Our weary eyes have peered into nearly every dark corner of every rickety old house that has ever been seen in a horror film, but when it comes to the jaunt occurring in James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” there is cause to question our preconceived understanding: it is, in a rare instance, an excursion of undeniable freshness. That is not to say it is a particularly original one, mind you, but the nature of its focus challenges us to consider the possibilities of multi-faceted perspectives. Elusive among many modern ghost stories, this movie thinks outside the box, merges multiple concepts and carries an audience through an arsenal of thrills that are not cheap, swift or overly stylized by visual excess. And that is noteworthy given the limited dexterity of its excessive filmmaker, too; previous at the helm of “Saw” and “Insidious,” Wan has grappled consistently with the beast known as modulation, and frequently succumbs to more sensationalized standards. Does he prefer to second-guess the desires of his audience, or does he not trust his ability to work under the arc of a mild temperament? Here is a film that gets him precisely on the right track, and does so under the guidance of a compelling story, solid characterizations and an underlying menace that genuinely seems like it wants to reach out and cause us discomfort.
There is a great secret hidden in the fabric of “Goodnight Mommy,” and its disclosure is of such stirring capacity that the film devised around it mandates two dueling perspectives: the inkling to provide useful clues and the urge to dodge obvious ones. It’s a tricky balancing act for any movie that must walk the fine line of ambiguity before a disruptive climax, but here is one that does both without calling attention to the inevitable. It doesn’t even seem to realize where things are headed. For nearly ninety minutes, we are paralyzed in the quiet embrace of a strange and dubious series of circumstances, and questions fill us with underlying perplexity. Who are these characters? Why are they so distant with one another? What is causing them to act out: unfounded fear, or a detail that we are missing that they refuse to discuss? And then, in a moment that is virtually unexpected, the dialogue brings us into a moment of clarity that is as shocking as it is profound, causing us to question not only the actions that come before, but how we chose to respond to them in the first place. Many a motion picture will attempt to pull the rug from underneath us, but seldom is it yanked with this much potency, or with such a lack of obvious foreshadowing.
What a relief is must be to Leigh Whannell, the man behind the screenplays of half a dozen recent horror films, to finally arrive at the pole vault position of film creation. Already well versed in the many methods of urgent storytelling (not to mention some on-screen depictions of them), his love of this volatile genre has percolated through an arsenal of endeavors in the last decade, suggesting his appetite for all things devious in an indirect fashion while supplying him critical outlets for his creative chutzpah. While results vary from thoughtful to over-the-top, they all nonetheless point towards an inspiration that is faithful to the subject matter at hand. Like Wes Craven and Clive Barker, you can sense his underlying passions based on the enthusiasm of his work. So it is often a wonder that no one in the last ten years has given him the chance to helm such a movie from the director’s chair. And now, of all things for him to finally cross that bridge on, the reins get turned over to him on the set of this, the third entry into a movie series that he helped create.
So there I am, staring down at a showing of the modern remake of “Last House on the Left” – yet another attempt to take the horror successes of the past and reinvent them with modern sensibilities – when a funny thing begins to happen. I start getting actively involved. No, not in the sense of hurling silent protest or exemplifying disgust at what is going on, but in a regard of more serious contemplation: this was not going to be one of those perverse Hollywood byproducts meant to stretch the possibilities of desensitization. Perhaps it has become our nature to expect the worst of such scenarios when major studios decide to visually upgrade notable achievements of the previous generation – they have certainly supplied enough evidence of that trend – but never in my most cynical dreams did I expect to walk away from the experience of this particular outing without feeling some sense of anger or sadness. This is a genuine film, well made and precise with its intentions, and considerate of the acknowledgment that there is a psychological art to the criminal mind beyond the visualization of senseless torture and death.
Literary theory dictates that ghosts must exist for one of two primary reasons: to harvest negative energies or to herald important warnings, both usually directed towards ambivalent onlookers. The foundation of their existence can vary depending on a story’s tone, but almost always the root causes are the same –violent tragedies have left them in a state of otherworldly confusion. One of the more humorous ironies is that few characters contemplate those possibilities when they come face to face with such apparitions, often assuming that they are capable of only the worst fates. Perhaps the principles of some modern interpretations have violated those quintessential rules – the more seasoned architects believed that ghosts can only haunt, not attack or harm – but who is to say they could really be any worse than the living beasts that walk among us already? The reality is that they are byproducts of a world with much more menacing energies, and their refusal to leave is indicative of more singular agendas; they must endure for the sake of either redemption of vengeance, lest they be doomed to walk through eternity in a fog of aimlessness and despair.
A shameless cliffhanger is the biggest disservice a film can offer to a prospective sequel, and that’s exactly what happens to the foundation of the whacky “Insidious: Chapter 2.” You remember the situation well, I’m sure: at the conclusion of the prior endeavor, a key character in the urgent rescue of a young boy was (potentially) possessed by a restless malevolent spirit, resulting in the tragic death of a critical asset to the supernatural fight. When its identity was implied via a picture taken on a digital camera, the screen faded to black and left us with the essential focus question: what happened to all those who are now stuck with a menacing monster? The director, James Wan, is used to that gimmick; after helming the first “Saw” installments – which prided themselves on such last-ditch trickery in order to propel interest through a slog of sequels – he has grown accustomed to the notion of saving the biggest reveal for the final moments. That is acceptable in a series that uses the ploy to audience expectation, but it doesn’t work here, and what both he and his writer have done is given us a follow-up that doesn’t play so much as an isolated story as it does an extended climax.
The bone-chilling opening scenes of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” carry a very ominous subtext: several of them replicate actual crime scene findings of real-life homicide. In their presentation is a pattern that amplifies their findings to the pinnacle of unnerving reactions; the camera cautiously swerves into view of deceased victims frozen in poses of terrible death, and the speakers vibrate with the muffled sounds of their final moments, most of which include horrific screaming as they are violently attacked and murdered. They are not necessarily related to one another, but a common bond does unite them – namely, they are victims of the same man, a creature of corrupt morality who must feed on the power of other’s fading life essences. What drives men like him to the brink of that urge? That is always the question, it seems, in a genre that must consider the antagonists directly. Some do so because their internal suffering has made it their only satisfying outlet. For a rugged loner like Henry, the notion of causing death seems merely to be an act of passing time in an existence that slogs along without purpose or joy.
The greatest pain – and often the most penetrating terror – frequently comes from sources near and dear, arriving at the epicenter of our awareness when our outlooks are shattered by underlying torment. Sometimes that misery can be construed into something of a sympathetic nature, but more often than not it is built on the threshold of dangerous inner demons, and is so horrific to face that the discovery is just as jarring as it is dangerous. The acknowledgment that even treasured friends and family could put us in that sort of danger only amplifies the tension – as much as it is unfathomable to find oneself at the heart of uncertainty, it’s intriguing to consider the forces that encourage us to think past such forbidden barriers. What drove the killers of the “Scream” pictures, for instance, to torment poor Sidney Prescott when they were so relatively close to her in her tragic personal life? Was the force of religious fundamentalism really powerful enough to undermine the motherly instinct of Mrs. White, who would eventually turn against young Carrie in an act of insane violence?
A good horror film is not necessarily dependent on a marriage of specific qualities, but can be simply so because the enthusiasm of its creators fill the screen with almost perverse allure. “The Evil Dead,” one of the most celebrated of the classic canon, falls distinctly into the latter category. When it was first unleashed onto unsuspecting audiences well over 30 years ago, few could regard it with serious conviction; it was one of the first films of its respective genre to earn the dreaded “X” rating, and the consensus was – even among those who were completely sold on the content – that it was one of the more visually reprehensible exercises of its time. Yet it endured across the gulf of evolving artistic standards, eventually gaining prestige among a slew of genre fanboys that elevated it to cult-like importance in the subsequent years. Their reasoning: within its macabre and grotesque images are the foundations for some of the most spirited personalities of the horror pantheon, two of whom would not only go on to work together on equally popular sequels but would also lead rather fastidious careers in the Hollywood limelight. To them, the movie plays like an entry point into the infectious minds of their favorite overachievers, who did exactly what they wanted and offered no apologies.
A great many films of questionable motives went on to inspire the career of Eli Roth, but one that raises more questions than others is Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust.” Often branded the most depraved horror movie of its time, it was the pinnacle of cynicism in its respective genre, a breakpoint in the cultural zeitgeist that heralded a level of gratuity that went far beyond the standards of any existing filmmaker. Up to that point, audiences could at least depend on an underlying fantasy of primitive special effects and coarse production standards to undermine the authenticity of what they were seeing. People going to those movies had fun because they knew what they were witnessing was an act of elaborate artifice. But the arrival of a sub-genre of cannibal-oriented scarefests – usually in the hands of very motivated international artists – robbed them of their one level of security, often shocking observers to the point of mental exhaustion. Deodato’s own picture remains the most notorious of that standard because it went far deeper than any other endeavor of its kind; in many cases, what you were seeing on screen was more than just a mere act for the camera.
Renai Lambert is not exactly fond of her family’s new home. An old construct of drafty corridors and rickety staircases, it groans with each puttering footstep, and echoes with haunting reverb as the noises of her young children carry over a nearby baby monitor. Eventually, she begins to sense presences walking among the shadows – of what, she is unsure, but with the passing days they drift closer, sometimes close enough to make eye contact. Then, in a moment that seems to transpire without correlation, her young son Dalton slips into a coma following a fall in the attic. But doctors are stumped by the predicament; there is no brain damage, and no hint of direct trauma. What caused him to drift out of this world and into one of eternal slumber? Over the course of three long months of searching for answers, they become obvious in rapid fashion; the strange apparitions drift dangerously closer, threaten the safety of their prey all while wreaking physical havoc on their quaint little abode. Most movies about ghosts wandering the halls of old houses demand that such business be investigated and resolved at the source of the house, but James Wan’s “Insidious,” a rather effective little horror film, may be the first in which the screenplay asks its victims to move away halfway into the conflict.