warlock and his quest to destroy humanity than caring about this rural pair of teens in love being forced into a situation they want nothing to do with.  There is hardly anything endearing or engaging about their half of the movie.  Honestly, I wanted this film to have nothing to do with them.  It’s rather sad when you come to actually wanting the villain to destroy all of existence.  At least we would have been spared more sequels.  Of course, Sands was not brought back for Warlock III: The End of Innocence, which was a non-sequel casting Bruce Payne in the title role.

This sequel is much gorier than the original, but the story and characters are far weaker.  It’s not a question of bad acting, it’s a question of a bad script.  Whereas the original film was written by the exceptionally talented David Twohy, the screenwriters of this sequel, Kevin Rock & Sam Bernard, have nothing of special note in either of their filmographies, and nothing at all written since the late 1990s.  Director Anthony Hickox had just finished Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, and I feel this film is worse than that uneven sequel.  Hickox directed some decent horror films like Waxwork & Waxwork II, but after Warlock: The Armageddon, he never directed, wrote, acted in, or produced another recognizable film.  At best, he’s proven to be a B-grade director not capable of producing anything without a hefty helping of cheese and over the top sensibilities.  Ultimately, looking over the credits of this film, the only notable talent involved is Julian Sands.  From the screenwriters to the director of photography to the music composer, there’s nobody of note here.  Charles Hallahan (The Thing) and Zach Galligan (Gremlins, Waxwork) do have roles here, but they’re essentially nothing more than inconsequential supporting roles.

On a technical level, the movie is well made with competent cinematography giving everything a fine polish and sheen.  It looks a little more cinematic than the first movie, but it certainly has its limitations.  Some sets are clearly more restrictive in size and style than what their real world counterparts would be such as the fashion show venue.  Also, one action scene takes place in a small American southwest town which looks like the back lot for some low budget western, aside from the parking meters.  The Warlock literally has a showdown with a couple of guys with shotguns dressed in bad western attire.  It’s another unsatisfying thing attributed to both the screenplay and the low budget.  They can’t afford to place the climax of the film in an interesting setting, so, it all happens in a forest-like environment where there are no production values to show off.  While earlier sequences were mainly on sets that did the best with the budget they had, the climax just makes it look cheaper with uninventive ideas of setting or action.  Of course, Anthony Hickox had the climax of Hellraiser III take place on the late night streets of Los Angeles, and showed a lot of explosions and action, but it ultimately amounted to pointless drivel that dumbed down that franchise to an achingly low level, despite the production values.  I can’t say that more money would’ve fixed the creative or artistic problems with the film.  It was a rather bland story to begin with, and the climax gets to the point where I’d rather prefer seeing the Warlock triumph.

I can say that the visual and makeup effects are entirely superior to the previous film, and that’s bizarre since this film’s budget was $4 million less than the first film.  Perhaps, it’s simply a benefit of the evolution of digital effects replacing optical composites in the four year gap between films that gives this sequel a higher quality in that area.  The powers of the Warlock are exponentially more extensive and destructive here than in the first movie, but it doesn’t matter much when the story loses the heart and the charm that the first had with Redferne.  You can read my earlier review of that film for a more in-depth insight into what really gave Steve Miner’s film so much promise.

Again, Warlock: The Armageddon is really cheesy and pathetically weak in nearly every facet with Sands being the only exception.  This sequel is okay if you want to see more of Julian Sands’ purely evil, sadistic, and wonderfully devilish performance, but that is all that is worth seeing in this film.  The original Warlock wasn’t any major blockbuster success, and so, Trimark probably didn’t feel as if all that much effort needed to be put forth for a sequel.  Again, Trimark was never known for very high quality films, but there are a few that I still heavily enjoy.  However, this is not one of them.  If the first movie was filmed as well as this one, and had this much gore – it would’ve kicked some real ass.  Unfortunately, what really is the most important aspect with both is good story and character.  This film lacks both whereas the original Warlock really had it in good amounts.  It was well written with some character depth and a consistently enjoyable premise.  This sequel was dumb on arrival with only Julian Sands bringing anything truly entertaining to the project. See it if you want, but you’re not missing much otherwise.  At best, it’s cheesy early 90s horror schlock.  I would better recommend watching the original Warlock, or if you really want some bad ass demonic vanquishing, try Constantine.  This was a franchise that hardly ever got going anywhere, and with this sequel, it’s easy to see why it was not a success.