Rating: The Good – 68.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 119 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Laura Linney stars as a successful defence attorney who agrees to defend a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) when a young woman who he performed an exorcism on died shortly thereafter. As she delves into the case, she not only begins to believe the priest’s story but she comes to suspect that the same dark forces are now working against her. Scott Derrickson’s film strikes an original chord within the genre by attempting to examine the case from a legal perspective and he sets a wonderfully sinister atmosphere that peaks in some truly chilling moments. Linney’s skill in the lead lends even more credibility to the film’s serious aspirations as does the wider casting from Wilkinson’s beleaguered clergyman to Campbell Scott’s determined prosecutor. However, things go wrong with the screenplay just as it should be ratcheting up towards an intriguing conclusion. The relevance of the exorcism to the law is only barely glanced at as evidenced by Wilkinson’s marginalisation as a character and the main plot gets a little silly towards the close. Most disappointing of all, however, the creepy subplot concerning Linney’s inexplicable experiences never really amounts to anything. Instead, the movie satisfies itself in the main by offering multiple retrospective accounts of the events leading up to and including the exorcism which themselves bear an awfully familiar bent. At the very least, a Rashoman-like contrast between the various firsthand accounts would’ve added an interesting layer of ambiguity to the proceedings but given that they’re all in accordance with each other, we’re left with a clear but less intriguing delineation between truth and mistruth. Thus, it can be argued that The Exorcism of Emily Rose turns its back on its most promising story angles to serve its most ordinary:- a real shame give the calibre of talent on hand.
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Horror Duration: 110 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.
Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.
Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 112 mins Director: James Wan Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Bone chilling 70’s-set possession story adorned with all the hallmarks of the best vintages. Married couple Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are the married paranormal investigators called upon to help a terrorised family who are being haunted by a particularly nasty demon. By now, we all know the final score and how the points are scored but James Wan’s movie nuances the familiar plot in all manner of creepy ways to exact as much out of it as possible. Forsaking the safety net of gore, Wan and company rely completely on mood, timing, and no small number of innovative devices to generate the scares. Using the investigative couple’s background in the occult as a basis for both tension and sub-plot, there are essentially three horror stories spun together here but not so anything is taken away from the central plot. In fact, as is often intended but rarely transpires, they compound each other so that they generate a cumulative terror. The result is genuinely one of the scariest movies to emerge from Hollywood in decades.
The Conjuring looks and sounds the part too thanks to some comprehensive production design, Joseph Bishara’s even score, and Kirk M. Morri (visual) and Joe Dzuban’s (sound) elegant editing. The final piece to the puzzle is the casting. Without breaking the bank, the four leads are all household names which not only nests the events in a priceless familiarity but also ensures a degree of class that most horror movies lack. This only adds to the film’s earnestness and thus magnifies the fear factor. Wilson is, as usual, slightly stiff but again, as usual, in a manner that suits his character. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are equally strong as the beleaguered mother and father. However, Farmiga makes the most of her character with a steady turn as the compassionate but strong psychic. It all gets very loud towards the end and while this is perhaps one of its more unsubtle touches, it doesn’t destabilise the movie as is often the case. On the contrary, from beginning to end, The Conjuring is utterly text-book in its construction.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Horror, Drama Duration: 93 mins Director: Jennifer Kent Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Every now and again, an independent horror movie comes along that celebrates the art of the genre by doing the most important things well. Things like: being unpredictable so that the scares don’t just come as shocks, or subverting the natural to generate a primal fear, and darkly colouring the story with fairytale-like themes so that it crawls inside the recesses of our psyches. While not scoring flawlessly on each of these levels, the Australian chiller The Babadook nonetheless achieves an even enough balance to comprehensively scare the bejesus out of you. Essie Davis stars as a single mother left traumatised by the death of her husband and trying to raise her seemingly disturbed son. But when a terrifying storybook entitled “The Babadook” appears mysteriously in her son’s room, she begins to believe his claims that the eponymous monster is in their house. What follows is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror as the despairing mother slowly loses her sanity and falls deeper into the monster’s clutches. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook demonstrates admirable restraint in the buildup and combined with some spine-tingling concept design (particularly with regard to the creature’s voice), the scares can be vigorous. However, against the austere set design and dull toned photography, the film’s mood is perhaps even more affecting and the movie would’ve surely veered towards the depressing if it wasn’t for some timely humour and the engaging performances by both Davis and Noah Wiseman as her eccentric son. And if the final act begins to feel a little familiar, rest assured that Kent reigns it in with a wryly unpredictable ending that will satisfy the more knowing and/or jaded horror fans alike. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 70.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 104 mins Director: Mike Flanagan Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
Any horror movie that can be described as original these days is worthy of note and while not completely without formula, Oculus runs just far enough outside the lines of the modern possession story to justify such description. Karen Gillian and Brenton Thwaites star as sister and brother recently re-united after the latter is released from a mental facility 11 years after he murdered their father. It’s not long before we learn that the sister has re-acquired and intends to destroy a creepy old mirror from their family home which she claims possessed their parents and directly caused their murder. With the premise outlined, the narrative then branches by paralleling the events leading up to their parents’ killing with the sibling’s present day attempt to quite methodically destroy the entity in the mirror. In place of the more humdrum horror movie buildup this smart structure creates a tantalising intrigue and becomes the primary driver of the movie’s tension. Gillian’s presence and Thwaites’ deftness work well within its boundaries but the drama would’ve held together better if the lesser known actors mutually shared each other’s strengths. Inhabiting only one strand to the story, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane have more limited opportunities but still offer more complete performances. Though the tone of the film is expertly set throughout its 104 minutes, the persistent switching of perspective (from the time of the murder to present day) eventually wears on the cohesion of the plot and as writer-director Mike Flanagan escalates his use of that device to actually include time-shifting hallucinations, the audience may struggle to stay engaged. The paucity of even light humour and unrelenting bleakness of the final act will only augment that likelihood. That said, Flanagan stays true to his convictions right up to the close and, best of all, he handles the supernatural concept with welcome restraint by constantly resisting the temptation to up the ante. It may not provide as many classic scares as the average horror vehicle but it furnishes the movie with an integrity that sets it apart from the pack.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 122 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The Daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Jason Miller’s Father Karras is a vessel of pure intensity as the troubled priest sent in conflicting directions by the doubt and fear that he was already experiencing through a crisis of confidence. Fear and doubt that are monstrously amplified when he’s called into help the girl. Von Sydow is calmer but more visceral in emotional demeanour as he wilfully uses a combination of intellect and profound belief against his nemesis. As the film’s sense of reason, the paranormal side to the story is bolstered all the more because his is an ability to reason against the unthinkable. Linda Blair, under close instruction by her director and with no little help from Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal support, is a bristling package of tortured spite and venom, a relentless abomination, and arguably the bold fella’s most ferocious screen incarnation. But sometimes forgotten in all this is Ellen Burstyn’s distraught mother. Given that little Linda isn’t much in the mood for conversation, Burstyn is the glue that binds together the disparate characters including Lee J. Cobb’s endearing homicide detective. It’s a remarkably levelled turn that is critical to the film’s balance.
Fantastic as the cast are, the movie’s power ultimately comes down to the full-on confrontation with the profane which Friedkin and his writer serve up here so relentlessly. The term “genius” is bandied about a little too freely these days but Friedkin and Blatty’s perceptive (not to mention daring) use of western culture’s deep-wired moral coding to impact the audience beyond the confines of the film was as extraordinary an accomplishment as Kubrick’s final act in 2001. It also laid the groundwork for some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years as that particular trick was exhausted to the point that Hideo Nakata was forced to have his demon actually crawl out of the TV in order to imbue his audience with the requisite sense of intrusion. Blatty’s script swings between the warm and scathingly twisted and spanned across its unpretentious dialogue is a clear idea of what he wants this movie to be. Though, on the issue of unpretentiousness and clarity, no review would get far without mentioning the film’s archetyping use of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells.
But the masterstroke comes courtesy of the director who ensures that the atmosphere and tension are defined primarily within the personal tribulations of his protagonists. At crucial moments, the insanity of the story’s events is snapshot back within the boundaries of the world in which we live as it refocuses around the authenticity of those personal trials. Friedkin complements this by keeping the movie’s visual profile rooted in the gritty lighting of contemporary crime cinema and the warmer production design of a family drama. Unlike most horror movies which can’t resist going ‘big’, at no point does he get sucked towards the absurd of horror porn or supernatural melodrama. And with that, the horror is kept pure and unabated so that, when it spikes, it will chill you to the core of your marrow. A peerless form of dissonant terror that’s even more extremely exemplified in that spider-walking director’s cut. A true classic!
Rating: The Ugly – 61.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 118 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn
Laudable effort at a modern possession story starring Eric Bana as a New York cop who gets involved in a case that has spiritual and demonic overtones. As his life begins to crumble around him, he teams up with an atypical priest (Édgar Ramírez) in the attempt to get his head around the evidence. There’s not much in the way of originality here but Bana always adds a level of class to his movies and together with some deft touches from its writer-director Scott Derrickson along the way, Deliver Us From Evil should keep you invested despite the overall familiarity. One of these involved the decision to avoid explicit demonstrations of the supernatural for longer than most, and it elevates the intrigue substantially. However, like most genre films these days, Derrickson gets so bogged down in the premise that he forgets to make (or at least wasn’t interested in making) a movie out of it. The movie rarely strays from the straight line of the plot and so the most important factors in any horror movie, the context and the story, aren’t afforded the opportunity to flourish. There’s little for the premise to be at odds with, little to colour it real, and therefore little to remember it for. Save for Bana’s more than decent turn that is.
Rating: The Good – 67.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 117 mins Director: Stuart Rosenberg Stars: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger
A family’s new home becomes not just the setting but the cause of their physical, emotional, and psychological unravelling as the father shows signs of repeating the murderous activities of the house’s previous occupier. Though not operating in the rarified air of The Exorcist, this one remains a refreshing example of how to tell a standard possession tale in the absence of Friedkin’s visionary talent. What distinguishes Stuart Rosenberg’s movie from the mire of recent possession stories (including the tedious remake of this movie) is the patience it takes in the buildup and the manner in which it pays more than just lip service to the normal family dynamic at the centre of the spiritual corruption. It’s not rocket science, it’s simply old school film making or, in other words, paying attention to the fundamentals. Yes, the scares are familiar and the plot formulaic (though in 1979, this was more forgivable) but the fresh faced nativity of the protagonists (and in this regard James Brolin and Margot Kidder don’t put a foot wrong as the husband and wife), their dialogue, their actions, and fear gives the film a resonating factor. That innocence is carried over into the shooting of the film. Rather than immersing the film in moody photography, Rosenberg uses an abundance of warm lighting and soft contrasts to frame his narrative. This is something even The Exorcist or The Shining didn’t attempt. At its essence, the movie’s aesthetic could pass for that of any old drama or comedy specific to that era if it wasn’t for all the spooky goings on and the manner in which it frames the house in question. Of course, preceding those spooky events with the creepiness of familiarity only augments the terror they can induce and it’s exactly this type of solid film-making which ensures that The Amityville Horror will remain a defining example of the haunted house sub-genre.
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 92 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum
After moving into a New York apartment, a young model (Christina Rains) seemingly begins to lose her grip on reality. However, once her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) investigates the building’s history, he learns she isn’t crazy at all and her apartment is, in fact, the gateway to hell. Though rather eclectic in his abilities, Michael Winner was in many ways well suited to the horror genre given his oblique directorial style. Thus, it’s not surprising that, with The Sentinel, he furnishes Jeffrey Konvitz’ novel, rich in premise as it was, with the type of atmosphere that can rival the best of the genre. It’s a gleefully creepy old horror that fully engages thanks to a familiar but compelling mythology and a litany of colourful characters played with relish by some of the best in the business. In fact, the cast is a veritable who’s who of that era’s up and comers (such as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and even a very young and fleeting Tom Berenger) and old-timers (such as Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, and Burgess Meredith as the boogeyman man himself).
The real shame here is that they’re all bit parts or supporting roles and so most of the film rests on Rains’ far slighter shoulders. With an absence of personality and presence, she’s a genuine weak link and the movie threatens to wither when she’s on screen. As the other main character, Sarandon is better but, like Rains, he is constantly overshadowed by the heavyweights on show, especially both Gardner and Wallach who are in giddy form as the sinister real estate agent and curious homicide detective respectively. In truth, some of the blame must fall at Winner’s feet for a recurrent failing of his was his inability to use and engage his cast properly.
Though it suffers inevitable and unfavourable comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s more likely these aforementioned issues that precluded The Sentinel from ascending to the realm of hallowed horror. But make no mistake, it scores in nearly every other department. Winner’s uniquely gaudy touch is all over the ornate production design and helps immerse us in the strange world he and Konvitz have created. Moreover, Gil Melle’s equally unsubtle score echoes the best of the classic horror accompaniments. It may not scare the socks off you like The Exorcist does but, like a good John Carpenter horror, it will give you the creeps.
Rating: The Good – 82.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 136 mins Director: Roman Polanksi Stars: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
Satirical horror about a woman who comes to believe that her husband has promised their unborn baby to a witches’ coven made up of the co-tenants in her building. Roman Polanksi’s film is a triumph of suspense, intelligence, and atmosphere because like all great horror films he evokes fear not through predicable shocks and gore but through ambiguity and implication. In fact, there’s not one thing in this film that cannot be explained by referencing natural forces. And of course, this is the ultimate implication of Polanksi’s film and why the film ends on the most subtly satirical of notes. So subtle in fact that the vast majority of the film’s appreciators seem to have missed that point completely! In addition to Polanski’s direction, the film scores well on every other technical front. In particular, Richard Sylbert’s production design is exemplary and Christopher’s Komeda’s score greatly combines with the direction to generate the levels of suspense it does. The actors are also on top form with Mia Farrow being truly brilliant in the lead role and John Cassavetes approaching the role with his typically unique and unorthodox style. Ruth Gordon won the Oscar for her supporting role as the intrusive neighbour and deservedly so as it is mainly because of her performance (and the brief presence of her Asian house-guest) that Rosemary’s Baby succeeds so wonderfully as a disguised parody.
Rating: The Good – 68.9 Genre: Horror Duration: 91 mins Director: Wes Craven Stars: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Wes Craven’s seminal horror piece involves a group of teens who are terrorised in their sleep by a hideous and murderous stalker Freddy Krueger where the wounds he inflicts can manifest in real life. Nightmare on Elm Street along with Halloween and Friday the 13th helped to define the horror genre of the early eighties (and beyond) thanks to a great concept and some genuinely terrifying set-pieces that to this day work a treat in the ‘scaring the hell out of you department’. Robert Englund’s performance is now the stuff of horror legend and is as sinister as it is scary. The special effects are decent and also hold up well. Heather Langenkamp deserves special mention for carrying the film (after a Hitchcockian switch of the female lead early on) and poses a worthy adversary for the nightmarish Freddy.
While Stephen King has never had a problem with making the idea of possessed machinery scary, the task of doing so in a film might seem foolhardy for anyone to even attempt. However, as John Carpenter had already scared a generation of horror fans with dehumanised gang members, knife wielding mental patients, and ghost pirates, the master of horror seemed the very man to bring the tale of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury to the big screen and do it justice. And through a combination of his unorthodox directorial style (such as his penchant for keeping the camera on actors a good 10-15 seconds after most directors would’ve yelled “cut”) and some decent performances from his young cast, he manages to do just that – even while removing some of the scarier elements from the book and building the scares solely around the car. Keith Gordon is perfectly sinister in the lead role of the teenager who becomes obsessed with the demonic car. John Stockwell is up and down as his jock friend and Alexandra Paul is decent as the girlfriend. Harry Dean Stanton and Robert Prosky do their usual bit of show-stealing as the more cynical grownups. However, the real star of the show is Carpenter’s electronic score, parts of which brilliantly double as sound effects at crucial junctures. Like all Carpenter’s films, Christine is more sinister than out-and-out shocking so be prepared for a more slow burning type of horror.