Demon

The Nun

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A young nun kills herself in a remote Romanian castle. The Vatican sends a troubled priest and a young nun who has yet to take her final vows to investigate. Their search leads them down a dark path. The pair realize an ancient evil is trying to escape and it is up to them to stop it.

This latest installment in The Conjuring universe is written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation) and directed by Corin Hardy (The Hallow).  The film has a very dark and ominous tone. It creates a great gothic atmosphere that lends itself to the ancient Romanian castle. The plot is, for the most part, very simple. The ancient castle holds an evil that the nuns have been able to hold off over the years, but now it threatens to escape. That entity is the character Conjuring fans will remember as Valak. The film has some pretty frightening moments and Valak is not someone you would want to run into in an ancient Romanian castle.

Sadly, there are many flaws in this film as well. One that many fans will likely notice is how little Valak is actually in the film. There are many faceless nuns haunting the halls, but it isn’t really until the climax of the film that Valak becomes a prominent figure. The film also seems to lack any true direction. Other than trying to find out why the nun killed herself and stopping the evil entity, there are only a couple half-realized plot points. The story touches on the priest’s tragic past performing an exorcism, but then only uses that as a mechanism to include more scares in the film. The young nun accompanying him had visions when she was young, yet those visions don’t have much relevancy to the plot. What’s even more disappointing is how the filmmakers connected The Nun to The Conjuring films. Without giving anything away, there was a simple and more obvious way to connect the characters and the films. Yet, for some reason the filmmakers went for a route that was more forced and felt out of place with the rest of the film. There are also aspects of the climax that seem to be derivative of Demon Knight. Again, since I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, I won’t get into specifics, but those who have seen Demon Knight will see what I mean.

While the characters may not be fully fleshed out, the performances are still quite good. Taissa Farmiga (The Final Girls, Anna) stars as Sister Irene. Sister Irene is a different kind of nun than audiences are used to seeing. She asks questions, yet she is very devout in her faith. Her visions seem to be an important part of who she is as a person and why she chose to become a nun, yet they are really only mentioned in passing. Luckily, Farmiga acts beyond what she was given in the script to still allow audiences to connect to the character. Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight, Savages) also gives a compelling performance as Father Burke. Similar to Sister Irene’s story, Father Burke discusses how he lost an innocent during an exorcism. This seems like it is a large part of his character, yet this part of his past ends up just being used as a way to scare audiences. Bichir does what he can, making me wish I could know more about his character. Then there is Jonas Bloquet (Elle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as Frenchie. He is clearly meant to be comedic relief throughout the film, and Bloquet definitely is funny, yet the humor does not fit with the overall tone of the film. Frenchie is an entertaining character, but he feels pigeonholed into the film. A great cast is clearly underutilized, yet they did as much as they could with the material they were given.

The highlight of The Nun is the visuals. The set design is by far the most impressive aspect. The castle and surrounding grounds are both beautiful and haunting, making the film sinister from start to finish. Even though the film takes place in the 1950’s, it has a very medieval feel which lends to the ancient demonic presence the priest and nun are fighting. The evil itself has a very iconic look as well. Valak has a very striking look that is terrifying without needing to really try. While fans will recognize Valak and that demon’s look, the film uses other nuns as well to add to the fear. These nuns are faceless. They are creepy and their style allows for Valak to stand out as the primary focus. There is a good mix of jump scares and more subtle, spine-tingling moments that balance out nicely throughout the film.

Despite its early buzz, The Nun is likely to be quickly forgotten. The film boasts strong performances and some of the most striking visuals of any film in The Conjuring universe. What it lacks is fully developed characters and a complete story that connects well to the other films in the franchise. The Nun has enough frightening moments to make it a fun popcorn flick, but it lacks some of the substance fans will be used to from the rest of the franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

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Tap (Short)

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A woman awakes in the night to a tapping sound. Upon investigation she discovers something more sinister than she could possibly imagine.

This short film is written and directed by Dave Bundtzen (The Maestro, The Record Keeper). It is a fairly simple premise. A phantom tapping wakes a woman up in the middle of the night. From there the filmmakers create tension by having the tapping sound grow and grow. There are also some good jump scares thrown in for good measure. The tapping itself is also quite effective. The taps always come in threes, creating a clear pattern as the taps grow more and more violent. Considering the fact that this short is just shy of 3 minutes long and has one line of dialogue, it still tells a complete story. The viewer may not have all the details on why these events are happening, but that is something that tends to work well in a short film. It is intriguing and gives the film a sense of mystery, but no so much that the plot is disappointing.

The small production has two cast members. The only one I can really critique for acting is Katherine Celio (The Yellow Wallpaper, Malaise) as Amanda. Celio gives a great performance. There is a balance of both fear and strength in her portrayal of Amanda that works well. She is clearly scared by the tapping and the events that follow, but she also has a strength that keeps her from being your average victim.

In a short film there typically isn’t a large budget for effects. This short has some minimal effects, but some aspects are more successful than others. There is an interesting effect done in a mirror that appears to be a combination of CGI and practical effects. While at first it is very effective and eye-catching, it progresses into something that does’t quite insight the fear it is meant to. It is a situation where “less is more” would likely have been a more appropriate approach. The makeup design for the evil entity in the film is striking in its color pallet, but it also seems bit too minimalistic. It is as if some of the effort put into the mirror effects should have instead gone towards creating a more iconic makeup design. Either way, it still manages to create memorable imagery that lends to the plot.

Tap is a simplistic yet effective short film. It utilizes a basic sound pattern to build suspense leading up to the startling end. While the effects and makeup design leave a little bit to be desired, the overall look is still memorable and works will with the short. Add a great performance from Celio, and the result is a compelling short film. It gives viewers just enough to satisfy their horror needs, but rightfully leaves them wishing they could know more.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

Veronica

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In Madrid, Spain in 1991 a teenage girl helps her mother raise her brother and sisters after her dad died. One day she experiments with a Ouija board with two school friends. From that moment on, she is plagued by an evil presence. Things only get worse when that evil starts to go after her younger siblings. She has to find a way to stop the malevolent presence, before it kills the ones she loves.

Director Paco Plaza has been known as a filmmaking force in the horror genre with his [REC] film franchise. Veronica was an obvious choice for him after finishing that franchise, as there are similar themes between the films. The biggest similarities are the common themes of demons, the devil, and possession. Plaza always does a somewhat unique spin with these themes, which are fairly common in the horror genre, keeping things interesting and exciting for fans. Another similarity is the focus on a female protagonist. In this film, that is the title character, Veronica.

The combination of jump scares and more subtle atmospheric scares allows audiences to experience near-constant fright. What makes this film uniquely scary from Plaza’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. Not only are many of the details of the film based on truth, but they come from a police report that is the only one in Spain’s history to note witnessing paranormal activity on an official report. Knowing the background for the film makes the events all the more terrifying. That being said, this is one of many recent films that was advertised as being the scariest film ever. The film has many frightening moments, but I would not go into the film expecting to experience the most intense fear of your life.

Considering all the leads in this film are children, every single one of them give great performances. Sandra Escacena plays Veronica in her very first acting role. Being in the titular role means Escacena has to give the character her all. Considering this is her first acting job, and as the lead character, Escacena truly shines and commands your attention. Her performances is not only haunting, but she plays the balance between being the unofficial parent to her siblings and being a normal teenage girl very well. I hope to see her in many more films in the future. The younger siblings, played by Bruna González, Claudia Placer, and Iván Chavero, also prove they are young new talents who will likely continue to do great things.

The filmmakers use primarily more subtle scares throughout the film. This means the effects are also very subtle. Many of them are small practical effects. When it comes to the climax of the film, there is a combination of practical effects and CGI. While much of it is well done, and the climax is intense and terrifying, this is also where the film loses me a bit. The climax suffers from a common horror-genre issue where the filmmakers show too much of the evil presence that is after the protagonist. In some cases it works, but in this film it seems like showing less would have been more effective and eerie.

Veronica brings strong scares to this film based on a true story. The plot isn’t entirely original, including common horror tropes such as a Ouija board leading to demonic happenings, but the fact that it is based on a true story makes it more interesting. The filmmakers opted to use a lot of young actors who had never been in a film before. This ended up being the strongest aspect of the film, especially when it comes to Escacena’s performance. Plaza made a lot of smart decisions with this film, especially when it comes to how he crafted the scares. Most of the scares are very effective, but there is a bit too much of the evil entity shown in the climax of the film, which takes away some of the terror. The key to enjoying this film will be avoiding a lot of the hype. No film can ever live up to that amount of hype, but if audiences can ignore it, then this film will be all the more thrilling to watch.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

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 Conjuring 2

In 1977 a single mother and her four children living in the London borough of Enfield began to experience a haunting. All the activity seemed to be focused around the daughter, Janet. As things begin to get worse the Catholic church reached out to Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are paranormal investigators, to look into the case and see if it is a true haunting or a hoax. As the Warrens dig into the haunting, they soon realize there is much more to this case than meets the eye.

James Wan has brought another compelling true story to terrify audiences. What makes the Conjuring films so fascinating is the simple fact that they are based on truth. Add to that Wan’s unique style and his talent for creating scares, and you get a very frightening film. Part of the reason that the scares are so successful is because Wan utilizes many different kinds of scares. There was of course a good number of jump scares, but there were also more subtle scares and times when your attention is drawn elsewhere only for a scare to pop out somewhere else. The Conjuring 2 delivered on bigger scares, while still keeping the classic eerie feeling that we know and love from the first film.

When making a sequel, it is important to not only go bigger than you did in the first one, but you must also build on the mythology that was started. The Conjuring 2 definitely delivered on both points. As we follow the Warrens on their investigation we are reminded of events that happened in the first film. Then of course those events are expanded upon in this film. It creates a cohesion between the two movies and it resolves some of the unanswered questions.

As I previously mentioned, the scares were definitely bigger, but they also used imagery that took the film to another level. You may have noticed from the trailer that there are some more classic makeup effects in order to create the look for the Enfield poltergeist, as well as the possession makeup for Janet. I especially loved Janet’s makeup because it felt like a nod to The Exorcist with the veins across the face and haunting eyes. Then of course there is the nun character. The look they did was so simple with pale white skin and black around the eyes, yet it was probably one of the most terrifying manifestations of evil in the entire franchise. Unfortunately this is where I have to bring up probably the only thing I didn’t like about this film. This is a story that is very much rooted in actual events that took place. That being said, there was one manifestation that the evil in the Enfield home took on that did not feel at all real to me. Without giving too much away it was very big, scary, and could not have been pulled out without the help of CGI. The CGI was well done, but it just didn’t seem to fit in with the film and took it to a realm far outside what I could believe to be real. One could easily argue that the entire film is fantasy, but it is based on truth and the advertising wanted you to know that. If this CGI evil being had been in a different film, I likely would have enjoyed it much more.

The acting in The Conjuring 2 was just as good as it was in the first film. Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring, Bates Motel) and Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring, Insidious) were fantastic as Lorraine and Ed Warren. Of course they are incredibly talented actors, but their chemistry on screen is what draws viewers in and makes us fall in love with them. The biggest surprise in this cast was Madison Wolfe (Joy, Trumbo) as the focus of these hauntings, Janet. When I looked her up to see what other acting gigs she had. I was shocked to find that she has been in many great films and TV shows. She isn’t even English and she looks COMPLETELY different in real life than she does in The Conjuring 2. Her performance was so powerful and disturbing. She is a young actress that I can’t wait to see more of.

The Conjuring 2 keeps audiences cowering in their seats while delivering one of the most frightening films in the past decade. It has the scares, the story, and the performances to push the film into the relatively small club of horror movie sequels that are actually great. There have been many who have said that The Conjuring 2 was better than its predecessor. While I disagree with that, I still believe this was a near perfect sequel. If it wasn’t for the addition of CGI that seemed out of place I may have agreed that this film surpassed the original. James Wan has created yet another masterful film that will go down in history with other classics such as The Exorcist and the Shining. Run, don’t walk, to the theaters so you can experience the frights and scares how they were meant to be seen; on a big screen with a theater full of people to scream and jump with.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (February)

Nestled in the country is an all girls Catholic boarding school. Two girls end up stranded at their school during break when they are the only two whose parents fail to pick them up. The girls begin to experience strange happenings in this cold, secluded school. Elsewhere, a young woman is doing whatever she can to get to that same boarding school. As the web that connects these three girls becomes unraveled, it soon becomes clear there is something sinister at work.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (formerly known as February) was a huge accomplishment for first time directer Osgood Perkins. This is the kind of horror film that has such an atmospheric presence. You often know bad things are coming – sometimes you even know what those bad things are – yet when the moment finally happens, it is no less shocking or terrifying. Perkins, who also wrote the film, does an excellent job of revealing different plot points in a way that isn’t necessarily chronological, but in an order that helps you to understand more of the story when it is important. There are elements of a traditional devil/possession horror film present, but much of the way it is presented feels fresh. It is clear from the beginning that this film focuses more on the characters involved and creating a feeling of impending doom, rather than traditional scares. In this regard, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a masterpiece.

The three female leads in this film were incredibly strong. Keirnan Shipka (Mad Men) was absolutely haunting as Kat, the youngest of the two girls at the boarding school. As you can see from the trailer, Shipka’s portrayal of Kat moves from a lonely innocence to deeply disturbed during the course of the film. Lucy Boynton (Copperhead) was also amazing as the other girl stranded at the school, Rose. What I loved about Boynton as Rose was that she was a bit of a bad girl, but she was incredibly relatable at the same time. You felt for Rose and cared about her well being. I will be completely honest, generally I am not a huge fan of Emma Roberts (Scream Queens, We’re the Millers). Despite this, I still thought she did a great job as the mysterious Joan. Joan is clearly broken in some way and has been through a lot in her life. Roberts conveys this aspect of Joan quite well. All three actresses stood out and drew me into their individual stories.

This is the kind of film where the evil is almost entirely working behind the scenes. There are only a couple small glimpses where you see the entity that is pulling the strings. I loved the look that the filmmakers went for. The evil in The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a look that is generally familiar in the world of devil worship and possession, but they made some small tweaks to give it a bit more unique look. I also thought it was smart for the evil entity to never really be in full view; it’s shown as more of just a shadow or silhouette. In a film like this where ambience reigns over frightening imagery, keeping the evil in the background was a wise decision.

When I didn’t get a chance to see this film at Cinequest, I was devastated. Luckily it was picked up by the Phoenix Film Festival. The way the stories of the two high school girls and the wandering young woman unravel was done in such a stunning way that it leaves your heart on the floor. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a haunting tale that breaths new life into the idea of possession and the loss of innocence. By the time the credits rolled I felt stunned and awestruck. What was great about the feelings the ending invoked was that many people I spoke with got the same feeling, even though I interpreted the ending a different way than others did. No matter what you think the final scene conveys, it will still effect you in ways you didn’t expect. While I can see horror fans that prefer more scares and gore not enjoying this film as much, people who love films for the way they make you feel will not be disappointed. If this film comes to a theater near you, do not pass it up.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Nightlight

Covington Woods is known for being a place where people venture to commit suicide. Robin (Shelby Young) recently lost her best friend who killed himself in these woods. Despite that, she still decides to go into the woods at night with a group of the popular kids to drink, tell scary stories about the forest, and play flightlight games. Everything starts out innocently enough, but strange things begin to happen that the friends can’t explain. There is something evil waiting for them in the dark depths of the forest, and it’s out for blood.

When I first heard about this film it seemed like a scary concept. Found footage films generally scare me quite a bit, and most towns have at least one area that is known for suicides. This film definitely had intense moments and a few good jump scares. Sadly, I felt more disappointment than anything after finishing the film, and there are many aspects that took away from what could have been a really scary story.

The acting was quite disappointing. The only performance that didn’t feel forced and unnatural came from Mitch Hewer (Skins). The only downside to his performance was that there were multiple occasions where his English accent came through. It wasn’t just a word or two where he lost the American accent; it was full sentences where he went from sounding like the average American teen to an Englishman trying to hide his accent. The other three leads gave such lackluster performances that I found myself not caring about the well-being of their characters. Shelby Young (Days of Our Lives) I found particularly annoying. This was likely due not only to her acting being unconvincing, but her character also just did so many idiotic things throughout the film. That likely has more to do with the writing, but it still bothered me.

One thing that made me dislike the movie the most was how it made it unclear what the source of the evil was. In the beginning, when the teens are telling scary stories, they talk about people being possessed in the woods and what to do (or not to do) in order to avoid the evil spirits that lurk in the forest. These stories, and some of the events later in the film, lead me to believe that the evil in the forest is some kind of demonic presence. Later, it is implied that maybe Robin’s friend who had killed himself in those woods was doing this to the teens in order to punish them. Robin even addresses the evil as Ethan (her friend who committed suicide) many times. The film goes back and forth between implying the source is demonic and the source is Ethan. At the end of the film it felt like that question was never really answered. Personally, I fell like it makes so much more sense that there is a demonic presence making everything happen instead of Ethan. Maybe the filmmakers meant for you to interpret it how you see it, but it just came across as confused.

When it comes to the scares, this film did a fairly good job. As I said before, found footage films always tend to scare me just because it feels like you are seeing things from the point of view of the victims. On top of that, this film did a good job of doing the more subtle jump scares. This means it relied more on spooky noises and catching small glimpses of the evil. It is always so much scarier when you can’t see what it is that’s after you. There is really only one scene where you get a full view of the evil, and of course, that is one of the least-scary scenes in the entire film. I would go so far as to say the full view of the evil landed more on the cheesy side rather than scary.

Despite all the negative things I have said about the film, there are a few things that I enjoyed. I felt like it was an interesting idea, there were definitely times where I jumped, and it had a really cute dog in it named Kramer. There were just more parts that I didn’t enjoy that outweigh the good. The biggest disappoints were the acting and the tragically large plot holes. I can see this being more entertaining for teenage audiences, but if you are like me and need a bit more substance then you should probably skip this one.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10