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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.


Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead 2013This movie boasts the tagline of “The most terrifying film you will ever experience.”  Frankly, that should be taken as merely a marketing idea used to generate interest and talk about the movie.  Still, it requires a response from pretty much every movie reviewer out there.  For me, no, it was not at all the most terrifying movie I have ever experienced.  My feelings on the film are mixed.  This has something to do with whether it is a good remake or not, and almost as much to do with if it’s an effective horror movie.

Five twenty-something friends become holed up in a remote cabin with the intent of allowing their friend Mia (Jane Levy) to undergo a full detox from her drug addictions.  However, when they discover a Book of the Dead, they unwittingly summon up dormant demons living in the nearby woods, which possess the youngsters in succession until only one is left intact to fight for survival.

I go into these remakes with the intent of judging them on their own merits because do so otherwise almost dooms you to hating it outright.  However, even though it has been a while since I’ve last seen The Evil Dead, it’s not a complicated movie to remember.  Partially, I feel this is a movie best experienced if you haven’t seen the original because I found myself sort of just waiting for it to get to the point.  I saw it going through a couple of the motions from the original as well as setting up its drug intervention plot, and I was just waiting for it to get the new, good stuff.  This is just the first act of the film, but the film does feel a little uneven in never really giving you a sense of distinct plot progression.  This is partly due to knowing the original as well as I do.  Knowing how the original was plotted out, where the story turns were, and how and where it ended caused a problem for me here.  This remake lead me down the same path that the original took for long enough to where I anticipated it continuing down that same path, but then, only after I began to believe that did it throw a major swerve at me.  My knowledge of the original film worked against my enjoyment of the remake because it kept making me believe it was going to do the same thing when it wasn’t.  In the second act, there’s enough familiar material with a new spin on it to make it interesting, but it’s still familiar material that will stir up memories of what made those moments classics in the first place and how they are just here for fan service.  They are surely well done moments, never betraying the severely serious horror tone, but yeah, they were just better back when they were original ideas instead of retreaded concepts.

This movie surely has some frightening scenes and definitely one terrifying moment.  I did get some serious chills running through me at various points, but it took until all hell broke loose before any of that happened.  Up until then, it was cheap jump scares of dark figures just lurking in the distance not actually doing anything, or having any relevance to what was going on.  Even the reprise of the tree rape scene just felt monotonous because it was nothing new to me.  Again, it’s an example of being familiar with the original being a detriment to experiencing this remake.  I’m sure someone seeing that cold would be very frightened and unsettled by it.  Ultimately, the film is a mix of creepiness, skin crawling sickening imagery, jump scares, and shock horror.  I can get into the first two, but the latter two mostly left me a little lukewarm.  As I’ve said in many previous horror movie reviews, it takes no talent to just soak the screen with gore, or have something jump out at you abruptly.  I give more credit to well crafted suspense and tension, which there is some of that here, but mostly, Evil Dead wants to be shocking and creepy.  There are a number of effective moments of frightening gore, but the movie didn’t keep me wrapped up in tension and fear.

The make-up effects are indeed top notch.  The people responsible really did a fantastic job creating a very raw and visceral look to all the gore.  This all looked like practical blood splattering everywhere, and the make-up work on the possessed characters was well done, even if it lacked originality.  Frankly, their make-up design was more akin to Linda Blair in The Exorcist than any Deadites we saw in the original Evil Dead trilogy.  The self-mutilation also follows more along those lines instead of the demon possession simply disfiguring each person by default.  Frankly, yes, the self-mutilation is simply there for more shock value, which is fine, but it only carries the film so far.  What worked better in the original was the severe whirlwind of insanity the characters were caught up in, but I never felt like this film jacked itself up to that level.

The film is nicely cast with a few good talents, and a few that were just forgettable.  My favorite was Lou Taylor Pucci, who portrays Eric the very 1970’s looking friend who does unleash the evil, but is ultimately the one guy with his head screwed on straight to understand what’s going on.  You have to respect those characters in a horror movie.  The guy that knows what has to be done, and doesn’t disillusion himself about any of it.  Everything’s gone to hell, and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to end it.  Jane Levy is also stellar.  She takes Mia on a very wild ride from the troubled addict to the psychotic and manipulative demon possessed girl to a completely different turn in the final act.  She’s got some excellent talent, and she shows some special diversity with all she is saddled with in this role.  Shiloh Fernandez is fairly good.  He doesn’t standout too greatly, but he does a good job that services the role well.  As David, Mia’s brother, he has moments of compassion, conflict, and conviction with the latter two being his strong suits.  Those are the aspect where he becomes a stronger presence on screen.  The other two ladies on the cast are the forgettable ones.  Jessica Lucas’ Olivia, the friend with some kind of medical knowledge trying to ease Mia’s withdrawal symptoms, just came off as heartless and unlikeable.  For a friend trying to cure Mia of her addictions, she felt a little too much like a borderline bitch than a caring friend.  Elizabeth Blackmore as David’s girlfriend is even more bland to where she might as well have blended into the cabin’s woodwork.

Where the original movie was a very rough quality movie shot on 16mm film, this remake is extremely polished.  I’m sure that might turn some people off who feel the remake should adhere to that same quality, but for what it is, this Evil Dead is magnificently well shot all around.  There’s some very moody and atmospheric hazy lighting in the daylight scenes.  The woods are covered in this low hanging fog that just creates a beautiful grim visual.  There is a great use of darkness to unsettle you, and even create the most terrifying moment in the film for me.  There are things jumping out of the shadows, and then, there’s something frightening creeping out the shadows in the most unreal way possible.  The chills hit me worse than a subzero winter breeze.  The color palette of the movie is also very dark, dreary, and grounded.  It has its own gritty quality despite the polished production values.

Now, I almost think the movie is too ambitious for its own good.  I like that the film does throw serves at the fans of the original, and gives you an entirely different third act.  It is well setup earlier on, but is entirely unexpected.  It’s an intense and excellently done climax with plenty of blood soaked mania, but it’s almost being so severely different because it has to be.  In order for this to be a distinctly different film in concept and execution, it had to do something very ambitious and extreme.  In execution, this unexpected climax is amazing, but I’m not so wowed by the concept of it.  Again, this is a point where being a fan of the original is a mixed bag.  Yes, you get surprised when the film begins to take on its own path, and throwing ideas and twists at you that you didn’t expect.  Yet, when they happen, it took me a while to actually accept them at face value, and bend my mind a little more to follow their creative direction.  It’s hard to explain my reaction in detail without delving into spoilers, which I try to avoid in reviews of newly released movies.  Simply said, a new form of evil emerges after there is a near polar shift in fate for one character, and it seems like such a severe story twist that I’m not sure it’s really earned.  While these ideas and elements are all setup earlier on, it takes a bit to really accept them as reality in this story.

I’m sure there will be people who find this to be a very frightening theatrical experience.  Those that do get scared to death by shock horror and a few jump scares will love this.  The creepiness is not as abundant as either of those or the sickening display of gore.  This is surely far from being a bad horror movie or remake.  I just think that if a remake is going to take things down its own path, it should stay on that path and not try to constantly throw swerves at you.  Either be original or be a retread.  I don’t like a film that does half-and-half.  There are nice tips of the hat to those that love Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic that are subtle, but the direct carbon copy story beats when it repeatedly shows the capacity for original ideas did detract from my experience.  If you do have an open mind, you should go see this as it is a well made horror movie, but it is far from being the best or even most terrifying one I’ve ever seen.  For those that do go see it, there is a post-credits scene that is indeed “groovy.”


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.


Fallen (1998)

Evil is everywhere, and in everybody.  That is never truer than in this film.  I saw Fallen in its original theatrical run fourteen years ago.  I loved it then, and I still love it today.  I owned in on VHS, and later, it was one of the earliest DVDs I saw.  At the time of release, I stated it was one of the best suspense thrillers I had seen.  Now, even after being exposed to a wider array of films in that genre, this still holds up strongly for me.  The supernatural twist surely adds to that.  Fallen really is an inspired film of its genre that is gripping and engaging on multiple levels from the awesome beginning to the masterful ending.

Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has already arrested serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas).  He’s been convicted, and is now awaiting his execution in the gas chamber.  Although, for a man facing his inevitable and imminent death he’s remarkably upbeat.  Is he psychotic or is he something else?  Hobbes witnesses the execution, and sees Reese die in the chamber.  The case is closed, and it’s on with life.  That is until a new series of murders arise which eerily share characteristics with those of Reese’s, but Reese is dead – isn’t he?  An ancient, unseen evil known as Azazel took control over the man known as Edgar Reese a long time ago, but where Reese died, it endured.  Now, it’s set its sights on Hobbes to enact revenge on him.  Hobbes’ partner Jonesy (John Goodman) is naturally creeped out over the apparent links between these latest murders and those Reese committed, and their commanding officer – Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland) – is very shady, eluding to knowing a lot more than he’s willing to divulge.  Hobbes attempts to solve the puzzle of why there is a space between “Lyons and Spakowski” that Reese left for him – before and after his death.  This clue leads Hobbes to the death of a police officer who is survived by his daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) who becomes Hobbes’ path to answers that he is not easily willing to accept.  What this mystery drags Hobbes into is a dark and dangerous reality which may only end up in death for all those who stand between this fallen angel turn demonic spirit and John Hobbes.

Denzel Washington – as always – delivers a powerful and solid performance.  His character of John Hobbes is very human with a wide range of emotions, but most importantly, he’s loyal and dedicated to those he trusts and cares for.  In the start of the film, Hobbes is depicted as a solid professional and a confident detective.  He’s no glory hound with the media – he’s just a cop with a job to be done, and is glad that Reese has been brought to justice.  As the story becomes stranger and more unreal, Hobbes slowly unravels the mystery with great skill.  Denzel carries the film with ease.  He handles the subject matter in a very grounded way making it all relatable through his usual charm, heart, and humanity.

This brings us to Elias Koteas who, despite his relatively short screentime, retains the biggest impact of the entire film.  He makes every second of his time on screen count.  Elias put a lot of hard, hard work into this performance so that it would stay with an audience throughout the length of the film.  I’ve seen Elias in many different roles, the first of which was as the crime-fighting Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie, and later, among the powerhouse cast in The Prophecy.  No matter the film, whatever role he takes on, he makes it memorable.  This one is no exception.  Reese comes off as a very haunting and disturbing individual without rolling into Hannibal Lecter territory.  Koteas brings an intelligence to the role that is hidden under layers of charisma, riddles, and supposed psychotic behavior.  He entirely grasped the intent of the character in the story, and the depth of this evil entity.

Next, you’ve got John Goodman as the warm-hearted and emotionally supportive Jonesy.  Goodman always amazes me with his natural talent.  He can go from comedic and humorous to intense and dramatic at a moment’s notice.  I thoroughly enjoyed his work on Roseanne as well as other movie roles, and in this film, he really puts it all out there.  I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, but his performance at the film’s end is just everything he could ever pour into a performance and then some.  Donald Sutherland does fine work – as always.  His Lieutenant Stanton really offers a stricter and secretive counterweight to the more open relationship between Hobbes and Jonesy.  He puts Hobbes at unease as he delves into this unsettling mystery.  There’s also a smaller supporting role with James Gandolfini as a fellow Detective with a unique personae and attitude.  Of course, he pulls it off with much charisma and energy that adds to the colorful nature of the cast.

How the supernatural aspects are handled add to the class and sophistication of this film.  Fallen angles who were deprived of form that have lived on through the centuries possessing humans could have faltered if presented in the wrong way.  Embeth Davidtz was given the task of conveying this exposition, and she hit it perfectly on target.  As Gretta Milano, she offers up a strong, yet compassionate performance with a confident core set of beliefs that keep the film grounded, but allow for Hobbes and the audience to believe in there being something more out there.  Something beyond what we can see that is still a very powerful threat.  The film is set in Hobbes’ world of procedural police work where there is a simple explanation and tangible evidence.  Gretta slowly convinces Hobbes to look beyond the obvious and open up his mind to the supernatural truth.  Davidtz strikes up a good chemistry with Denzel that allows for a sense of trust to build between their characters.  This, along with Davidtz’s strength of character, allows Hobbes and the audience to embrace the reality of Azazel.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography on this film is filled with fantastic depth and color temperature contrast.  I still remember when I first watched this on DVD, and was highly captivated by the vibrant visual quality of the film.  It is beautiful while remaining moody.  The autumn setting is captured with gorgeous artistry.  It is my favorite season of the year much due to how wonderfully colorful it becomes.  They don’t just have it there because that’s the time of year they shot film, they make it an overall part of the film’s tone and color scheme.  The “demon vision” look is effectively creepy and otherworldly.  The score further adds to the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of the film.  Of course, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is On My Side” was terrific and inspired.  A great choice that fits the manic and peculiar sense of humor of Edgar Reese.  The song is constantly sung by those possessed by Azazel throughout the film as a sort of playful tease from the demon to Hobbes.  Of course, John Goodman puts in the best performance while mimicking some moves of Mick Jagger.

This all adds up to an exceptionally effective thriller.  The suspense of the feature is very taut creating a haunting sense where, eventually, John Hobbes becomes deeply unsettled by.  Being stalked by a supernatural killer that is generally intangible who can transfer itself from one person to another with a simple touch was brilliant.  There is a chase scene with Gretta Milano which uses this one concept to great effect.  The misdirection of the film is also ingenious, and the bookend scenes happen to be a storytelling method I’ve come to use in many of own independent films.  This story is all told from a certain perspective that you will not put into alignment until the end.  Denzel’s voice overs are excellently handled to be both ambiguous as to the truth the first time around, but also, be entirely perfect on repeat viewings fitting into what you already know.  This is mainly a testament to the screenplay of Nicholas Kazan, and the direction of Gregory Hoblit.  Voice overs can tend to be a little dry without the proper direction and context given to the actor.  Denzel gives them the right tone which feeds into the detective noir investigative aspect of the story, and ultimately, as something much more.

Kazan’s screenplay alone seems excellent.  The concepts and how they are handled are done with a fine depth of intelligence and emotional poignancy.  The philosophical discussions amongst these characters show exceptional attention to well developed characters, relationships, and storytelling detail.  The actors inhabit those roles, along with all their beliefs and attitudes, perfectly.  These are essential elements to explore for John Hobbes to develop through the film.  He doesn’t give into wild paranoia, but more of a cautious, weary mindset that drives him to a very clear perspective.  Azazel’s actions throughout the film makes Hobbes a man with his back against the wall, but he doesn’t flinch or become desperate.  He gets smart, and decides upon a course of action that is quite cunning and smart.  That’s very telling of the film.  There’s nothing cheap or dumb about it.  Everyone involved works towards creating a very smart film that maintains a sense of humanity.

Checking wikipedia for some credits on the film, I see there were many mixed reviews of Fallen upon its initial release.  There were critics describing it with words like “convoluted,” “far-fetched,” “recycled,” and “not very engaging.”  As a friend of mine consistently remarks, what good are critics anyway?  I can hardly understand where they come from myself most times.  I personally believe too many have forgotten how to simply enjoy a film as a piece of art or entertainment instead of analyzing it like a science experiment.  How they could not see the rich depth of this movie is beyond me.  I find it entertaining on many levels with dimensional, enjoyable characters, incredible tension and  suspense, a fine interwoven mystery, excellent performances all around, and clever storytelling.  Again, I felt this way in 1998, and I feel the same now in 2012.  I’m sure I will continue to feel that way forever.  This partially follows in the mentality of 1990s crime films post-Se7en, but there’s so much more self-identity and humanity within this story that is not often found as much in this genre.  Fallen is a definite must-see for anyone who enjoys suspenseful thrillers with supernatural elements.  This is a highly satisfying, sophisticated thriller which receives my strongest endorsement!


The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist franchise is like a roller-coaster – lots of ups and downs.  The original film is an eternal, bona-fide classic. The Exorcist II, while I have never seen it, is generally revered as a terrible mess of a film.  Things swing upward with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III.  Blatty adapts his novel Legion into this theatrical outing with him directing as well.  While this film is very much in a far better direction, there was studio interference which mostly complicated and muddled the film’s ending.  Still, there’s a surprisingly creepy piece of horror cinema to behold that has gradually become one of my favorite horror films of all time.

Set fifteen years after the events of the first film, we mainly follow Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (now portrayed by George C. Scott) who has formed a friendship with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), friend and confidante of the late Damien Karras.  It’s an odd friendship built on a love of movies and the memory of Karras.  The Lieutenant is investigating an eerie string of disturbing murders that harkens back to those of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who was executed fifteen years earlier.  There’s a religious subtext to some of the murders, but none of the forensic evidence pieces together from one death to the next.  Things become stranger when investigating at the hospital Kinderman discovers an isolated mental patient who claims to be James Venamun, the Gemini Killer, but bares a striking resemblance to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller).  He is clearly insane, but knows everything about the original Gemini killings.  He also refers constantly to “the master” who slipped him into this body as Karras was slipping out after his fateful fall down the steps fighting Pazuzu.  Kinderman can’t see the evil within, but he feels it and knows the death and dismemberment it has caused.  As Kinderman comes closer to deciphering this demonic mystery, his own soul and life could easily be in danger as well as others’.

This is a positive review, but I’m going to start out with the bad first, just to change up the template.  The ending to this film was changed because after the studio renamed the film from the novel’s title of Legion to The Exorcist III, they realized there wasn’t a single exorcism in the script.  To accommodate this, an extra plot line was introduced which bought Jason Miller back, and a line about seeing through “the eyes of faith” to accommodate having footage of both Dourif and Miller portraying the same general character.  None of that is really a problem in terms of storytelling or the quality of the film.  It’s all handled and balanced beautifully through clever editing and storytelling.  Where the problem lies is the climax and conclusion of the film.  What we’re inevitably left with is an overly grandiose exorcism with a breadth of fantastical, biblical, and blasphemous imagery which seems a little out of place and over-the-top.  Granted, there is a heavenly dream sequence with a wealth of respective imagery.  Also, there are supernatural elements throughout the film, but they’re more subtle.  This ending breaks the restraints and lets loose the floodgates.  In one perspective, it might seem appropriate like the gates of hell have been breached, and everything is being unleashed.  However, to my perspective, it doesn’t seem to mesh all that well with the rest of the film’s style, and twists the story into an odd direction which isn’t as satisfying or coherent as it probably could’ve been.  There’s also the dictated addition of Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) to the film who is not given any character building scenes to integrate him into the story.  This addition causes some storytelling problems, and seems like an irrelevant diversion from the plot until the finale justifies it.  All of this doesn’t kill the movie, but I would’ve been interested to see what Blatty originally had in mind.  Apparently, the novel does not have a happy ending.

Onto the good stuff.  George C. Scott commands this movie.  From the guy who won an Academy Award for his powerhouse portrayal of General George S. Patton (though, declined the award), that’s to be expected.  He offers up a dry sense of humor, some degree of grief, but overall, he provides conviction and intensity to Bill Kinderman.  The highly acclaimed character actor Lee J. Cobb originated the role in the 1973 film, but the actor passed away from a heart attack three years later.  Ed Flanders takes over the role of Father Dyer from the real-life priest, Father William O’Malley.  Jason Miller is the only returning cast member from the original film, and does a very subdued and creepy performance as the brain damaged ‘Patient X.’  However, where the acting really soars is Brad Dourif.  Whatever roll he was on going into this film, it made his performance enveloping.  You just can’t turn away.  With the monologues he had to deliver, the role and performance could’ve killed the film, dragging it down into boredom.  Fortunately, Dourif has a magnetism that just reels you in hook, line, and sinker.  His charisma eats up the scene, and the sparks that fly between him and Scott are the meat of the piece.

This was only the second film directed by William Peter Blatty.  The first being The Ninth Configuration from 1980 which Blatty once considered the real sequel to The Exorcist despite it’s connection being one briefly seen, unnamed character from 1973 film.  Despite such a brief directing résumé, Blatty shows a lot of skill and competency here.  This film oozes with creepiness, making it one that’ll twitch your nerves, and keep you jumping.  There is one particular sequence featuring a white gown and a killer musical stinger that’ll freak you out.  Just thinking about it gives me the chills.  No matter your own opinion of the film, this sequence will get you every time.

The musical score by Barry De Vorzon is quite fitting, and immensely effective.  I was previously familiar with his haunting and intense score on the cult urban action film The Warriors, which was very much of its time in the late 70s.  The Exorcist III score is much more traditional, but still haunting as well as chilling.  It makes itself essential to building the atmosphere of the picture.

The director of photography, Gerry Fisher, gives this picture great composition and an amazing look in certain scenes.  Every time the film ventures into the isolation chamber, the lighting is so beautiful in an exceptionally dark and eerie fashion.  Fisher previously lensed the fantasy adventure classic Highlander with amazing artistic talent, and wonderful composition.  The Exorcist III doesn’t call for anything as epic as Highlander, but the artistry is still beautifully evident.  He definitely gives the film a visual impact that lasts.

There are some discrepancies between the original 1973 film and this sequel.  Likely, these are due to Blatty focusing more on his original novel source material instead of Freidkin’s feature.  The primary issue is that, in The Exorcist, Kinderman and Karras barely knew each other.  They meet for one conversation for their first meeting ever, and are never seen together again.  Here, it is heavily referenced that the two men were best friends, and knew each other quite well.  It’s that friendship which drives Kinderman’s intense investigation, and motivates the plotlines along.  I have not read Blatty’s novels, and so, I cannot confirm or speak to any of this speculation.  However, considering he is the author, screenwriter, and director, it’s easy to conclude that these are character connections he always intended in some form or another.  Other issues are easily resolved.  The year of when the events of the first film occurred has been altered to 1975, but there’s nothing in the first film to conflict with this.  Just the fact that it was released in 1973 is all that causes any issue at all.

Overall, I feel The Exorcist III is an amazingly well done film, and only the interference of Morgan Creek executives diminished and hindered Bill Blatty’s vision.  Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin would also learn of this over a decade later when filming their respective prequels to The Exorcist, and Blatty blamed no one but Morgan Creek for both versions’ failures. A director’s cut of The Exorcist III is apparently never to surface due to Morgan Creek being unable to locate the footage.  Still, despite these obstacles and tampering with the film, I honestly feel an effective, original, enthralling, and exceptionally satisfying horror film shines through.  Blatty showed great talent and competence in both scripting and directing, and George C. Scott’s performance is a powerful and intense as you’ve come to expect from him.  Ultimately, this is a great surprise considering the more maligned entries in this franchise (save the original), and is indeed one hell of a terribly creepy film.  This is a horror film I can watch just about anytime and be pulled into every time.  This is what has gradually made it a strong personal favorite of mine which I would also consider one of the best horror movies ever made.  If for nothing else, it’s a good watch for a dark, lonely night.