Annabelle: Creation

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A couple lost their young daughter in a tragic accident. Years later they decide to invite a nun and a group of orphaned girls to live with them after their orphanage closed down. An evil trapped within the house awakens and now it’s after the soul of one of the girls. The strange supernatural occurrences get worse with each passing day, threatening the lives of all who live in the house. It is up to the girls to try and defeat what could be the Devil himself.

After the less than well received Annabelle prequel of 2014, New Line Cinema decided to attempt a prequel to the prequel. They brought on Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the first Annabelle film, and director David F. Sandberg of Lights Out fame. These two manage to create a film worthy of being apart of The Conjuring universe. Bringing Sandberg in to direct was a great decision by the production company. Even though Annabelle: Creation is only his second feature length film, Sandberg has proven that he is a skilled horror storyteller who knows how to scare audiences. He expertly uses light and shadows to his advantage to not only bring exciting jump scares, but he also relies heavily on creating an unsettling atmosphere with more subtle spine-chilling scares. He also sets up scares in a very long, drawn out way that builds anticipation. You keep expecting the scare to come, but then it doesn’t until you are caught off guard again. Sandberg has already improved his skills since Lights Out, his first feature film, so I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Bringing Dauderman on to write again was probably the best decision for this film. He has a clear understanding of the mythology created both in The Conjuring and in Annabelle. One of my biggest concerns going into Annabelle: Creation was how they were going to connect it to the first Annabelle film. I was almost expecting them to do what the latest Resident Evil film did and create an entirely new origin story, ignoring the previous film. Dauberman connects the two films in such a seamless manner. It is even more flawless than I could have imagined. On top of that, Dauberman creates a cast of compelling characters, each with their own fears that “Annabelle” tries to exploit. You care about each character, especially young Janice, who is recovering from polio. Caring about the characters makes the demonic presence all the more terrifying.

Having compelling characters would mean nothing if not for the actors who play them. While there are many characters, all of whom are important to the plot, it seems that there are two main characters of this film. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave, The Hive) plays Janice. Janice is a young orphan who is recovering from polio and has to use a crutch to get around. She suffers the most from the demon since she is the weak link of the orphan girls. Bateman is a new young talent and she absolutely shines in this role. From innocent girl trying to be strong for her friend to possessed by evil, Bateman shows range in her performance and I find myself completely enthralled by her. Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Deliver Us From Evil) also gives a stunning performance as Janice’s best friend, Linda. While Wilson excels in this role, I found her to be a bit of a distraction. She had just been in Ouija: Origin of Evil last year, and not only was this another horror prequel but it was set in a similar time (although I think chronologically Annabelle: Creation is earlier). Wilson is great as Linda, but I can’t stop thinking of her as Doris, especially since that film isn’t even a year old. The entire cast does a great job, making each character enjoyable to watch.

In keeping with other films in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation relies almost entirely on practical effects. Primarily the effects are to make the deceased daughter look unsettling. There is one scene where the makeup done on the girl goes a bit over the top, combined with her line of dialogue, to make it much more funny than scary. Aside from that, the effects are very well done, especially with the demon. While the demon is kept mostly in the shadow, which makes it even more disturbing, they keep its look simple and iconic. Often times what you don’t see is even more terrifying than what you can see, and Annabelle: Creation is a perfect example of that.

I went into Annabelle: Creation somewhat guarded and with low expectations. I came out of the theater with a partially numb arm from crouching awkwardly in fear. Annabelle: Creation is the most frightening film of 2017, so far, and it renews my faith in The Conjuring spin-off films. There are a couple scares that come across more funny than frightening, and I found the casting of Wilson to be rather distracting, but overall I am very pleased with this film. It is exceptionally well acted, has great scares, and perfectly connects to the films that came before it. Annabelle: Creation truly exceeds my expectations. Be sure to keep an eye out for a couple fun Easter eggs in this film, as well as a mid and post credit scene that you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Dark Tower

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A young boy is consumed by his strange dreams. He sees a tower, a man in black who seeks to destroy the tower, and a gunslinger who seeks revenge. The dreams lead him to another world that has been ravaged by the man in black. He must find the gunslinger and aid him in defeating the man in black. If they fail, the tower will fall. If the tower falls, darkness will consume our world.

To start off I will say that I have never read The Dark Tower by Stephen King. I had no frame of reference going into this film so I had little to no expectations. Even with no expectations I still feel nothing but disappointment and confusion when thinking about The Dark Tower film. The film had such promise. It has a great cast, a big Hollywood budget, and (from what I understand) amazing source material. The number one issue with The Dark Tower is not only does it not follow what is written in the book, but it also creates this entire grand mythos without actually explaining any of it. The audience is introduced to the man in black and the gunslinger, but we don’t really learn anything about who or what they are and the motivations behind their actions. The audience is shown skin-stealing creatures who work for the man in black, but it is never explained what they actually are. There are entirely new worlds that are somehow connected by portals and the tower, but viewers never learn how this connection works. The film is only an hour and 35 minutes long. The fact that the filmmakers didn’t take an extra half hour to better develop the characters and the world they created is mind-boggling.

The effects of the film also leave much to be desired. The choice to use CGI throughout the film doesn’t bother me. With the world they are trying to create it is the most logical option. What does bother me is that there appears to be little effort put into these effects, making many scenes look like something from a made for TV movie instead of the blockbuster hit this film was supposed to be. The climax of the film is where the flaws are the most glaringly obvious. The final scenes look ridiculous, taking out any excitement or suspense, and the entire sequence of events is simply too brief. This is just another example that shows how a little more time and a bit more effort could have greatly improved the film.

The actors were one of the few positive aspects of The Dark Tower. The material the had to work with was thin, but the leads all did what they could with it. Idris Elba (Prometheus, Thor) did his best to make the gunslinger, Roland, as interesting and complex as possible. This is no easy thing to do with what Elba had to work with, but his talent still shows through the muck and the mire. It is clear that Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, Dallas Buyers Club) has the potential to make an incredible villain. There are moments in his portrayal of Walter, who is also known as the man in black, where McConaughey expertly portrays the evil within. Sadly, the writing of his character and the way he is directed in certain scenes keep McConaughey from rising to his true potential. Tom Taylor (Broken Hearts, Doctor Foster) is probably the most developed character as the young Jake. This gave Taylor more opportunity to show his acting skills and to portray an enjoyable character, as far as the writing allowed. My one note for Taylor is that there are times where his accent breaks through, especially when he says the word “gunslinger.”

I want to like this movie. It is overflowing with potential and it creates a universe that I want to learn more about. The Dark Tower has an interesting premise and phenomenal actors. Unfortunately, not only will fans of Stephen King’s book leave wondering where the story they know and love went, but people who have never read the books will likely leave even more confused. There are simply too many plot points and characters that are not fully developed. The best part of The Dark Tower is hunting for the other Stephen King Easter eggs hidden throughout the film. If you plan on seeing this film I will say it will probably be more enjoyable on the big screen than on your television at home, but The Dark Tower isn’t a film I would go rushing to the theaters to see.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

The Void

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A small town sheriff finds a bloody man on the side of the road during the night. He takes the man to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, it is in the process of closing down so there is only a small skeleton crew there to help. Soon after the sheriff arrives, strange people wearing cloaks and hoods surround the building. What’s worse, people are dying and turning into something otherworldly, threatening the existence of the sheriff and the hospital staff.

The Void has a dark and mysterious plot that encompasses many themes. While this film has its own original story there are many aspects that are meant to remind the audience of classic eighties horror movies. Watching this film you will see things that are reminiscent of The Thing, Hellraiser, and various Lovecraftian films. Because of these nods to previous films audiences will be split on their opinion. Some will love the nostalgic touch this film has while still bringing something new to viewers. Others will think the filmmakers were simply being lazy or stealing from previous films. Either way, the film is creepy, intense, and it will keep you interested in what happens next.

There are some areas where the plot is a bit lacking. One of the major issues is the relationship between the sheriff and his ex wife, who happens to be a nurse at the desolate hospital. There isn’t enough character development for either character, let alone their strained relationship. There are also scenes that are visually interesting, but they don’t necessarily serve the plot. If anything, they distract from the story line because these scenes attempt to add a few too many subplots. While overall the plot is exciting, there could be improvements. Aside from the various issues with character development and subplots, the most distressing issue is the very last scene of the film. Without giving too much away I can say that I simply wish the last scene had been completely cut. It is unnecessary and takes the film to a laughable place.

The special effects are where The Void truly excels. The filmmakers opted for practical effects, which is in keeping with their desire to bring a bit of nostalgia to their modern, unnerving film. The bizarre mutations shown throughout the film will not only remind you of the classic films listed above, but they are also simply beautiful. It isn’t all good news though. The coloring of the film is so dark that many of these gorgeous effects are virtually impossible to see. When I watched the film I had to turn the ‘brightness’ level up significantly on my television in order to clearly see what was going on and how the practical creations looked. With all the effort that clearly went into creating these monstrosities it seems careless to make them disappear in the darkness of the film.

In a film with such a small cast, one bad performance can ruin the entire movie. Lucky for The Void, none of the performances stand out as being poorly done. Although there aren’t any performances that stand out as being great either. This could be a result of the lack of character development mentioned earlier; there was simply no dimension to the characters resulting in a void (excuse the pun) of outstanding performances. The two leads, Aaron Poole (The Conspiracy, Forsaken) and Kathleen Munroe (Supernatural, Resurrection), are perfectly fine in their roles. They are likely the only two actors audiences will remember after watching the film. Sadly, it is probably because they simply had the most screen time.

I had high hopes for this film. The Void pays homage to many frightening films that came before it, but it sadly doesn’t quite live up to the legacy it honors. There are several highlights, such as the practical effects and the overall story, but there are quite a few aspects that diminish the quality of the film. If the film could be brighter in color, focus more on the character development, and eliminate some of the frivolous scenes, then The Void could become something very accomplished. As is, it is a fun flick and will remind you of films you watched growing up.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Beyond the Gates

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After their father’s mysterious disappearance, two estranged brothers come together to go through their father’s belongings. The first stop is the family’s old video store. While combing through the large inventory the brothers come across an old VHS board game. They decide to take the game home and give it a try. As soon as they hit play the brothers realize that this game may have something to do with their father’s disappearance, and they have to play in order to save him.

Beyond the Gates immediately does an excellent job of immersing viewers in the past while keeping the film in the present. As soon as the brothers step into the old video store it is like taking a step back in time. It will instantly make you think of your Friday nights spent perusing the racks of VHS tapes at Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. While not everyone experienced the VHS board games that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s, the nostalgic message still comes across loud and clear. The audience gets to experience that nostalgia through the eyes of the brothers, one who is trying to move on from the past and one who seems to be stuck in it. Gordon is the level-headed brother that wants to forget his father and be rid of all his father’s assets. His brother, John, still has fond memories of better times spent in the video store. They have an interesting dynamic because it is clear at one time they were very close, but time and distance has pulled them apart. They start their reunion off quite awkwardly around each other. It isn’t until they dive deeper into the game that they become closer.

In general, the plot is very compelling. The relationship between the brothers and the mystery is fascinating to watch unfold. Unfortunately, the film loses some of its spark in the final act. The excitement builds and builds throughout the film, but then what should be the climax “inside” the game ends in a fizzle. When the brothers cross over into the game the smaller budget becomes apparent, resulting in funky lighting, fog machines, and not-so-scary bad guys. It’s hard to determine if this was due to the film’s budget, or if this was another stab at nostalgia since many films of that era ended in a similar fashion. Either way, it detracted from the rest of the events that preceded it.

While the entire cast of this film are phenomenal, special recognition goes to the two leads. Graham Skipper (The Devil’s Dolls, Space Clowns) plays the straight-laced Gordon. Despite his somewhat rigid demeanor, Skipper makes Gordon a likable and complex character. Skipper especially shines when the story dives deeper into why Gordon hates his past so much. Then there is Chase Williamson (Sequence Break, John Dies at the End) as John. This is the kind of character that Williamson is best at, a man stuck in the past that could potentially be considered a bit of a loser. Yet he is always endearing and lovable. The on screen brotherly chemistry between Skipper and Williamson is pure magic.

Since Beyond the Gates highlights the 80’s and 90’s VHS board games, it only makes sense that the filmmakers would opt for practical effects. That being said, there really aren’t a lot of them. The director smartly found creative ways to carry out the couple kills in the film in a way that hints at gore more than anything else. It was a very imaginative way to give the audience the excitement they expect from a horror film without completely blowing their budget on elaborate practical effects. The only part of the film that could have benefited from more effects was the climax, but everything leading up to the point works well within the context of the film.

Beyond the Gates is dripping with nostalgia and gives horror fans a compelling story that will take them back to their childhood. It has such a fun and unique story, as well as a great cast of characters, that I have no doubt it will become a cult classic. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) has a hilarious cameo that alone makes the film worth a watch. Unfortunately the climax will likely leave viewers wanting something more. If it can be overlooked, then Beyond the Gates will become a household favorite among horror fans young and old.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Favorite Things: Women of Horror (Characters)

At the 2017 Phoenix Comicon I had the pleasure of being a panelist alongside three amazing women to discuss the female perspective of horror. The panel went over female stereotyping in horror, the difference between how male and female anatomy is censored, and why women enjoy horror when it is typically considered a genre for men. This made me think of various female characters in horror films that could be considered role models. These are the women who are strong, independent, and break the mold of what we typically see of women in horror films. Here is the list of my top 5 favorite female characters in horror:

5. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) – The Silence of the Lambs

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Clarice Starling is one of the few female law enforcement characters in horror films that isn’t a caricature. She is strong, intelligent, and determined to make a name for herself in a male-dominated field. Starling is also completely fearless. She mentally takes on Hannibal Lecter, and physically takes on Buffalo Bill. Clarice Starling is also a standout because she is not defined by her relationship with a man. Many times during The Silence of the Lambs she is hit on, but she barely even acknowledges it because her career and the case are more important. Starling should be every woman’s role model.

4. Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) – House of 1000 Copses, The Devil’s Rejects

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This is probably one of the more odd choices for my list. I am not saying people should aspire to be like Baby Firefly because, let’s face it, she’s a psychotic murderer. Instead, she is on the list because she plays a unique role in the horror world. Most of the time when a horror film has a female villain, she is doing evil things for a specific reason. Sometimes that reason is revenge, sometimes it is fear, sometimes it is because of childhood abuse. Baby Firefly is one of the rare female horror villains that does evil things simply because she enjoys it, like we see with many male horror villains. I would love to see more evil women in horror like Baby Firefly.

3. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) – A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

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It’s no secret that A Nightmare on Elm Street was my first horror film. Nancy Thompson is on my list because she is not your average slasher film final girl. Leading up to this film, final girls mostly just survived or they were saved at the last second by a man. Nancy is different. When she learned that her life and the lives of her loved ones were in danger, she gets to work. Not only does Nancy study up on the killer, but she even studies survival tactics and traps in order to defeat Freddy. Nancy is the first well-known final girl to truly go into defensive mode and try to find a way to not just survive, but eliminate the threat. If you ever find yourself being hunted by a psycho killer, be like Nancy.

2. Erin (Sharni Vinson) – You’re Next

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Erin is a more recent final girl, but she is definitely one of the most amazing. As soon as people start getting picked off in You’re Next, Erin is ready. She takes the skills she grew up learning and uses them to her benefit. Not only does Erin keep herself calm, but she also tries to keep everyone else calm and safe throughout the entire film. She puts her survival skills to the test by finding the most logical solution to each problem she encounters, and even sets a few brilliant traps to try to stop the attackers. Erin is one tough lady, and someone I would want by my side if I were in a slasher film.

1. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection

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Ellen Ripley, the epitome of a female horror role model. While the first Alien film is probably the only one that can truly be called a horror film, she is still number 1 on my list. Ellen Ripley is a complete badass, and she is probably the first woman in horror that takes on traditionally male roles. She is strong, she is a leader, and she is determined. Ripley is another female character that often takes on the leadership roles that would normally be played by a man. Not only does she excel in this role, but she also doesn’t take any crap from the men that try to challenge her. What’s even more amazing about her is that she will always do her best to save everyone, not just herself. She even saves a cat from the terrifying Xenomorph!

Alien: Covenant

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A crew is taking a ship filling with sleeping colonists to a new planet that makes a perfect habitat for humans. After an accident, the crew is woken up out of cryosleep. They then get a distress call from a nearby planet. Not only is this yet another planet perfect for human life, but the distress call seems to have come from a human as well. Unfortunately for the crew, everything on this planet wants them dead.

The general premise of this film is a very interesting and it wastes no time in getting the action going. I find the characters to be compelling, the sequence of events is thrilling and terrifying, and there are a few great twists and turns. The filmmakers even manage to trick me a few times and throw in a few surprises I didn’t expect. There are also quite a few different variations in the Xenomorph and how people become “impregnated” with the aliens, which is gruesome and fascinating. Covenant has a lot of the more grandiose aspects of Prometheus in that there is a whole new planet to be explored, but it also has some of the more intense and claustrophobic scenes that fans of the first Alien will recognize. Unfortunately there is one large problem with the story; plot holes.

The film connects to Prometheus, as it should, fairly early on in the story. While this adds a lot of intrigue and answers some questions audiences had after watching Prometheus, it actually offers more new questions than it does answers. There are certain events that don’t make sense with the evidence at hand, don’t fit what people said happened, and there are also random things that are just never explained. I won’t speak about specifics because that would reveal some of the plot twists. However, I will vaguely say that it is explained what happened to David and Shaw when they left to find the planet of the Engineers. The problem is that what is said, what we are shown, and various pieces of evidence simply don’t match up. It’s unfortunate because if the filmmakers had done a bit of rewriting here and there, or simply cut one or two scenes, the films would make perfect sense. As it is, the plot will leave audiences confused more than anything else.

The cast in Alien: Covenant is one of the best aspects of the film. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Inherent Vice) brings a powerhouse performance as Daniels. She is strong, questions authority when it is needed, and is willing to face anything that comes her way. Waterston manages to make Daniels the ultimate female role model, much like what we saw Sigourney Weaver do with the infamous Ripley. Then of course there is Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, X-Men: First Class). Fassbender plays more than one character in this film and he does it exceedingly well. Not only does he change his speech as the various characters, but he even changes his entire body language. It makes it clear which character Fassbender is playing every time he is on screen. Danny McBride (Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down) should also be mentioned for his portrayal of Tennessee. While he clearly is meant to be the comedic relief of the film, McBride still gives audiences a fantastic dramatic performance. All in all the entire cast lends to the excitement and drama of the film.

My personal favorite part of this film is the fantastic creature design and special effects. As I mentioned before, Alien:Covenant gave the filmmakers a unique opportunity to come up with new and exciting ways for the crew to be impregnated by the alien lifeforms, as well as giving audiences new Xenomorphs at their various stages of life. The combination of practical and CGI effects are sewn together so seamlessly that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. This film also feels much more graphic in the amount of gore and the way people are killed than most of the previous Alien films. While the body count in previous films may be bigger, the deaths seem to be more violent and grisly in Covenant. The aliens and the gore are simply superb.

Alien: Covenant is a thrilling nightmare to follow Prometheus, but it has rather large plot holes. Whatever answers audiences get, they are left with even more questions by the end of the film. Moving past those issues, Alien: Covenant still brings a lot of excitement and new mythology to add to the Alien franchise. It is also packed with out of this world performances from a great cast and frighteningly good practical and CGI effects. It still has me looking forward to what Ridley Scott can come up with next film in a franchise that has endured for nearly 40 years.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Game of Death

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A group of spoiled rich friends partying at a lake house stumble upon a strange game. The box says it is called the “Game of Death.” The group decides to play the game as a joke. When the strange game takes a bit of each player’s blood and says they have to kill 24 people to survive, the friends leave the game and go back to their drugs and alcohol. Soon it becomes explosively clear that if they don’t play the game and kill 24 people before time runs out, it will be the friends who lose their lives.

The concept for Game of Death is definitely a fun and interesting one. The idea that if these kids don’t do as the game says it will kill them makes for an exciting ride. It is almost like a horror version of Jumanji with a hint of Battle Royale mixed in. Unfortunately, that is about where the good plot points end. The two biggest flaws in this film are the characters and the dialogue. In horror films there are often characters that are despicable for various reasons. These are the characters you don’t care as much about, so when they get killed it’s more of a relief than anything else. This is how every character in the film is written. None of them have any redeeming qualities that make you care whether they live or die. When the whole point of the film is life and death, it makes the events that follow feel rather lackluster. The dialogue between the characters is also a bit cringeworthy. It is very choppy sounding and forced, almost as if you are watching a soap opera. It is unfortunate that such a promising idea falls short of its potential because of these factors.

Whether because of the writing or not, the acting is yet another shortcoming of Game of Death. I have a feeling the various young actors in this film are perfectly fine in other roles, but because of the characters they play and the lines they are forced to deliver there is not one among them that I can say I enjoyed. At the same time I don’t think I can say any one of them was terrible either, another sign that this is more due to the writing than anything else. Of the entire cast the most enjoyable performance came from Erniel Baez Duenas (19-2) as the pizza delivery boy and drug dealer, Tyler. Even though he is a drug dealer, Tyler is the least revolting of the characters. Duenas does a good job of making Tyler the most relatable character as well because he wants to survive, but he also seems to be the one with the biggest conscious of the group. Beyond that, it is hard to find another character or performance that doesn’t make me cringe at least twice.

One of the best aspects of this film is the visuals. The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous. The filmmakers went with an eighties-inspired video game look for the credits. As I watched them it made me hopeful for the rest of the film. Another instance of great visuals is a strange killing spree montage. Here the filmmakers implemented many different animated styles to show two of the characters having a grand time killing people for the game, without actually showing any real violence. This was probably one of the smartest moves made in the film. It shows some restraint in what could have otherwise been a complete gorefest. The few practical effects of the film are also surprisingly beautiful. Without giving too much away, the way the kids playing the game are killed if they fail to kill someone else in time is quite graphic. The practical effects for those kills are incredibly well done and create some horrific imagery.

Game of Death is a fun concept for a horror film that leaves a lot to be desired. The writing is the most unfortunate part of the film, but looking at the other credits of the writers for the most part this is the first (or one of the first) film each of them have written. That leaves room for growth, so don’t necessarily write them off just for this film. If you can make it through the regrettable dialogue and the repugnant characters, at the very least you will get to see some fascinating visuals scattered throughout.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10