Saturday, 3 August 2013

REVIEW - The Conjuring ★ ★ ★ ★

Review by Damon Rickard
Stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson & Lili Taylor
Written by Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes
Certification UK 15
Runtime 112 minutes
Directed by James Wan
Based on the accounts of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the foremost paranormal investigators of our time, comes the new film from James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence, Insidious).  This is not the first of the Warren's tales to have been made into a feature film with The Amityville Horror being the other well known haunting based on their accounts.  People have doubted both that and this, the case of the Perron's (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston star as Carolyn and Roger Perron) have any truth to them. My thoughts on this are if the film is good does it matter?  Most films are based on works of fiction so why should the debate of this being true or not have any impact on the quality of the film?

The story starts with the Perron's moving into their new home, a farmhouse in Rhode Island set in a beautifully idyllic location, unaware of the history contained with the walls of the house.  From there it doesn't take long for things to start going bump in the night.  It starts off small, as most haunting films do, and gradually ups the anti with the Perron children seemingly being targeted most. 

With the hauntings becoming more frequent and more physical, Carolyn contacts the Warren's to help free them from whatever is terroising them.  But following an exorcism that went awry, Ed Warren is reluctant to take the case on, especially as it was his wife that suffered and, wanting to protect her from more serious consequences he turns it down.However, the Warren's finally succomb to the needs of this family and, whilst expecting something mischievous, were not prepared for the scale of the maleavolence that was residing inside the Perron's property.

James Wan has given us a story that doesn't shy from the fact it isn't original and, indeed, has been done many times before.  The difference here is how well he has delivered it.  Unlike films such as The Haunting in Connecticut, The Possession and The Pact, in fact the list could go on, The Conjuring delivers on intensity and on the scares front.  The others are full of cliched set pieces made by people who don't understand the genre and what actually makes a film scary. Whereas James Wan has been cutting his teeth on films that, whilst good, weren't quite there and you can sense he has learnt what didn't work and put these learnings into practice with, by far, his best film to date.

I'm a big fan of ghost stories but too often they are underwhelming.  So what is that The Conjuring does that others havent?  Well for starters it got the very basics right with likeable characters which gives you someone to care about in terms of their outcome.  Even the peripheral characters are decent.  The screenplay fleshes them out, gives them individual personalities and backgrounds.  The importance of this shouldn't be underestimated. Next they created a sense of dread and once they got you hooked they didn't let you go.  If you want an audience to be scared then give them something to be scared about.  Just slowly opening doors and pulling back shower curtains doesn't cut it if you don't think anything is going to happen to the protagonists (a massive failure of The Haunting in Connecticut where it was just lots and lots of false scares to the point they became boring).  Wan creates an increased sense of the evil in the house by upping the anti as the story progresses.  A pull of a leg here, a shadowy figure there, slowly getting more and more intense and viloent. Oh and a creepy as fuck doll!!

The film is also beautifully photographed with exquisit lighting and the camera only letting you see what you need to and when you need to see it.  The almost haunting style of camerwork also gives the house itself a personality, not quite as striking as something along the lines of the Psycho house but none-the-less adding to the feel of the film.   The dialogue is rich and playful at times, knowing when to introduce a light touch and when not to so as to avoid a poorly placed "joke" ruining a cleverly devised piece of tension.  All credit to Wan and Chad and Carey Hayes for bringing all these elements together and ensuring they didn't fall into the obvious traps in the name of commercial film making and still delivering a film that will prove to be popular commercially. 

Not everyone is going to love this film, that never happens with anything, but it will please more than it disappoints.  And if you are easily scared by horror films then approach this with caution.  It's not often a horror film grips me to the point of feeling "scared" but The Conjuring did manage it and for that I say thank you. It is a feeling I don't really get watching films since I was a child and one that I miss so I am appreciative when that childhood horror film experience is brought back into my life. 

When I was seven a particular film gave me nightmares for some time.  This is a film those nightmares are made of.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

REVIEW - Evil Dead ★ ★ ★

Review by Damon Rickard
Stars Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci
Written by Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues
Certification UK 18
Opens April 18th 2013 (UK)
Runtime 91 minutes
Directed by Fede Alvarez

Please note: This trailer contains scenes that may be distressing to some

32 years after Sam Raimi brought us the classic The Evil Dead, the newest entrant from the conveyor belt of remakes hits our screens.  Online comments such as "Oh God, please don't let them fuck this up for me" started popping up as trailers got released.  Fans of the original remember vividly the first time they saw it and for that reason it became quite a personal film for them.  The people brave enough to attempt "not fucking this up" had themselves quite a challenge from the off.  Not least the fact that remakes amongst the horror community don't exactly have the best reputation these days.

So who were these brave (foolish?) souls that believed they could re-imagine such a well loved film.  Well the director, producer and star of the original of course.  Upon the knowledge of this, a collective sigh of release was felt the world of horror over.  However this was just as producers.  They needed some poor sucker they could place the blame on if it all fell apart.  So they brought in director Fede Alvarez for his debut feature to help recreate their visionary original for the modern audience.  He came to their attention after seeing his short film Panic Attack (Ataque de Panico) came on YouTube (if you want to watch it, here is the link

As far as remakes go they've been smart in a variety of areas.  They've gone for, essentially, an unknown cast, they've come up with a different approach for keeping them in the cabin, said no to CGI, jettisoned the comedy of ED2 and Army of Darkness and haven't tried to get someone to recreate Ash (as director Alvarez put it "how can you recreate God").  So what is the set up if they have changed it from the original?

Mia (Jane Levy) is there to try and kick her drug habit and what better way to do that than in a remote cabin, watched over by her closest friends and estranged brother.  The catalyst for this arranged intervention seems to be the death of Mia's mother who suffered from a debilitating mental illness.  Whilst getting the cabin back into a livable condition, they come across in the basement what they believe to have been, the practice of some form of black magic.  Dead animals, stabbing implements and a strange package tied up with wire adorn far reaches of the underneath of the cabin which explained the deathly stench that drove them down there in the first place.  They bring up some of the artifacts and when one of the group takes a particular interest in the package, upon opening it they find the Book of the Dead and begin to read the passages that no-one should not read.  Naturally this releases the demon is and Mia is the first to become possessed.

The potential for mental illness to be hereditary and the fact Mia is going cold turkey are able to explain away her early unusual actions following her possession in order to believably keep the group in the cabin.  What ensues is of utmost importance to the strength of the film.  With many a horror, you can forgo any inadequacies in the build up so long as the pay off is suitability good, however even if the build up is perfectly adequate (which this was) you still need the pay off.   Early on I did have reservations as, whilst competently made as it is, it felt very much like any number of modern day horrors.  From the lighting, the framing, the acting, all the way through to the wardrobe it all felt far too familiar.  But what Alvarez did very well with this film was defy your expectations of what was to come.

The style began to shift as things became more and more desperate in the cabin, the gore ramped up and the story went out the window.  Once things really took hold it was just one big ending as the story was only strong enough to go so far.  There were some clever plays on the first two Evil Dead films (such as the hand from ED2 - you think it's going to go one way but Alvarez plays on your expectations) which allowed those in the know a wry smile to themselves, knowing they'd be able to be smug about it afterwards (yes I am one of those).

What ultimately stands out with this film and is both good and bad, is the gore.  There are some fantastic moments (a syringe needle, a nail gun and a straight razor being just a few) that will keep most gore-hounds happy (this one included) but it delivers this in place of any scares.  The overriding experience of this film is that it is a fun, blood drenched ride but void of any real fear.  The supporting characters are also very hollow, with little to no background and are simply there to provide a suitable body count.  But as things progress you don't really care too much about that.

This film could very easily have stood as a sort of sequel rather than remake as it is different enough from the original to be seen alongside the others as just another adventure for the book.  Will it be remembered a classic? No.  Will be vilified for defecating over the good name of The Evil Dead? No.  This is a solid horror film which goes for gore over scares and is really just good fun.  You'd be able to pick at it all over the place if you really wanted to but I found myself enjoying it and not feeling the need to pick and I probably had a better cinematic experience for that.  

So in summary, don't expect anything outstanding as you'll be disappointed but go along for the ride and you should find enough here to make this a decent watch and to forget it's supposed to be a remake.

As a final note, if I was to sit and compare it to the original then it falls down.  It lacks the atmosphere of the first Evil Dead and fails to bring anything really new or inventive to the party.  So as a direct comparison then I might have given it 2 out of 5 but I am judging it on its own merits and I can happily say I enjoyed it.