I often wonder why is it that when you have a movie that churns up a sequel, producers and creators alike feel the need to install a third (and, potentially, final) film in its universe. That’s not even including adjacent stories that might include some of the characters from the original plot thread, but you get the picture, even when the picture itself while looking great, feels like a complete let-down.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the (aforementioned) third in the Conjuring universe (although the original spawned the Annabelle movies, because, money). As with the previous two, it focuses on yet another case of possession that the Warrens were involved in. Only that this time, the stakes are higher, because it involves a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) on trial for the gruesome murder of his landlord, and the fact that Johnson claimed to have been under demonic possession at the time of the murder.
I liked the previous two movies which brought the Warrens in as strong co-starring characters attempting to solve a case because it focused more on the family trauma and forced the plot into the familiar territory of the haunted house trope (and in these movies, all the houses are enormous and claustrophobic as heck). Centering the story around them somewhat dilutes the overall theme. However, I can see where the producers were headed with the third (and again, hopefully final) installment.
It was only time before the couple known for cracking paranormal cases would, as shown in a scene in the first Conjuring in a vision of horror Lorraine Warren experiences, find themselves at the unwelcome end of a malevolent evil — the same evil they themselves were trying to stop in the first place. In a way, it’s a neat way to tie up ends and bring the horror home, to have the Warrens face their own Everest and (in a cheesy manner) reaffirm their own marriage vows.
On that basis, the movie succeeds. Where it doesn’t is in the inclusion of Satanic Panic into the plot, which arrives under the form of John Noble, who plays the predictable character who knows more than he should and exists solely for the purpose of explaining some backstory and delivering some foreboding nods that lean towards a “leave it alone, this is not your battle” type of advice. This is not saying that Noble doesn’t commit to a solid performance — he does, even when he has to deliver a convoluted and implausible explanation of what has happened. However, I’ve always been of the belief that the less one knows, even after investigation, the better. And then I recalled that both the previous two movies also leaned on a backstory.
For the most part, The Devil Made Me Do it is a good, handsome spectacle to watch. Director Michael Chaves establishes a reliable sense of suspense with solid camera work, particularly in the opening scene in which a boy (Julian Hillard) finds himself trying to hide from an unseen thing out to get him, and when Lorraine, using her abilities as an empath, dives deep into the mystery that is haunting Arne Johnson (and may be part of a larger plot).
Where it fails: While it’s okay to make references to other movies, to basically insert scenes that look like an exact replica is a bit lazy. When you can see one scene lifted clear off from The Exorcist, and another one from the book version of The Shining (which happens rather late in the book and was also used for Doctor Sleep), then the disappointment happens. Adding to that, The Devil Made Me Do It seems to have lost its original steam, its magic. Its existence is meant for those who are die-hard fans of the movie’s old-school, 70’s horror cinematic universe, and who can scare easily without much effort. If you want to see truly disturbing horror movies, and I mean stuff that will keep you up at night and question your own taste, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
One of the aspects I enjoy the most from the horror genre is the manner in which it uses imagery to convey a deeper brushstroke. Prano Bailey-Bond’s movie Censor is a neat hat trick in which the director focuses on the same media she is using to tell a story about mourning. She focuses the spotlight on her heroine, Irish actress Niamh Algar, whom she then has play a movie censor who has to determine what snippets of horror movies are a bit much and need to be excised in order for the movie to be palatable. Think of her as the person or team behind ratings or standards and practices. If a scene is too gruesome, she’s onboard to command that it be edited out.
It is when Algar’s character, who by the way has the unfortunate and schoolmarmish name of Enid Baines for a reason, receives news from her own parents that her sister, who went missing years ago, has been declared dead when Censor starts to build up the dread. Enid, who already takes her job a slight too seriously, starts to have bad reactions to certain scenes, and some memories which she seems to have had repressed come to the forefront in menacing ways. Enid watches a movie sent to her and sees someone who resembles her sister down to a science (had her sister grown up, that is). Convinced that the woman, her sister, is still alive, Enid begins to find a way to get her back, and with that, her grip on reality begins to crumble.
Censor is a sharp piece of movie-making that manages to convey how a tight grip on one’s psyche can merely be an illusion. Enid, the lone person whom we can hold on to here, is a tight drum dressed in antiquated attire, her brown hair in a bun, eyes behind studious glasses. She seems to have survived something horrific from her childhood, and this job, which lands her in hot water with the public at one point, comes with the promise of escaping a dour reality and progressively delving into something darker, richer, and more exciting.
Watching Censor, I couldn’t but keep getting references to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio — and no, this is not a cheap comparison to that film. Strickland’s movie also dealt with the act of creating a horror film and often employed visuals and sounds that were often chilling. Censor executes a similar act with the editing process, but also with sequences that reenact a traumatic moment that Enid simply has not processed correctly. I loved that the movie, shot in drab colors (except when presenting its horror movies which are lit in bright neon tones reminiscent of Giallo), progressively comes brightly lit itself. It is as though Bailey-Bond herself was using the editing process as a way to make the film itself shed its old skin and reveal the screaming horror underneath.
I also loved the slow progression of its story. There is only one jump scare during the entire film, and it arrives completely justified. I would even say that it becomes essential that Enid get that sort of visceral shock, because it shakes her out of her weird reverie. Once the violence arrives, it feels as though a can of black, emotional worms have been released. Only that this time, they come drenched in neon and a sense of complete disorientation that Bailey-Bond employs to maximum effect down to the film’s last scene.
If ever there were a movie so drenched in graphic violence that it could basically reduce all others that came behind it in the New French Extremity genre it would be this one. Boy is this film nasty and unafraid to carry its premise to its unbelievable, horrifying conclusion. [Then again, most French movies in this vein jump straight into the abyss, but none — not even Martyrs — with this gusto.]
Inside (A l’intérieur) touches the topic of a home invasion in a scenario that is impossible to top. One night, a few months after the death of her husband in a freak accident, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a young expectant mother about to give birth, receives a knock on the door. It is a woman whom she doesn’t know, who would like to make a cell phone call. Sarah, already a bit edgy, refuses, tells the woman to go to another house and make her call. However, the woman refuses. And when Sarah tells her that her husband is asleep in bed, the woman flatly informs her, “Your husband is dead, Sarah. Let me in.” [To that effect; I’m not translating the quote verbatim here.]
This “What the fuck?” moment is the one that arrives with a sense of horror and dread so dense my stomach curdled. Imagine, a woman, alone, everyone whom she knows, away or at least, out of reach. Now she has a potential intruder in her home. She does call the cops after taking a photograph of the weird woman. They assure her that she has nothing to fear and will be patrolling the area. Through a previous photo she had taken, Sarah comes to realize in a moment lifted right off of Antonioni’s Blow-Up that the woman has been stalking her. Partner directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo use the claustrophobic set of Sarah’s dimly lit apartment and the presence of an invisible menace to ratchet up the tension to eleven. Truly, even before the carnage starts, the set-up is edge-of-your-seat on steroids. You are literally frightened for Sarah and her unborn baby.
Once the movie takes flight, it is, like Beatrice Dalle’s banshee performance for the ages as the woman, virtually unstoppable, and I won’t discuss more of it because frankly, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated, or at least, acknowledged. Inside is every pregnant woman’s worst nightmare. The fact that fetal abduction is a horrific reality (and some of the real-life incidents make this fictitious one look like a bad acid trip) only enhances the movie’s conceit. As almost unwatchable as this movie can be, I give the directors their kudos for sticking to their guns and delivering a blood-drenched exercise in Giallo a la française and not allowing a drop of sunshine toglimmer through the darkness of their narrative. And while I’m at it, please avoid the American remake from 2015. While the remake got directed by Jaume Balagueró, and Spain is noted for its stylish horror films, it can’t hold a candle to this extremely visceral experience that is guaranteed to give you nightmares.
I guess you can’t win all of the time. Sometimes you’ll buy a ticket to see a movie that comes with loads of recommendations from film festivals and cinephiles who can usually be counted on for providing fair and good reviews of films. Maybe it’s a matter of taste and the movie you saw — which came to you showered in praise — turned out to be a cold, sickening mess no one should ever have to endure. Or maybe it’s just me and I wasn’t in the best of moods, and even when the movie came, delivering, I just didn’t get it, and mentally struck it with a slew of rotten tomatoes.
Fresh out of the viewing oven is the Norwegian movie Cadaver, which made its bow on Netflix last October. I’m truly baffled with this one because usually, Norway sends some pretty good films our way. This one… I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’m going to say (in defense of ) director Jarand Herdal that he seems to have a sharp cinematic eye for storytelling, and his debut picture comes with some rather on-the-nose allegory on the evils of consumerism.
However, that is as far as I can go with his movie. Cadaver starts rather well, giving us the family at the center of its dark plot. Former actress Leonora (Gitte Witt), Jacob (Thomas Gullestad), and their little daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are trying to survive some global catastrophe that has essentially destroyed mankind (or mankind as we know it, the movie never delves deeper). They stumble onto an offer to stay at a hotel (conspicuously similar to the one in The Grand Budapest Hotel), in which its MC, Matthias (Thorbjøn Harr), reigns supreme and offers flights of theatrical fancy in exchange for a meal.
The problem starts rather immediately when we get a scenario not too far removed from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in which everyone must wear a gold mask, and we, under the eyes of Leonora, become privy to scenes varying from deSadean debauchery to domestic dramas of the Ingmar Bergman variety (performed by Judith Andersen doppelgänger Trine Wiggen). Soon enough, everyone starts to get spooked out by either a painting of a lamb (they are everywhere) that seems to be looking at someone or sudden disappearances that make no sense. It’s not long before it becomes rather clear that there is some fuckery afoot, and guess who may be the next to be a lamb to the slaughter. Geddit? Lamb> Yeah.
Sometimes new directors have to create tripe like this in order to show more style than substance to make their mark and this is the case to a T here. Herbal oversaturated his film with blinding crimson colors to achieve his idea of dread in a way that nods to Giallo. A few other shots seemed to come with a hint of artistic tones (such as ominous handkerchiefs ballooning gracefully to the lobby). Other than that the drama that he delivered is dead on arrival. We were given next to nothing to relate to his nuclear family and the people they encounter at this sinister hotel. After a while everything started to feel irritating and shrill and even at 86 minutes, Cadaver seemed to have been stretched out to fulfill a quota. I kept squirming in my seat watching actors play characters too stupid to live and barreling ahead as if they were forced to, or else. I heard an actress utter the line, “Never!” after being asked to “Join us,” which I haven’t heard since the Silent Era, and yeah, sorry for the slight spoiler. Even a weird coda attached to the end didn’t do much but make me wonder what on Earth was anyone thinking with this film.
I’m going to give Cadaver a D for dreadful.
Even as bad as Cadaver is, nothing can really place a candle next to The Rental. Yet another movie that came with mostly glowing reviews, I’m sitting here slightly fuming because of how terrible it is. There’s just no justifying this type of movie, which is derivative of others and offers nothing new nothing stylistic, not even a slight sense of ambiance.
Again, I’m all for new directors and new cinema, but sometimes, when actors who have barely made it in the acting department start almost immediately taking the plunge and sitting behind the director’s wheel I cringe a little. That is not to say actors with limited creds can’t make it as directors: Emerald Fennell, with barely 10 years in, has made quite an entrance for herself with Promising Young Woman. Greta Gerwig clearly has been studying camera work to add to her repertoire as a movie maker and it shows in both Ladybird and Little Women, movies she penned herself (she is quite the screenwriter).
Franco and I don’t mean to say this disparagingly, may need to focus on what kind of picture he wants to make. His brand of horror — especially one that comes mixed with mumblecore sensibilities courtesy from Joe Swanberg, who wrote the film — falls flat on its face and never recovers. Had The Rental depicted a foursome closer to the characters in Drinking Buddies or The Overnight I probably would have enjoyed it. I would have seen four people, each with their own agendas and secrets, and a crisis transpiring somewhere halfway which would make or break filial bonds.
Instead, I get a stilted drama that arises when Mina (Sheila Vand) confronts the caretaker of the Air BnB home that she, her boyfriend, his brother, and his wife are renting for the weekend. Accusations of racism come out of the blue and feel forced, but so does the menace of the said caretaker (played by Toby Huss).
Huss’ character, as a matter of fact, doesn’t just linger on with huge shades of threat but keeps getting mentioned over and over again and in circumstances where there would be no way he would factor so much in the shenanigans that begin to happen in this rental. It’s almost as though through cardboard expository dialogue, we’re supposed to focus a bit too much on this character, and that defused any tension that would have taken place had the writer and director trusted their story more.
Instead we get entitled young people panicking over ill-earned paranoia and then acting upon their fears in ways that seem to lack logic. This decision plunges the story and its characters into a third act so rushed and haphazard that it seemed to come out of a necessity to finish the movies and hope that it worked. I didn’t buy it, and felt cheated upon throwing my hands up and screaming at the TV, but by then, my patience had gone out the window, and that says all I have to say about this film.
The Rental also gets a D from me.
Lastly, there is the worst of the lot. Bliss, directed by Joe Begos, is an incomprehensible mess of a film that explores the downward spiral of one Dezzy (Dora Madison). She is labeled a “brilliant visual artist who finds herself experiencing a creative block.” That’s cute. We never get to see anything of her art, no mention of her in art galleries, no interviews, nothing that can sustain this type of description. [Which begs the petition: screenwriters and directors should probably stop using the word “brilliant” to describe their characters. It went out about 30 years ago and hasn’t returned since.]
But not to digress: Dezzy is in a rut and boy does everyone around her feel it. From the second she gets introduced we see a Tasmanian devil of an obnoxious, petty character, so self absorbed in her own world she makes self-absorbed Angelenos seem positively delightful to be around in. She storms around the entire frame of the movie screaming insults at anyone and everyone she can, but that’s not the worst of it. When she gets her hand on some truly weird drug, boy do the sparks fly and not in a good way.
Bliss is a vanity project, plain and simple. “Look at me — I can direct a movie!” Fine with me, just make it interesting. Eighty minutes can’t happen like that, with so much nonsensical talking, screaming, swearing, and Madison in the middle, acting as if though this will enable her up the ladder into better performances. Sometimes I wonder if the Tribeca Film Festival even cares. Their Midnight section, where this played, has been littered with movies that don’t belong anywhere but in the trash. And that is what this movie is to me.
Almost 20 years ago, multiplex horror was declared unequivocally, irresolutely dead by many a moviegoer who, tired of seeing travesties coming in the form of packages stacked with a jump scare every approximate 10 minutes and denouement that made no sense simply stopped going to such movies and searched other means to get their horror on. J-horror (and its clones) were dead on arrival. How was a lover of all things dark to get one’s dread on?
The decade that just ended brought quite the relief, but I won’t get into a convoluted essay detailing the arrival of critically-acclaimed, artsy horror courtesy of indie cinema. Indie horror has been delivering since Night of the Living Dead, if not earlier — can we lump the producer Val Lewton in this group? — so before I get ripped to smithereens by what I said, I am referring to popcorn horror made to make a killing in the box office during its release week and then run.
Nicholas Pesce made quite a debut in late 2016 with a brief little black and white horror movie called The Eyes of my Mother. That movie told, with minimal special effects and a wall of atmospheric dread, the rather disturbing story of a young girl living in the country who sees a strange man do something unspeakable to her family. What happens after that is just as atrocious, in that it perpetuates the same act that brought down her family, and seeks, through repetition, permutate itself into the future, with horrific consequences.
Pesce’s follow-up, Piercing, veers closer to J-Horror in that it was written by the man who brought you 1999’s Audition so if you saw Audition you know what to expect with Piercing. Pesce’s sophomore movie tells the story of a businessman (Christopher Abbott) who has a penchant for murder. It’s safe to say that he keeps it well-hidden from his unsuspecting wife (Laia Costa) for obvious reasons (who would want to bring a wife into this situation? said no one ever). When he meets the woman he’s decided to perform some unspeakable stuff on, he’s in for quite a treat. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) as she is called comes with some rather disturbing baggage herself, wrapped in a cocoon made of fur.
It is safe to say that from here on nothing goes as planned in Pesce’s movie, and thank God. It would have been an exercise in misogynistic porn to see Abbott stalking and tormenting Wasikowska’s damaged character for a prolonged sequence of time. That, in fact, is the least of what happens here, as both actors switch on the power button at ease and we, the viewer, just sit back and see the madness unfold.
I wish that Pesce had not caved in to pressure to make a studio film when he came out early in 2020 with his re-imagination of The Grudge. Pesce has a sharp, dense style of telling stories. His characters navigate dark, murky waters and ask for help while lashing out at the rescuer. We really don’t know how deep we will go with his leads, and I love that because it means that anything might happen at any specific moment in his films. Piercing is truly grotesque in ways that made me recall David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike without flat-out imitating them. No, Pesce has his own style, streamlined and defined, and while in The Eyes of My Mother he went for a Val Lewton look, here he goes for a more late 70s period, somewhere deep in Argento but also Fulci or Bava without the excess.
Abbott continues on a streak of unusual roles, following an exercise in Cronenberg horror via Possessor. He’s very good in his part here, showing next to no emotion where it matters the most and an almost unsettling amount of dread at what he may be capable of. Wasikowska, on the other hand, completely deceives as a woman who may be in for more than she bargained for. It’s safe to say that I think these two are a match made in heaven and should make another movie, albeit with a lot less gore, and see what comes out of it,