possession

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

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The Wailing

A strange Japanese man arrives at a small village in South Korea. Soon after, people begin to go mad and kill their families. A local cop is assigned to these strange cases. His own daughter eventually starts to exhibit the same symptoms as the others who went mad. With the help of his friends, a priest and a shaman, the cop does whatever he can to stop the Japanese stranger from harming his daughter, or anyone else in town.

The Wailing is the second great Korean horror film I have seen this year. Similarly to Train to Busan, the focus of this film is the relationship between a father and his young daughter. Once the daughter is thrown into peril we see the father grow as a person and try to rescue her. The father adds a comedic aspect to the beginning of the film up until the point when his daughter gets sick. From there the film takes a more serious turn. It also does an interesting job of blending different types of mythology. There are satanic rituals, shamanism, ghosts and spirits, a zombie-like illness, and possession. The filmmakers expertly weave all of these aspects together into a chilling, and often times humorous, story. The only issue I had with the plot is that the ending felt a bit convoluted. It seems like the filmmakers are trying to insert too many twists and turns to the point where the audience is left with one too many questions.

This film has multiple amazing performances that lure the audience into the story. One standout is Do-wan Kwak (The Berlin File) as the cop and father, Jong-Goo. The fact that his portrayal of Jong-Goo shows him as a rather dopey and fearful cop who finds his strength when his daughter is in danger feels natural and compelling. Do-wan Kwak manages to make me laugh and make me feel compassion for Jong-Goo and his family. I also love Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill: Vo. 1 and 2) as the stranger. He doesn’t have many speaking scenes until later in the film, but it is hard not to feel his presence. With just a stare, Kunimura is able to send chills down my spine and add to the unsettling ambience of the film.

The effects of this film are subtle, which works well with the story. The infected people first get strange rashes. These rashes eventually cover the whole body, and the eyes of the infected turn white before they become violent. The rashes are grotesque and very well done. One scene involves an infected person having a convulsive fit that results in a bone protruding from the skin. It is disgusting, but also beautiful in how they are able to achieve it with the practical effects. There is another scene at the climax of the film that involves a different kind of transformation. This one I can’t get into too much detail for, but it is one of the most unnerving scenes in the entire film.

While The Wailing isn’t my favorite Korean horror film I have seen this year, it is definitely a memorable one. It has a unique and intricate plot that will keep you hooked through to the end, which is impressive considering it is over two and a half hours long. While the climax does get a bit tangled and confused, it still makes for a riveting mystery. This is another film to add to the rather long list of great foreign films that have come out in the past year. It will appeal to a multitude of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Incarnate

A scientist named Dr. Ember discovers he has the ability to enter the minds of individuals who are possessed. After the loss of his family, Ember decides to use his ability to evict the parasitic entities out of the possessed in hopes of finding the one that took his family from him. When a young boy becomes possessed his single mother reaches out to the church for help. When the church realizes this is more than they can handle, and it may be the entity Ember is looking for, they call him in for help. He undergoes is largest battle, all within the mind of a child.

In all honesty, I had very low expectations going into this film. I was concerned that it was going to essentially be a repeat of The Darkness which was made by the same production company, stars the same child actor, and has one well known actor in it. For the most part, Incarnate exceeds my expectations. What I enjoy about this film is that it approaches possession from a more scientific standpoint. What takes hold of the child isn’t a demon, but more of a parasitic thing that feeds off of his energy. It gives a fresh take to a classic possession film that tickles my science-minded fancy. The filmmakers also do an excellent job of explaining the scientific aspects in a way that feels natural. It doesn’t sound like the characters are talking about it for the sake of audience understanding.

There are some aspects of this story that I don’t enjoy as much. One thing that I can’t get over is the motivation behind why the demon is fixated on Ember. Obviously Ember wants to find the demon because the demon killed his wife and son, but I don’t understand why the demon wants to ruin Ember’s life. It is implied that the demon can sense Ember’s power, which would lead one to believe that the demon wants him dead so Ember can’t continue to evict demons. The issue with this theory is that there are many others like Ember, yet the demon doesn’t seem to care about anyone else. Another similar thing that isn’t explored enough is the odd fact that the possessed boy and his mother look eerily similar to Ember’s deceased wife and son. My initial though is that this was a purposeful casting choice. Maybe the demon chooses the lookalikes in order to torture Ember that much more. At no point are the physical similarities brought up, so it is hard to determine if it is part of the plot or just coincidence. Beyond those two aspects I am also still on the fence about the ending for this film. I won’t go into detail, but it feels like the filmmakers phoned it in  bit.

Earlier I made a comparison between Incarnate and The Darkness, one of the similarities being that it had one major actor in it that audiences would easily recognize. For The Darkness that actor was Kevin Bacon, but even he couldn’t save that film. Incarnate’s top billing actor is Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Olympus Has Fallen) as Dr. Ember. Eckhart does an excellent job of portraying men who have been damaged by some kind of heartbreak. This film is no different. He is a perfect blend of tortured and determined. While the other performances in this film are fine, Eckhart is definitely the driving force that makes audiences pay attention.

One thing that this film does that I approve of is subtle effects. Those who are possessed can only be separated from those who aren’t by their somewhat sickly look and red eyes. Even in the dream world the only physical characteristic that allows you to discern demons from others are black eyes. There is only one scene where you get an idea of what a demon looks like outside of its human form, but the filmmakers clearly made a conscious decision not to show the audience everything. In an age where horror films tend to show too much, making the situations and evil beings much less terrifying, this is a very wise move.

While Incarnate exceeds many of my expectations, there are still things that fall a bit short of what could be a near perfect reinvention of a possession film. The scientific aspects and the acting are definitely the highlights. I also commend the filmmakers for not showing the full monty when it comes to the demons. If there was just a bit more exploration into why the demon wants Ember and why the mother and son Ember is helping look so much like his dead family, this movie would be a home run.  As it is, I’m left with too many questions that I need answered. Either way I would say this is worth a watch because it is exciting and brings something new to the table.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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

The Witch

A religious family decides to leave the plantation town they call home because it does not meet their religious ideals. They venture out into the wilderness in order to create their own homestead and farm the land. Not long after the family settles into their new land the baby of the family gets taken, either by a wolf or something more sinister, and a blight takes over the crops. From that moment on the family falls into a downward spiral. Their lives become surrounded by the occult, and it will slowly tear them apart.

There were so many aspects of this film I loved it is hard to figure out where I should begin. I’ve always been fascinated by witchcraft in films. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find a quality horror film on the subject. The Witch not only brought an incredible amount of intensity and tension, but it also felt like you were watching something that could actually have happened. There were times while watching the film that I felt almost uncomfortable watching the events unfold. It felt very intimate to watch this family behind closed doors as they all unravel into hysteria. This intimacy made it feel almost as if you were intruding on their private life. You feel like you shouldn’t be watching, but you can’t look away. The story is definitely more of a slow burn rather than a scare-fest.

From the moment the film began and the music started to play there is instantly a feeling of unease. This tension builds throughout the film until the climax, thanks to the musical work by Mark Korven. What made the music so captivating is that it made a shot of a simple forest landscape seem dreadful and terrifying. Music can really make or break a film, and I can’t imagine this film would have been as haunting to me if it had any other score. The music, combined with the gorgeous cinematography, created such beautiful and ominous imagery.

This is probably one of the most well acted horror films I have seen in a while. Every single person, right down to the little twins, had a phenomenal performance. While everyone did a great job, there was one performance that stood out to me. Harvey Scrimshaw (Oranges and Sunshine) gave a powerful performance as the eldest son in the family, Caleb. During the scene where he is suffering from the effects of witchcraft, Scrimshaw was so haunting and intense that I was completely blown away. I was especially impressed when I learned this is only the second film he has ever been in. Anya Taylor-Joy (Viking Quest) also had a stand-out performance as the lead, Thomasin. Like Scrimshaw, this was only the second film Taylor-Joy had ever been in, and her first starring role. As the story unfolds and you can feel Thomasin being blamed for more and more troubles in the family, it is hard not to feel sympathetic towards her.

What I love about films like The Witch are the deeper meanings and metaphors that lurk within. As I watched this film, I saw it as showing the way young women in that deeply religious time could so easily be accused of being a witch. When things start to go bad in any size community, even a single family unit, everyone wants to put the blame on a single person. For Puritans that blame naturally fell on the young women, who were thought of as sinners simply because they were female. Thomasin gets blamed for everything from a cup that goes missing to the blight that overcomes their corn crop. She automatically gets accused because she is the eldest daughter and the only one that has gone through puberty, making her the only potential object of sexual desire. Just for that, she is a sinner and potentially even a witch.

I really can’t say enough how great this film really is. It is the kind of film that will appeal to many audiences because, while it has the overall occult theme, it is much more suspenseful than anything else. The Witch has amazing acting, haunting music, beautiful cinematography, and a compelling story. The only thing that bothered me a bit was there were times I had a hard time understanding what some of the characters were saying. This could be something that was a personal issue, but the combination of the accents and the old English dialogue made me lose some of what was said. I noticed this the most when the father (Ralph Ineson) spoke because he has such a deep, resonant voice. Other than that, it is difficult to find any fault. It is already a top contender for my favorite horror film of 2016. The Witch is a bone-chilling film of paranoia and dread that shows the wilderness is not the only thing to fear.

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