THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) – Possessed Corpse Tale Better Than Expected

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The possessed corpse of Hannah Grace just doesn’t want to stay put in THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018)

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) opens with yet another ridiculous exorcism scene. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Priests are praying, a young girl contorts her body while a deep demonic voice from within her spews trash talk, a father cries, and special effects are flying faster than you can say George Lucas meets Walt Disney.

THE EXORCIST, it ain’t.

But at the end of the scene, when the demon boasts that the girl will be his forever, her father decides that  no, that’s not going to happen, and he suffocates his daughter to death.  And I thought, okay, this is different.

And so in one moment the film goes from being yet another demonic possession rehash to a somewhat different take on the tired trope.  What’s different is that in this movie Hannah Grace is a possessed corpse.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE actually tells two stories, the one about Hannah Grace, which makes up the horror elements here, and the better story, about main character Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) a former Boston police officer who panicked and froze in the line of duty and as a result allowed her partner to be shot and killed. It’s a tragedy she hasn’t recovered from yet. She has since left the police force and as the movie opens has decided to take a quiet position working the overnight shift at the city morgue.

Quiet.

Sorry, Megan.  Hannah Grace has other ideas.

What those ideas include are sneaking out of the morgue drawer to murder people in order to heal her body and come back to life, I guess to allow the demon to continue his evil handiwork.  Not sure why the demon just doesn’t enter someone else’s body, but maybe he just likes Hannah Grace. The horror story here doesn’t really make much sense, but nonetheless, it was somewhat entertaining in a mindless sort of way.

As I said, Megan’s storyline is much better.  Since her partner’s death, she has been struggling with depression and substance abuse, and so when she tries to tell her friends and co-workers that something very wrong is happening inside the morgue, and a body seems to be regenerating, they tell her that these things she thinks she’s seeing are simply the result of her trauma.  No one believes her until, of course, it’s too late.

While THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is not a great horror movie— it’s not even a very good one— I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would, and that’s because of Megan’s story. In effect, while not being a great horror movie, it isn’t a half bad drama.

Shay Mitchell is excellent as Megan. She captures the character’s angst, and better yet, when the going gets tough, she gives it right back.  Megan is no helpless victim here. She is more than up to the task of gathering her wits and taking on the demon inside Hannah Grace. It’s a story arc that works, and Mitchell is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders.

The rest of the cast acquits itself well and helps to keep this one much better than it should be.  Nick Thune stands out as quirky ambulance driver Randy who’s one of the first people to believe Megan.  Grey Damon holds his own as fellow cop and Megan’s former boyfriend Andrew who tries his best not to be a jerk but isn’t alway successful, and through it all continues to care for Megan.  Likewise, Stana Katic does a nice job as Megan’s friend Lisa. And Kirby Johnson gets the thankless role of Hannah Grace, spending the majority of the movie as a corpse.

The screenplay by Brian Sieve, except for the opening exorcism scene, spares us bad dialogue and cliché characters.  The characters are fleshed out rather well here, especially Megan, and the dialogue is authentic and realistic.  The story is also interesting throughout.

One of the characters points out that strangely in spite of killing lots of people, Hannah has not killed Megan, and he asks why? Which is a good question, and is one I don’t think the movie properly answers.  Is the demon saving her for its next host? Dunno.  Or is it somehow Hannah who’s keeping her alive knowing that Megan has the gumption to destroy her body once and for all? Again, the movie doesn’t say, which is another reason why, at the end of the day, it’s not a great horror movie.

But it is a surprisingly decent screenplay, and it’s well-directed.

Director Diederik Van Rooijen spares us any long boring scenes of characters walking along empty corridors in search of trouble, and he does a nice job avoiding other clichés as well.  Some of the horror elements aren’t bad.  Hannah Grace likes to scurry along dark corridors low to the ground like a giant arachnid, and these scenes are somewhat creepy and caused some audience members to cry out in discomfort.

The other thing I liked about it is other than its first scene it stays away from other demonic possession tropes, and this is a good thing. I went in asking, do we really need another demonic possession movie? And the answer is, no, we don’t.

Yet THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is watchable because it presents the possession story from a different angle, a possessed corpse, and it works. Up to a point.

What doesn’t work is the film isn’t really all that scary, and in spite of its R rating, it doesn’t really go for the throat in the horror department.  Hannah Grace spends most of the film as a naked corpse, but rather than look horrifying she looks cartoonish and fake, and that’s because she’s mostly seen as a nude CGI creation. She looks more like Gollum than a teenage girl.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE could have been a lot worse, but it stays clear of the worst clichés of the demonic possession movies, and it offers both an interesting tale of a possessed corpse hungry for victims, and a very captivating story of a young woman struggling to overcome a traumatic event from her past who finds herself battling a demon in the dark confines of a city morgue.

Sure, it could have been scarier, more hard-hitting, and more raw, but at the end of the day, THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is a halfway decent thriller that had it only gone for the throat a bit more often would have been a notable horror movie as well.

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THE NUN (2018) Is Not Fun

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THE NUN (2018) has one major thing going for it: atmosphere.

And that’s because it was shot on location in Romania, and so you have enormous ominous castles and an Old World countryside that is ripe with superstition and evil spirits. In terms of setting, you can’t get more authentic. It’s so rich in atmosphere it brought me back to the Hammer Films of yesteryear.

And yet it’s all for naught because unfortunately, sadly, in spite of this being an atmospheric gem, the rest of the film is unbearably awful.  As in really awful.

What a shame.

This one would only have needed a halfway decent story, and direction that just allowed the story to flow without getting in the way, and yet the writers and director here couldn’t even do that.

Again. A shame.

THE NUN is the latest film to take place in THE CONJURING (2013) universe.  THE CONJURING of course is the well-received horror movie by director James Wan, and a film that I liked a lot, that told the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. It was followed by THE CONJURING 2 (2016) and a pair of ANNABELLE movies featuring a scary doll which first appeared in THE CONJURING.

Now we have THE NUN which features a scary demon from THE CONJURING 2  that looks like a nun.

And this nun demon which goes by the name of Valak is pretty scary looking, which is another thing this movie has going for it. This film actually has a few things going for it, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so gosh darn awful!

The film opens in Romania in the 1950s at a cloistered abbey where we witness two nuns fighting an unseen demon. To prevent the demon from entering her body, one of the nuns hangs herself.

The action switches to the Vatican where a priest named Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is informed he’s being sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, with the implication being that there’s more going on there at the abbey because Father Burke has experience with exorcsims.  Burke is told he needs to bring a young nun with him, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) because she has experienced visions, and these visions will be of help to Burke in his investigation.

In Romania, Father Burke and Sister Irene interview the young man who found the body of the hanged nun, a man who goes by the nickname Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) because he’s French. Duh.

So, Burke, Irene, and Frenchie go to the abbey and begin the investigation, which does not go well. Why, you ask? Because there’s a demon there of course! And this demon doesn’t like people poking around in his business, and so he does all the things audiences are used to seeing demons do in horror movies: makes loud noises, makes people see things that aren’t there, jumps out at people, and generally wreaks havoc all the while giving people in the CGI business jobs.

Yawn.

I’ve pointed out a couple of things THE NUN did well, but now it’s time to mention the things it didn’t do too well.

Let’s start with the special effects overkill.  There’s so much going on in the special effects department I felt like I was on the Disney Haunted Mansion ride. And when this happens, it kills any authenticity the film has. I didn’t believe any of it.

 

The story here has a lot of problems. The screenplay by Gary Dauberman creates very dull characters without any real sense of purpose. I’m still not sure what it was exactly that Father Burke was investigating or why exactly the Vatican wanted Sister Irene to help him. Additionally, I don’t really know what this demon was all about. Why was he possessing these nuns? It’s not like he’s actively trying to leave the abbey.  Is he a demon-homemaker who just wants to be left alone?

And the characters here have zero depth and are all rather boring.

Demian Bichir, an actor I generally enjoy, looks serious as Father Burke, and he definitely carries himself with some presence, but he’s about as interesting as a rosary bead.

The far more interesting bit of casting is Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene. Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in THE CONJURING movies. Hmm. THE NUN takes place before the events in THE CONJURING, and here we have a character Sister Irene, who because she is played by Vera Farmiga’s sister, bears a strong resemblance to the Lorraine Warren character. Would there, I wondered, be some sort of connection between the two? In other words, would the filmmakers have used this potentially ingenious bit of casting to the story’s advantage?

In a word, no.

So much for that.

Anyway, Taissa Farmiga is very good as Sister Irene, but again, I didn’t know much about the character or understand what her visions had to do with the story being told here in this movie.

THE NUN was directed by Corin Hardy, and I can’t say that I was impressed.  The scares were practically nonexistent, and the pacing poor. For a film that clocked in at just over 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that, especially during its second half. It also featured far too many special CGI effects which did nothing but detract from its storyline.

The other thing I did like was the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, which certainly captured the whole possessed abbey feel with lots of religious undertones. You could almost see the chanting monks hovering in the damp dark corridors. Korzeniowski also composed the music for the PENNY DREADFUL (2014-16) TV show.

THE NUN actually gets off to a good start. The on-location shooting in Romania combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s effective music score easily lured me into the proceedings. And upon first meeting Father Burke and Sister Irene, and buying into the performances of Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, I was definitely interested in joining them on their investigation into the mysterious occurrences at the haunted abbey.

But this investigation only led to lots quiet moments searching dark corridors and hallways, with ghostly encounters that made little sense, and demonic confrontations that featured over-the-top CGI effects that were anything but scary, and some pretty awful dialogue.

Yes, when it became apparent about two-thirds of the way through this one that its story wasn’t going anywhere, the film simply lost my interest and became flat-out dull and boring, which is too bad, because it really looks good.

What a shame that the filmmakers went all the way to Romania to make this movie but didn’t bother to bring a decent story with them.

And I don’t know about you, but I went to see THE NUN to see a horror movie, not a Romanian travelogue.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE EXORCIST (1973)

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I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.

Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.

It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.

THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right.  So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.

Not so with THE EXORCIST.  The movie has always seemed authentic and real.

When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it.  I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin.  I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me.  Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.

THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.

The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her.  Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan.  After he does, he changes his tune.

The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts.  Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works.  It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year.  But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty,  based on his novel, and for Best Sound.

The acting is phenomenal throughout.  Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris.  She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch.  It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.

Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras.  He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being.  He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.

Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin.  It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.

Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress.  But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.

Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages.  The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film.  It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary:  Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit,  the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.

The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.

The sound effects are just as ominous.  It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.

And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting.  It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.

And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.

If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.

It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

—END—

 

 

 

ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017) – Prequel to a Prequel Better Than Expected

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ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017) is a prequel to a prequel.  It’s a prequel to a bad movie which was itself a prequel to a good movie.  Huh?  Let’s try that again.

ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017) is a prequel to ANNABELLE (2014), a pretty bad movie, which was itself a prequel to THE CONJURING (2013), which was a pretty good movie. And where does that leave ANNABELLE: CREATION?  Somewhere in between.  It’s better than the awful ANNABELLE but not quite as good as THE CONJURING.

In terms of quality, it reminded me a lot of another prequel to a bad movie, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) which was a surprisingly very good prequel to the lowly OUIJA (2014).  Heck, the two movies even share the same star, child actor Lulu Wilson.

ANNABELLE:  CREATION takes place in the 1950s, as a group of girls from a Catholic orphanage and their sponsor Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) move into a new home, a farmhouse run by a retired doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his ailing bedridden wife Esther (Miranda Otto). The Mullins lost their own daughter twelve years earlier and see opening their home as an orphanage for young girls as a way to instill some life back into their world.

The girls are ecstatic to be living in a new and very large home, but Samuel tells them that there is one room in the house that is always locked and that room is off-limits (of course.)  One of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman) enters the room anyway (of course, again) and immediately feels a strange presence there. She realizes it is the ghost of the Mullins’ deceased daughter Bee (Samara Lee). Janice also discovers the doll Annabelle hidden away in a closet, and she experiences a sense of dread. When Janice’s best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) joins her in the room, she too senses evil, and that’s because there’s a demon inside the Annabelle doll that wants people’s souls.  Yikes!

The girls try to warn everyone in the house that there is something evil residing there with them, but by the time they do, it’s too late.

ANNABELLE: CREATION has a lot of good things going for it. The best part about it is that it delivers some pretty good scares and crafts some memorable horror scenes.  Credit director David F. Sandberg for a job well done when it comes to the scare department. Of course, the Annabelle doll is creepy to begin with, but interestingly enough some of the better scare sequences don’t even involve her. There’s a creepy bit involving a scarecrow, a suspenseful scene on a staircase chairlift, and yet another one in a creaky old-fashioned dumb-waiter.

Then there’s the demon. One of the more interesting parts of ANNABELLE: CREATION is that it sheds more light on the background of the Annabelle doll.  It seems that the instigator of all this evil surrounding Annabelle is a demon possessing the doll that wants people’s souls.  We catch glimpses of this demon, and he’s pretty cool looking, which is no surprise since he’s played by Joseph Bishara who’s becoming quite the expert at this sort of thing. Bishara played a demon in both the INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING movies. He was most memorable in INSIDIOUS (2010) as the Lipstick-Face Demon.

There are lots of cool scares here, and that’s a good thing.  What’s not so good is the pacing.  There are a lot of slow parts in ANNABELLE: CREATION, lots of scenes where characters slowly move about in dark hallways, the kinds of scenes that drive me nuts in horror movies.  These types of scenes don’t build suspense. They put audiences to sleep.

And the film is just begging for a more frenetic pace during its third act.  While the movie’s conclusion isn’t bad at all, it never becomes that go-for-the-throat ending that makes audiences squirm and scream.

Director Sandberg does make full use of the creepy farmhouse interiors.  Most of the film takes place in dark rooms and hallways, and the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and haunting.  The camera also gets in close, so much so you can almost smell the wood of the old hardwood floors.

Sandberg also directed LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie that I wasn’t all that crazy about. I enjoyed ANNABELLE: CREATION more.

The screenplay by Gary Dauberman isn’t bad.  It tells a decent story and does a good job with its characters, who come across as real and likable.  I liked some of the reveals about Annabelle, and I enjoyed the characters, from the girls to Sister Charlotte to Samuel and Esther Mullins.  The dialogue isn’t always fresh, and the story Esther Mullins tells about what happened to her daughter is full of dumb lines and clichés.

Dauberman also wrote ANNABELLE (2014), and the second time seems to have been the charm, as his screenplay here for ANNABELLE: CREATION is much better and tells a far more interesting story than the previous film.  Dauberman also wrote the screenplay to the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (2017), due out in September.

Talitha Bateman as Janice and Lulu Wilson as Linda are both excellent.  It was especially fun to watch them go through different levels of emotion.  At first, they’re joyful about their new home, then there’s quiet unease and building fear, and then flat-out visceral horror as the threat becomes real. And once the demon becomes involved, there’s also some icy cold evil, which Bateman does well.

This is already the third horror movie for young Lulu Wilson, as she previously starred in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2014) and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).

The rest of the girls in the film are also very good.

I also enjoyed Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte.  She makes the nun a real person and prevents her from becoming a cliché.  Likewise, Anthony LaPaglia does the same for Samuel Mullins.  At times, LaPaglia plays things a bit too mournful, as he just sort of stares gloomily at the camera, but for the most part he does a nice job bringing Samuel Mullins to life.

Miranda Otto as Esther Mullins is in the film less than LaPaglia, and as a result has less of an impact, and unfortunately towards the end of the film she does get some of the worst dialogue in the movie.

In a small role, Mark Bramhall has some fine moments as Father Massey, the priest who drives them to the Mullins’ farmhouse and who returns later in the movie. He also gets one of the more humorous lines in the film.

The story ends with a solid tie-in to ANNABELLE.  The way screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director David F. Sandberg tie the two movies together is creative and satisfying.

I liked ANNABELLE: CREATION much better than I expected I would.  It’s a decent horror movie that rises above the muck of inferior sequels and prequels, yet it’s not quite as good or at the level of an INSIDIOUS or THE CONJURING, those horror movies that are destined to be remembered for years to come, the ones you want to watch over and over again.

I guess that would be asking too much from a prequel to a prequel.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

INCARNATE (2016) – Dull Horror Movie Doesn’t Resonate

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INCARNATE (2016) is a new horror movie starring Aaron Eckhart, and it’s yet another horror flick about a demon haunting a child.

Blah blah blah.

INCARNATE tells the story of Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart) who possesses the ability to enter people’s dreams, and in their dream world he’s able to help these people escape from the demons that possess them.  In the real world, he’s in a wheelchair, the result of a catastrophic car accident which killed his wife and young son and left him paralyzed.  That accident was caused by a demon named Maggie, and so when Seth goes into other people’s dreams, he’s not only trying to save them, he’s also looking for Maggie so he can destroy her once and for all.

Which seriously doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  Are the dreams of all these people connected, so that the dream world is a real place where all the demons hang out and that’s why Seth believes he’s going to find Maggie there?  Otherwise, why would Maggie be in the dreams of people who are being haunted by other demons?

Or perhaps Maggie just gets around a lot and haunts a whole lot of people?  If not, what are the odds he’s going to find her again?  And if he’s on a quest to search the globe for Maggie, that’s something that’s not made clear in the film.

What we do see in the film is that Seth works with two young assistants, and they go around helping various people.  The latest is a young boy, and that’s what the entire movie is about. Saving the boy and finding and destroying Maggie.

I’ll get right to the point :  this movie bored me to tears, on so many levels.

As directed by Brad Peyton, it’s not scary, it’s not stylish, it’s not suspenseful.  The screenplay by Ronnie Christensen isn’t any better.  The plot is a snooze, and the characters aren’t developed at all.  They don’t even attempt any character development in this movie.  We know nothing about the mom and son who Seth is helping, nothing about his assistants, and we know very little about Seth.

In the lead role as Dr. Seth Ember, Aaron Eckhart is okay, but like the rest of the movie, he’s pretty boring.  Eckhart is a good actor who’s made a lot of good movies, but he’s also made some clinkers.  This is one of the worst.  I thought this film was even worse than I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014), and that film was pretty bad.

The possessed boy is played by David Mazouz, and he’s probably the least interesting possessed child I’ve ever seen in a movie.  We know so little about him— let’s put it this way, he’s possessed within the first few minutes of the film.

That’s another problem I had with this movie.  It really struggles to tell a story.  The pacing doesn’t work, there are long scenes where nothing happens, and when stuff does happen it’s sloppily handled.

Emjay Anthony, who was very enjoyable in CHEF (2014), is wasted here, appearing only in flashbacks as Seth’s deceased son.

Catalina Sandino Moreno plays a woman working for the Vatican who recruits Seth for his latest case.  It’s a role that was originally offered to Rosario Dawson.  She’s lucky she turned it down.

The demon Maggie was played by Mark Steger, who among other things played the Monster in STRANGER THINGS earlier this year.

Actually some of the supporting characters fare better here.  I thought Matt Nable did a good job as the boy’s abusive father Dan.  And Keir O’Donnell and Breanne Hill who played Seth’s young assistants weren’t half bad either.  Hill, by the way, is originally from New Hampshire and later attended Boston University, which is both my alma mater and where my sons are attending college.  Yup, that’s about as interesting as things get with this movie.

INCARNATE bored me throughout, so unless you’re a fan of dull movies, you might want to skip this one.

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OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) Well-Crafted But Unoriginal Retread of Demon Movies

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For some reason, there are slim pickings at the box office this 2016 Halloween season. There just aren’t a whole lot of horror movies opening this month.

One film that has opened in October 2016, is OUIJA:  ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), a prequel of sorts to the dreadful OUIJA (2014).  Surprisingly, this film really isn’t all that bad, and it’s much better than its horrible predecessor.  In fact, the worst thing going for it is that it’s another movie built around a popular board game, in this case the ouija board.  Sure, ouija boards have been in existence long before they were marketed as a fun night in for the kids, but it’s the popular toy store version that’s the centerpiece of these movies, and as such, they do play like glorified commercials, and I just don’t like commercials.

That being said, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL does have some good things going for it.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL takes place in 1965.  I’m not exactly sure why the movie takes place in the 1960s.  At first, I thought the initial 1965 setting was going to be just for the opening scene, and the rest of the film would take place during present day, but this wasn’t the case.  Then I thought that perhaps the story would tie into 1960s popular culture, but this really wasn’t the case either.  While the 1960s setting does add some charm to the proceedings, that’s all it does, unless I’m missing some historical connection to the ouija board, but I’m pretty sure I’m not.  Plus nothing of historical significance about the ouija board is mentioned in the film.  Long story short, this movie could have easily taken place today.

Widowed mom Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a seance scam business with her two daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso), who’s in high school, and Doris (Lulu Wilson) who’s in grade school.  It’s Lina and Doris who help their mom with the secret effects that make their clients believe they are speaking with the dead.  And while it is fake, Alice doesn’t see their business as hurting people.  In fact, she sees it as the opposite, as she constantly gives hope and encouragement to her clients, providing them with positive messages from beyond— their deceased loved ones forgive them, they’re free from pain, they still love them, etc.

And Alice and her daughters are familiar with this pain because her husband and the girl’s father was killed by a drunk driver.  In addition to dealing with the emotional trauma of his death, they are also constantly struggling to make ends meet.

After playing with a ouija board at a friend’s house, Lina suggests to her mom that they get one to add to their act.  Alice does indeed purchase one, but unbeknownst to her or Lina, it turns out that young Doris has a heightened ability to contact spirits from beyond, and the ouija board acts as a perfect conduit for her abilities.  She attracts the attention of a sinister demon which enters her body, and the next thing we know, little Doris is quite possessed and doing all the nasty things that possessed children do.

To help combat this unwelcomed evil which has violated their family, they turn to the principal of the girls’ Catholic School, Father Tom (Henry Thomas).  The battle lines have been drawn. Let the exorcisms begin!

Actually, there aren’t any exorcisms here.  Just ouija boards.

There are three things I really liked about OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and combined they almost—almost!—compensate for the two major things I didn’t like about this movie.

First and foremost, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL has some terrific acting.  Elizabeth Reaser is solid in the lead as the mother of this family, Alice Zander.    She’s sincere, she’s believable, and in spite of being a scam artist, she’s likable.  You care about her and her daughters.

As teen daughter Lina, Annalise Basso delivers an even stronger performance.  There’s a moment near the end of the film where she expresses awful grief that is as powerful and effective a moment as you’re going to see in a horror movie.  She nails it.

And Lulu Wilson is absolutely creepy as the possessed little child Doris.  In fact, she has most of the best scenes in the film, from the way she delivers her unsettling dialogue, like when she talks to Lina’s boyfriend about what it feels like to be strangled to death, to the special effects-enhanced scenes where she’s crawling across walls and ceilings.  Wilson is no stranger to this kind of role.  She played a similar part in DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). In that movie, she was a police detective’s daughter who also was the target of sinister supernatual forces.

Henry Thomas makes for a sincere and credible Father Tom. Thomas of course is famous for his childhood role as Elliott in E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).  Oftentimes in the movies, priests are portrayed as over-the-top ministers, going on about hellfire and brimstone and saying things like “my child,” and “my son.”  Here, Thomas makes Father Tom a rather level-headed cinematic clergyman.

I was also impressed that three of the main characters in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL were women.  While this is happening more often in the movies, it’s still not happening enough.

Which leads me to the second thing I enjoyed about this one, the screenplay by director Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard.  Flanagan and Howard create sincere and believable characters, and so we care what happens to these folks.

And as a director, Mike Flanagan also does a nice job here.  The film looks good and captures the 1965 setting nicely.  Flanagan also gets the scares and suspense scenes right.  There are plenty of creative scary scenes, enough to make the audience jump on occasion.  Flanagan also directed HUSH (2016), a low-budget horror movie that earned only a small release which I reviewed earlier this year.  While not a masterpiece, HUSH was a very stylish thriller about a deaf woman terrorized by a violent killer stalking her isolated home.  Mike Flanagan is definitely a director to watch.

So, with all these positives, why didn’t I absolutely love OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL?

For the simple reason that I didn’t believe any of it.  Now, while Flanagan and Howard and the actors created believable characters, the story they found themselves in was not believable.  Not even close.

First of all, it’s about a ouija board.  Like most everyone else, as a kid, I played with a ouija board.  Did anything sinister happen?  Nope.  So, the idea that a ouija board packaged as a family game bought at a store is something sinister just doesn’t work for me.  Not on its own.  Could a well-written script make me believe otherwise?  Certainly!  But as strong as this screenplay was in terms of character development, no effort seems to have gone into making the ouija board stand out as a conduit of evil.  The idea by its lonesome doesn’t cut it.   Perhaps if there was something special about this particular ouija board which Alice and her family purchased, but that’s not the case here.

Also, at times, with its blatant product placement, the film plays like a glorified commercial for Hasbro.  I don’t like commercials, and so if your movie plays like one, chances are I’m not going to like it.

The other strike against OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is that once it enters its demon storyline, it becomes a straighforward retread of films like INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013).  OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL offers nothing new in the demon department. In spite of some creative scare scenes, it’s another case of been there, done that.  

At the end of the day, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is a well-acted, creatively directed horror movie that suffers from its tie-in with a popular board game, the ouija board, and from the unoriginal path it takes once it enters its demon storyline.

It has its moments, but the bottom line is there’s not much original or evil about it.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE POSSESSION (2012)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the possessed-by-demon thriller THE POSSESSION (2012), published in the April 2014 edition of the The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.
—MichaelThe Possession - poster

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
BY
MICHAEL ARRUDA

I remember liking THE POSSESSION (2012) when I reviewed it with L.L. Soares for CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT back in August 2012. I didn’t love it, that’s for sure, but I found it to be an average horror movie lifted by some quality acting performances. However, upon a second viewing on streaming video the other night, THE POSSESSION didn’t hold up all that well.

THE POSSESSION is the story of a recently divorced man Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who is struggling to raise his two daughters, teenage Hannah (Madison Davenport) and younger Em (Natasha Calis), and he’s only allowed to see them on weekends. Gee, where have I heard this story before? The plot about a single dad trying to raise his teenage children has been used so much in recent films it’s quickly become cliché.

The rest of the time the girls live with their mom, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and her annoying dentist boyfriend, Brett (Grant Show), the subject of one of the better lines in the movie. Frustrated with Brett’s being a busybody, Clyde says to the dentist, “And keep away from my kids’ teeth!”

The girls are having a difficult time with the divorce, especially young Em. Things grow worse when Em buys a wooden box from a yard sale, a box shown in the opening segment of the movie wielding strange powers and causing an old woman’s violent death. Yup, inside that box is a demon, and since little Em opens it, guess whose body the demon decides to enter and then possess? Clyde thought he had problems before. Wait till he gets to deal with little demon Em!

The rest of the film follows Clyde’s and Stephanie’s efforts to try to understand what’s wrong with their daughter Em, and once they find out, they turn to a young rabbi named Tzadok (Matisyahu), because in this movie the demon is a dybbuk, a Jewish demon.

The best thing THE POSSESSION has going for it are the acting performances. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who was exceedingly memorable as the Comedian in the superhero movie WATCHMEN (2009), and Kyra Sedgwick, from the TV series THE CLOSER (2005-2012), turn in strong performances here as the divorced parents drawn together in the fight to save their daughter. They certainly lift this mediocre movie to a higher level.

Even better than Morgan and Sedgwick is young Natasha Calis as Em, as she gives the best performance in the movie. Early on when she’s first possessed, she is really creepy. She has the most innocent looking eyes and facial expressions, and when she starts saying these odd and sinister lines, watch out! Unfortunately, later in the movie, as the demon within her grows stronger, the film turns to make-up and special effects, and this just isn’t anywhere near as effective as watching Calis flash her angry eyes at the camera. In fact, the effects are often laughable.

Matisyahu is also very good as Tzadok in the last third of the movie.

The story here is just okay. The plot of a child being possessed by a demon obviously isn’t anything new, and THE POSSESSION doesn’t really offer a fresh take on it, with the exception of the demon being a dybbuk. This is interesting, but not entirely original. A dybbuk also appeared in the earlier horror movie, THE UNBORN (2009), starring Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman (now Odette Annable).

So, the screenplay by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White isn’t bad, but it’s nothing to write home about either. This same pair also wrote the awful horror movie BOOGEYMAN (2005), so THE POSSESSION is actually a step up for these two.

But the weakest part of THE POSSESSION is that it’s just not scary, and scenes I found somewhat scary at the movies completely lost their effectiveness in the comfortable confines of my living room. The murder scenes, for example, when the demon is miffed at its victims, are all rather lame, to the point where you might find yourself laughing out loud.

The final exorcism scene is also a disappointment, and tends to rip off more famous possession movies, including THE EXORCIST (1973).

There is one very frightening and memorable image from this movie, when Em looks inside her mouth in a mirror. What she sees in there will make you jump. But other than this, there’s not much that’s frightening about THE POSSESSION.

There’s also a scene involving a horde of CGI moths which look blatantly fake.

But worst of all, director Ole Bornedal fails to build any genuine suspense here. The most suspenseful scene in the film, when Clyde and his daughters return home and hear strange noises coming from the kitchen, proves to be a false scare. Compared to movies like INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013) which do a phenomenal job of building tension and providing shocks throughout, THE POSSESSION falls miserably flat.

The movie also doesn’t do much with its demonic wooden box. This is a central prop in the film. Yet, it’s not frightening at all. You’d think this box would fill us with a sense of dread. It doesn’t.

In the ever growing canon of possessed-by-demon movies, THE POSSESSION is a tepid entry, barely worth your time. It’s helped along by some solid acting performances by its main players, especially by young Natasha Calis, who makes for a very chilling possessed little girl, but other than this, it’s about as compelling as a plain wooden box.

Go yard sale shopping instead.

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