A Trip To The Movies – Review: “The Babadook” 12.27.14

As we enter the new year I’m going to be making some more changes to the site. Some feedback I’ve gotten is that my reviews have a tendency to be a little bit too on the lengthy side. So rather than give descriptive overviews of what I like about a director or actor I’m going to trim that section down to make it a bit more accessible for the reader. I will still continue to give a brief summary or synopsis of each film, hopefully without giving away any spoilers, but moving forward you will see more of an emphasis on the aspects I either liked or disliked about the film, with just a short explanation of why I decided to see a film, my thoughts on the director or actors previous efforts, what the “experience” was like for me, etc. And try to come up with something that reads like more of a somewhat traditional movie review than an essay.

The anticipation was high for Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s new horror film “The Babadook”. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than it fell into the horror genre, was garnering a lot of attention and gaining a great critical reception reflected by its high scores and good reviews, on top of the fact that the godfather of horror – director William Friedkin (1973’s “The Exorcist”) himself called it and I quote “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen”. Quite a dubious endorsement indeed by one that horror fans worldwide heard and took note similar to that of myself. So with that being said I made plans several weeks in advance to see it, at the smallest and most intimate theater here in town, in hopes that I would be paired up with a sold out audience (which turned out being the case) where it would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop (which didn’t happen to be the case). Though truly the only way to see a horror film such as this. But more to come on that further down.

The story starts off showing the turbulent relationship between a recently widowed mother Amelia (played by Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel seems to be obsessed with ghosts and other supernatural things that he swears he can see but his mother begrudgingly cannot. Samuel has developed such an obsession that he has constant temper tantrums and acts out incessantly, which distances both he and his mother from the local townspeople, the school which Samuel attends, and Amelia’s family. As his excessive talking about evil spirits and ghouls turns most everybody away from the mother and son. One day though, Amelia receives a strange velvet red what appears to be children’s book titled “Mister Babadook”. At first it just seems cautionary, as there are several warning signs within it, similar to that of something out of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) or Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” series (1987-present) where opening up the book is like opening up some kind of Pandora’s box. But then Amelia starts to see images that apparently her son has been seeing all the time, and starts to get convinced that maybe the two of them are experiencing some kind of similar supernatural spirit, one that has the ability to take over a person’s mind and body. The stakes get higher when Amelia receives a “second” “Mister Babadook” book. Except unlike the first book, this one contains a much more grisly tale that actually maps out the future of both the mother and child with very alarming predictions. It is at this point where a paradigm shift takes place in the film, and to continue to discuss it any further would require me to divulge important plot details.

My filmgoer partner and I had only one word to describe the film when the house lights came on and the credits rolled – “underwhelming”. We also both agreed that while disturbing and a bit unsettling at points, there was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that was even in the slightest bit remotely scary about this film. What we also agreed on is that if you set out to make a true modern-day horror classic it has to be at least scary to hold any sort of credibility. Almost the entire last row in the theater was laughing throughout most of it. Which I at first found annoying, but then I thought to myself “wait, the outrageousness of it all was actually pretty funny”. So that gave them reason to laugh. Sure it serves up some chills, particularly in the performances of its 2 leads which I thought was the best thing about it. Other than that I thought it wore its influences on its sleeves, paying equal homage to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1981) which mirrored 2 of the relationships in that film. I also think it owed quite a fair amount to Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge” (2002 and 2004) in terms of its images and execution of the horror. It also can’t be discussed without discussing 2013’s far more scary and terrifying – James Wan’s “The Conjuring” containing within it a far superior better tale of demonic and supernatural possession. It also owed just as much to Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” (2012) in terms of the creature department, Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992) (replacing name chanting for silly knocks), and finally, another Sam Raimi film – 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell” which this film’s ending almost reflected exactly how that one did. But enough with the comparisons – I just really had a hard time getting into something that didn’t feel even remotely original. What I will say is is that writer/director Jennifer Kent does a pretty good job here in creating a creepy mood, tone, and atmosphere as I was slightly captivated by some of the shots and the use of lighting. However despite that I never thought its psychological tone ever really took off and brought me into the territory that only some of the best psychological horror films do. For your average Joe this would be a worthwhile rental when it comes out on DVD. For others I know who are pretty seasoned horror fans I’ll finish by saying this – “don’t believe the hype”.

[C+]

#4: ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

The Conjuring Movie Poster

James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is almost about as good as it gets as far as American horror films go these days. Wan is arguably the godfather of the post-aught American horror film. His groundbreaking and undeniably influential “Saw” (2004) made him an overnight star and proved to the international film making scene that we had a new auteur on our hands. Not only that but to top it off (get this) he was only 27 at the time of filming. Being in that “Saw” was so successful and Wan set the bar so high, both artistically and commercially, it was only somewhat inevitable that his next film couldn’t possibly hold up. And they didn’t. He released 2 films back-to-back in 2007 – “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence”. Both which failed miserably at the box office and with audiences. Enter 2010 after a few years away from the film making spectrum and Wan releases his 2nd most successful movie to date – the downright creepy and chilling “Insidious”. Marking a return to form and putting him once again in the hot seat as America’s most artistically commercial horror director. Then another 3 years later and Wan gives us what might be the 2nd best horror film post-2010. What I and some other people I know consider to be his masterpiece.

There are so many elements to talk about in regards to “The Conjuring” that its hard to break it down to just a few. But I will try my best. First things first, it is impeccably shot. And I rarely use that adjective to describe a piece of film making (I picked it up from Steven Spielberg in an interview when he once described the look of the films of the late, great Stanley Kubrick). Wan is in complete control here and it comes through in just about every frame and shot. It’s one of the most confident and assured pieces of film making from a directing standpoint in American horror since the great films of the 1970’s like William Friendkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) or Tobe Hoopers’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The way in which he zooms in and out and sweeps through the corridors of the inhabited home is purely the work of a master. Secondly, in what I refer to as Wan’s “bag of tricks”. He utilizes just about every horror technique we’ve seen in the history of the genre. His arsenal bag of tricks contains everything from a grandfather clock, creaking doors and stairwells, white noise, evil spirits, old tape recordings, saturated lit archival footage, a game of “clap and seek” (remind me never to play that), haunted cellars, the scariest doll since “Chucky”, and what I find to be the most terrifying piece – a wind up corkscrew jack-in-the-box (used beautifully in the film’s closing shot). Last, and certainly not the least, is the all out, balls to the wall, horror show freak out that is the third act. It features some of the most haunting images that will forever be etched into my brain. To say he really brings it as the film comes to a close would be a huge understatement. The last half hour to 45 minutes contains some of the most pure, unadulterated horror that I’ve seen put onto celluloid since Brad Anderson’s brilliant and overlooked “Session 9” (2001). My one very minor criticism of the piece is that it follows the whole exorcism movie trope formula just a tad bit too closely. But again, a very minor criticism. Outside of that this is about as good as modern day horror gets. And solidifies my statement that James Wan is the Christopher Nolan of the horror genre.

[strong B+]

Review: ‘Oculus’ 9.3.14

I have a really hard time with American horror films these days. Why? Because I love the genre so much. And I constantly feel like every stab I take at seeing a film, I’m let down again and again. This has become more apparent in recent years. There are some exceptions. I enjoyed Scott Derrickson’s 2012’s – “Sinister” Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” (2013), and James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013). I also really liked Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem” (2013), but that was geared more to the art house crowd and hardly anyone I know saw it. Lately, especially with American horror, all I feel like I see advertised is one horror crap fest after another. Or another film in the line of carbon copy franchises (I’m looking at you “Paranormal Activity”). That, or the countless retreads or remakes of older classic horror films (I recently heard, though I guess it’s old news, that there’s actually a “Rosemary’s Baby” TV show). What is this world coming to?

Though every now and then an American horror film will pop up that piques my interest. This being one of them. It had been on my radar as I had seen that it was well reviewed. That, and I’ve always had a sort of underlying interest in horror films that take a ordinary premise and make something extraordinary out of them. In the case of this film a “haunted mirror that shows you things you don’t want to see”. After Alexandre Aja’s catastrophically bad 2008’s “Mirrors”, which was similar in concept but done with disastrous results, I found myself intrigued when the premise came up again. “Hopefully they’ll get it right this time around” I thought to myself. Well, what we do have right here is we have a somewhat effective, creepy enough, psychological horror film that succeeded on some levels. And then not so much on others. The setup revolves around a mysterious mirror that was once owned by a family who purchased it as an antique when they move into their new home. The mirror then takes many shapes and forms as do the inhabitants of the house. Though in good ole’ horror ghost story fashion the kids rise up to the defense of their family. A number of years go by, and the kids; now grown ups, buy back the mirror in hopes of figuring out why some of the things that happened to them did, setting off a new series of events. Sounds tacky? Well, it is. But it also produces some geniunely scary moments. They just happen to come at you a little bit too far in between each other. That, and with what almost seems to be becoming a tradition in American horror these days, they try and pack a tad too much of a punch towards the end. That being said, it manages to retain a pretty creepy vibe throughout, and when the punches do come, they’re somewhat exciting. What I can say it’s certainly better than the average American horror film these days. But still, that’s not really saying much.

Grade: C+/B-