From James Wan

The Conjuring is a Genuine Creepshow

The Conjuring. 2013. Directed by James Wan. Screenplay by Chad & Carey Hayes.
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins, Marion Guyot, Morganna May, & Amy Tipton. New Line Cinema/The Safran Company/Evergreen Media Group.
Rated 14A. 112 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★1/2
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People can argue to the contrary all they want: James Wan is a modern horror master. What’s more, he refuses to abandon the genre which made him such a big hit in Hollywood, leading him to the Fast & Furious franchise and the upcoming Aquaman DC film. Just now, the sequel to The Conjuring is in theatre making giant impressions on audiences, many (critics alike) claiming it’s one of the best horrors in a long time. So I hope that once he takes off even more with his DC adaptation that Wan won’t forget from where he came. Because from the revolutionary Saw (yes I called it that; the first one only which is of course the single one he directed) to the underrated Dead Silence and Death Sentence, to the first two Insidious films (love them to death), this is a director who proves, time and again, he understands horror. Not every film is perfect, nor should you expect that. But each one takes an excellent, gouging stab at the genre and more often than not gives us new and terrifying scenes that will go down as classics in the years to come.
The Conjuring didn’t actually impress me first time around. Funny how that works, considering now after watching it a couple more times recently I feel it’s destined to be a classic of the horror genre; it already is, just needs the time to pass for an official label. But some movies work like that. They don’t always get you right away. Sometimes you watch a movie on DVD or VOD, you’re sitting at home and the attention span isn’t perfect. Sometimes you don’t notice everything right off the bat. Either way, after seeing this a couple more times I’ve come to realise how perfectly old school this supernatural haunted house/paranormal story works. Better than that, we’ve got the backdrop of a true story concerning world famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, as well as one of their big cases from 1971 in Harrisville, Rhode Island where the Perron family came under siege by the terrifying spirit of a dead witch from the 1800s.
Wan does incredible work as director, along with solid performances from the likes of Lili Taylor, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Ron Livingston, all in order to make this into a truly scary movie. So many people complain about the horror genre being stale these days, saying there aren’t any good offerings coming out. Well, drink this one in. It’s up there with the best of the haunted house movies, and certainly one of the greatest in terms of demonic possession. You can’t ask for more than an eerie story, chillingly based on real events, and top notch acting in a horror flick.
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What I love about horror based on true stories, or supposedly true, is that I’m a real sceptic. I do indeed wish to believe, as Fox Mulder and his decorative poster both state in yearning. Absolutely. If there were some evidence of life beyond death, it might actually be comforting. Maybe it’d only be more difficult. Nevertheless, I do find myself hoping to come in contact with a ghost. On a couple occasions, I’ve questioned whether I actually did. Alas the scepticism goes on. The Conjuring does go for jump scares in quite a few scenes. What it does best is create this unsettling, dire atmosphere where the line between what is real and what is paranormal/supernatural becomes nearly eradicated.
A huge part of what makes this movie work is the dual look at and parallel between the difference between a family experiencing paranormal events v. a family standing as a physical dike against the mental anguish those other families faced. Though the Perrons find themselves completely torn apart by demonic influence, the Warrens are similarly troubled. They are essentially charged to withholding all the demons, the dead spirits, the poltergeists, whatever. They’ve got a ton of the possessed dolls and objects in their basement under lock and key, constantly threatening their own existence and their own family. So there’s a super interesting dynamic that happens between the two separate families, each tormented in their own right. This also allows for a lot of great acting between the two couples, both sets with their own issues and their different lives, so on. Other screenplays might have made this into a jumbled mess. Instead, Chad and Carey Hayes are able to use every last second of their 112 minutes appropriately, and expanding the characters, the plot with care without ignoring anything.
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Lili Taylor is actually one of my first celebrity crushes, if we’re being honest. Being a young man on the furthest Eastern Coast of Canada, I grew up watching Showcase on Channel 34. I can’t remember which movie I’d seen her in first, either Girls Town or I Shot Andy Warhol, but her beauty and her talent struck me. She’s an engaging actor. I find that even without that teenage crush, her acting speaks for itself. Here, even before any of the wild stuff starts happening with her character Carolyn there’s an excellently fun quality to her. That’s what makes the rest of the plot involving her struggle so difficult to endure. In fact, immediately from the first moment we hear and see her there’s an admirable element to Carolyn, endearing, as she and her husband have a brief little laugh while getting out of the car at their new home. Just how she laughs at him, so natural. Great talent to so quickly enjoyable in a performance. This only increases as the film wears on. Her work in the latter portions, as Carolyn succumbs to a demonic possession of intense proportions, Taylor makes the horror far too real for comfort. Likewise, as much as I only enjoy Ron Livingston mostly while watching Office Space, he does well with the character of Roger. He’s the everyman-type American dad, out in the country taking his family into their new home, then dealing with the excessively sinister fallout that nobody ever could have predicted, not in a million year. There’s a complexity to the character. Even if I don’t think he was amazing, Livingston makes the character honest, likeable. Above all, he’s real. Both him and Taylor make the family dynamic play well, in turn selling the whole situation, as it’s them at the eye of the storm. Whereas I say Livingston wasn’t anything extraordinary, without his solid performance as the father and husband of the Perron family the whole personal, human drama would not work, only in a one-sided sense with Taylor doing the heavy lifting.
Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are great. The latter has even more work to do, being the more susceptible to the influence of the demons and the supernatural entities. Most of all they do stellar work portraying the Warrens, their relationship particularly one being under different strains than a lot of regular people. They make the Warrens into very genuine human beings. They don’t have any air of the kookish qualities many associate with modern day ghost hunters. These two allow Ed and Lorraine Warren to feel like warm, understanding, caring individuals. They’re not self-serving or narcissistic in their aims of ghost hunting. Of course that’s partly because of the real people and their efforts, but Farmiga and Wilson put their hearts into these performances. It shows in the natural way the Warrens come across. Along with Livingston and Taylor, they’re able to make the personal drama of the horror become so powerful.
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Wan’s directing is beyond amazing. Many of his choices are perfect for the horror. On one hand, he knows when to employ the use of jump scares. He understands where they fit and how they ought to be used. On the other hand, Wan is also adept at building tension, making the atmosphere of his films drip with fear. Just as Insidious works nicely using the visuals and its score to create a thick, atmospheric creepiness, The Conjuring is a haunting mix of eerie-looking images and yet another set of fittingly horrifying pieces from Joseph Bishara (Insidious trilogy). All together, these elements work to unsettle the audience at every turn, never settling to be lukewarm scary, but always trying to find the heart of terror.
After letting this settle on me, The Conjuring is one of the best horrors in so many years. There’s never too much of anything, always the correct amount. Wan finds a balance between the jumps and the subtle creeps, as well as manages to find the appropriate performances in his cast to warrant the emotional ties necessary for the horror to hit home. There’s not a lot I can say against the power of this movie. Don’t always judge right on first viewing. Sometimes your opinion won’t change. Now and then, you’ll find you were wrong. And damn, was I ever sleeping on this one. Glad I’ve taken the time to watch it more because I’ve discovered I love it and its fun, classic scares.

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Saw: Raw Modern Indie Horror

Saw. 2004. Directed by James Wan. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell, from a story by Whannell & James Wan.
Starring Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Mike Butters, Paul Gutrecht, Michael Emerson, Benito Martinez, Monica Potter, and Shawnee Smith. Twisted Pictures. Rated R. 103 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★1/2
Saw_posterThere are plenty of people who say Saw is so-called “torture porn”. I can most certainly see how, as the series progresses, someone might find the movies a bit heavy on torture, fetishized torture almost. But here? There’s definitely a good heaping portion of horror, no doubt. What we get most of all here, as opposed to the other films afterward (a couple of which I do actually enjoy though), is mystery.
Granted there are certainly problems. I can’t say this is a perfect horror movie. However, I think that what Saw lacks slightly in logic at times, it more than makes up for with the atmosphere and tone James Wan creates in the film’s 103 minutes.
We also can’t ignore how Wan’s film, working off a grimly fun and intense script from Leigh Whannell, spawned an entire flock of copycat movies attempting to capture a glimmer of the success of Saw by focusing heavily on torture horror aspects to drive their stories. Not many, if any, were able to come close to what Wan and Whannell accomplished here, and it’s because – as I mentioned already – the horror is peppered in nicely amongst a primarily dark mystery story. There’s more than enough to satisfy many of the gory horror hounds out there, but Saw pays its dues as a great horror mystery that changed the game in 2004 by not being everything typical we expect from most horror movies. While it’s not perfect, I do think the first film in this series is worth its weight in BLOOD.

Saw begins as two men, Adam Faulkner-Stanheight (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), wake up trapped in a small, dark, dirty room together. Each man is held by a thick metal chain to a large pipe in opposite corners of the room. When they get the lights on, a fairly fresh dead body is laying in the middle of the room, gun in hand, brain blows out on the floor. Over the course of their time together in the room, Adam and Dr. Gordon begin to discover a serial killer named Jigsaw wants to… play some games with them. Gordon is a doctor who was recently brought in for questioning, Jigsaw having planted an item of his for the police to find; Adam is a photographer, his own past revealed throughout the film, whom Jigsaw captured. Each of the men have their own demons to face, as the mysterious man named Jigsaw is less a killer and more a judge who places the job of executioner in the individual’s hands: his traps put the victim’s life at their fingertips, begging the question of how far will a person go to live?
Would you walk through Hell to come back to the light?
saw1There are numerous creepy things about this movie, so I’ll start first with the tone. One thing I’ve always enjoyed, which I found set this apart from so many other horrors of the early 2000s, is the atmosphere of Wan’s film. To start, there’s an excellent colour palette to the entire movie. For instance, I love the scenes when we’re seeing the flashbacks to Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the junkie, when she finds herself locked into the bear trap puzzle by Jigsaw; everything has a green hue, this wonderful tint and it puts you in that grimy headspace exactly where Amanda found herself. Works perfectly at some many different points. Even just the interrogation room itself where Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is talking with Amanda, while Dr. Gordon (Elwes) watches on the other side of the glass, it has this blue filter that makes everything feel very stern, tense.
Then we have the majority of the film where Dr. Gordon and Adam find themselves stuck in that dirty room. That has a more clear look, however, the set itself (not sure if this was an actual location or a set; forgive my ignorance) has this palpably filthy feeling to it, so this plays the part of the filter, through a totally real aesthetic.
I find each of the different segments in Saw have their own aesthetic, even the flashbacks Dr. Gordon has to his family life; the house itself gives things a very dark, vibrant look. Wan could’ve easily gave each and every scene a similar look, instead they all find their own which adds something to the perspectives of the different characters and their respective situations. Even the camerawork itself is different, with Gordon’s scenes being much more steady while Adam had a more handheld, chaotic style feel. Something I love about this movie, which I think not enough people recognize. Much of what I find Wan did with this film did not carry over to many of the others, in the sense they went more for shock and awe while Wan builds up a macabre atmosphere and dark tone which gets under your skin with every passing scene.
Saw1_01Saw2MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD: for anyone who hasn’t actually seen the movie, you may want to not read this next bit.
The character of Zep Hindle, played by Michael Emerson (most know him as Ben Linus from Lost), works so perfectly as a red herring. Not that he’s a particularly innocent man, however, he has obviously been manipulated by Jigsaw. In that sense, he’s the killer’s own red herring, put in place with his own hand.
An intensely creepy scene happens as Zep takes Dr. Gordon’s wife Alison (Monica Potter) and daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega) hostage. The tension is thick while Zep puts a gun to Alison’s head, then puts a stethoscope against the daughter’s chest to listen to her heartbeat get faster and faster, thumping hard; I thought this was so disturbing in a way, there’s a sick pleasure Zep gets out of the act. Also, out of so many horror movies I’ve seen that’s a moment I can’t remember seeing too often – maybe it happened in Dr. Giggles or something equally horrible, but I think this little scary moment is a unique bit, albeit brief.
No more spoilers should come after this one.
LawrencePromisesAdamAnother awesome part about Saw is the fact this doesn’t rely on a ton of CGI effects in order to make the scares work. We get the scares, the strange creepiness of it all, then there are great practical special makeup effects that drive home all those feelings. My problem with so many modern horror films, even many which tried to capitalize off the success of Saw, is how the build-up to the scares, the blood, the gore, always gets spoiled by CGI; and the bad stuff, at that. With this film, Wan delivers on all the tension and suspenseful moments by giving the audience worthy practical effects on which they can gorge.
Added to the nice effects work, Charlie Clouser (who I know most from his work with my favourite musician Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails) gives everything an even creepier feeling with an at times brutal and other times unsettling score. His work is great and I’m surprised he doesn’t do more horror than he’s already done. Even on the lacklustre sequel The Collection he does some fascinating work with its music. Mostly, I love the unbelievably weird and scary intro music he did for American Horror Story. Here, there are times where the score just pounds relentlessly (think the scene where the detectives meet Jigsaw face-to-mask for the first time), others Clouser gives us that iconic Saw music with the little electronic riff which sort of floats around and haunts you after awhile, and there’s an overall great sound design too filling in the gaps between his individual pieces. Most certainly a huge aspect to the atmosphere in this film is his composing. Can’t get enough of the work he does here.
Saw (2004) Screenshot 3I think the performances are decent enough to hold all the tension, the suspense, and the horror together as a cohesive and effective unit: I’m always game for Cary Elwes, in anything, even when he’s not totally spot on there’s something interesting about his acting; moreover, surprisingly Leigh Whannell was good as you don’t often expect a screenwriter to also act well.
Above all, the atmosphere Wan is able to bring out, the bloody effects, and the mystery of the script carry this into the realm of a modern classic. There’s no doubt the rest of the Saw series strays into a ton of needless nastiness, regardless if I do like one or two of the half dozen sequels, but Wan uses atmosphere, ton, and the excellent screenplay Whannell wrote in order to make this a PURE horror film.
I can honestly say that, for me, this is a 4.5 out of 5 star film. There is enough solid creepiness that the screenplay feels well written, as well as the fact James Wan’s directing takes this to a higher level. As a team, Wan and Whannell have proved since this film, time and time again, they work wonderfully together and have the same horror movie sensibilities. Their projects usually try to challenge what’s happening in horror at that moment in time, Saw merely being their first big success (I’m a huge fan of the Insidious series), and I think that while many try to pass this off as “torture porn”, it is far more than that every step of the way.

INSIDIOUS Takes Us Back to Classic Haunting

Insidious. 2010. Directed by James Wan. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell. Starring Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, and Barbara Hershey. Rated 14A. 103 minutes. Drama/Horror/Mystery.

4 out of 5 stars
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There aren’t many horror movies that feel like the classics these days, except for a few. Even some of those few are mainly retro, in that they try to cultivate that type of throwback atmosphere purposefully.
The reason why Insidious is one of the true classic-feeling horrors as of late is because it’s genuinely scary – between atmosphere, tone, and a few creepy jump scares this is the real deal.
All the same, there are a couple small flaws, but none so flawed that they can ultimately take away from the greatness of Insidious.

The film tells us the story of Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson & Rose Byrne) who, along with their new baby, their two sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astory), move into a new house. It seems like a dream at first, as they begin to unpack and settle into this beautiful, picturesque type home. Shortly after the move, young Dalton is in the attic and falls off a ladder, hitting his head; though he doesn’t tell his parents about the last part. The next day, Josh goes up to wake his still sleeping son, except Dalton won’t wake up. He goes into a fugue, unconscious state, which the doctors refuse to call a coma, and can’t actually describe. Renai then begins to experience strange things – first there are unsettling noises, voices speaking in whispers over the baby monitor, then later she actually witnesses sinister apparitions in the night throughout the house. Josh doesn’t necessarily understand what his wife is going through, however, he gladly believes her; even so far as moving to a new house once the terror becomes too much for Renai.
Only after the second move, in a completely different house, Renai once again experiences the strange apparitions – a little boy appears in the house, changes a vinyl on the record player, and the runs away. She follows him, but then he disappears. Josh tries to help Renai, but doesn’t know how. In comes Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey), Josh’s mother, who describes a frightening dream she had about Dalton involving a creepy dark demon. She also suggests there is someone she knows who can help. Lorraine brings Elisa Rainier (Lin Shaye) over, along with her sidekicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) – these three claim to be able to determine if spiritual/supernatural/otherwise-inclined entities are in the house.
Needless to say, things get… different.
insidious3I’m going to start with the, very few, things I found flawed about Insidious.
Though some of the jump scares were actually awesome, I think James Wan relied too heavily on the concept to push the scary factor of this film. Insidious does not need that jumpy aspect to scare anyone. Sure, there are the tough guys who always say they’re desensitized – and that’s fine – but I’ve seen over 4,000 films, a good chunk of those being horror, and I still get creeped out. I don’t mean that I’m crying or that I can’t sleep later that night or I have to keep the lights on and my teeth are chattering and I can’t handle it – I just mean that certain imagery, ideas, dialogue, whatever it might be, still creeps me out. And the fact is Insidious has enough of that without needing to make me jump with quick cuts, people behind others suddenly.
I really liked the score, and at times it was perfect, but often it played into that jump scare tactic. The title card at the beginning and end of the movie is awesome with the sudden strings, I love that. I don’t think some of the loud and startling string/instrumental stuff throughout the score served it well. Again, the movie has atmosphere and tone enough to creep us out. If Wan kept a couple jumps, cut a good few out, the movie would be even better for me; a couple of those jump scares only worked on my fat heart, jumpstarting it, and not on my fears, my emotions.
patrick-wilson-insidiousWhat really bothered me about Insidious are the duo of Specs and Tucker. Funny enough, as most know, Leigh Whannell who plays Specs is the writer of the film, and usually I find he’s a pretty good writer at that. However, I feel like the comedic bits in Insidious – the banter between Specs and Tucker as the Odd Couple Ghost Hunters, back and forth vying to be the top investigator in their field, the techie versus the artist/writer – really did no justice to the otherwise dark, ominous atmosphere and tone Wan cultivated throughout the rest of the film. Sure, there were funny parts between Specs and Tucker; Whannell and Sampson work well together as a little team. I just don’t think the comedy, dry though it is, fits in with the rest of the movie. I mean, there are plenty horrors that are either horror-comedies or they have that dark comedy aspect which compliments the horror, and some of those work great. I’m not against horror and comedy mixing. My problem is that the rest of the movie is so dark and high on the creepscale, I just think it would’ve been best to keep the small bits between Specs and Tucker even smaller; they were already only sparse, but there could’ve easily been less. The characters work well in the context if they were simply just playing two dudes into the paranormal, helping Elise (Lin Shaye). I really loved how Specs would draw things for Elise, it added an extra creepy quality to their whole process. I feel Whannell did not do the script justice by including them in the way that he did, though, it didn’t detract enough to ruin anything.
insidious-gas-maskThe script, other than what I mentioned, is solid.
What makes the script even better are the actors playing it out, along with Wan’s excellent direction.
I think having Patrick Wilson play the part of Josh Lambert adds a lot of charisma and charm to the role, which needs it, because the character is a complex one at times. Especially nearing the end, and leading into the film’s sequel. But here, he does a great job of being that sort of skeptical father at first when his wife is claiming the strange happenings are going on, and then coming around to see the truth: a scene where Josh is in Dalton’s room after Elise has explained where the boy is, out in The Further, capable of astral projection, and he discovers drawings Dalton did which all but confirm Elise’s “diagnosis, Wilson does some incredible acting and it isn’t often you see that calibre performance when it comes to haunted house movies.
Rose Byrne is great as Renai Lambert. I felt truly bad for her right from the get-go, even worse once that one creepy ghost-like presence appeared in her bedroom, and the way she sort of unravelled at times was spot on. It was a great performance. Particularly I loved the last scene, as she goes towards Elise in the chair, and as Josh, unseen, approaches behind Renai, she turns, gasping. It put the nail in the coffin. Excellent actress.
Of course you can’t have Insidious without Lin Shaye. She is tremendous here as Elise Rainier. The facial expressions, her quaint charm and friendly manner, the emotion and energy she brings – all perfect. One of my favourite moments, still, is early when she goes into Dalton’s room and sees the demon up at the corner of the ceiling, and Specs draws out what Elise sees – the way she whispers to him, you can just hear what she says, and then coupled with the actual drawing, all made me shiver.
InsidiousI can’t not mention Barbara Hershey. She isn’t in this a great deal, only a handful of scenes, but she is solid as Josh’s mother, and I’ve always loved her acting. I bring her up specifically because I love her film The Entity, and I find that Whannell most certainly was influenced by it in his writing the script. Particularly it’s the technology and the presence of the team of “experts” which reminds me of The Entity. Not like it’s ripping anything off, but I definitely think casting Hershey had something to do with that film’s influence on Whannell and perhaps Wan as well. I’m glad, regardless, because I dig Hershey, everything from the aforementioned supernatural horror to The Stranger Beside Me to The Last Temptation of Christ and certainly Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha. I only hope her involvement has something to do with The Entity because it means Whannell, or Wan, whoever, is even more awesome than I already thought.
insidious-villainEasily this is a 4 out of 5 star film. Insidious could’ve been near perfect, if only James Wan hadn’t opted to use jump scares so often, along with a healthy dose of high and heavy strings, and the Specs-Tucker duo wasn’t so comedically prominent. There are great, scary moments here without those bells and whistles. The atmosphere is dark and deep, I really found it involving and tense. A good horror has tension and suspense in spades, and Insidious has got that, if anything. You can argue against that, but I won’t believe it. The tone is set with the great atmosphere Wan sets up, from the actual camerawork to the colours of the film. It all works together.
If you’ve yet to see it, do it now. The sequel is also great, and I love it just as much as this one, maybe even a little more.