IT

Genre: Horror

Director: Andres Muschietti

Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare — an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town’s children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.

Review: While this is not the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s much lauded novel IT (full disclosure: one of my favourite King novels), the original TV miniseries was frankly a poor showing, with nothing going for it except for Tim Curry’s unforgettable, iconic performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In its first proper big screen outing, Muschietti’s IT manages to deliver a reasonably engrossing and somewhat scary experience, though it runs a little too long and is a bit too repetitive to rank amongst the best Stephen King screen adaptations.

While Bill Skarsgard has big shoes (hur hur) to fill as Pennywise and he does a decent job, what truly makes the film watchable is the eminently endearing young cast. This is no Stand By Me, but there are echoes of Stranger Things (including a cast overlap), and the total exclusion of the flashback, two-timeline narrative that drove the novel (this adaptation of IT is being split into two parts, with ostensibly the second movie featuring the grown up “28 years later” portion) means the teens get all the screen time. This is a good thing, and IT’s ensemble cast is probably one of the best assembled in recent years, even more so than Stranger Things. While they all do well playing scared teens, the cast really shines in the moments where Muschietti allows the kids to be kids, bringing a much-needed human touch and heart to the film.

Unfortunately, Muschietti and his screenwriters also decided that each teen needed to have their own run-in with It, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in after the third or fourth encounter. The film would certainly have done even better if it had focused more on the friendships forged by the Losers Club rather than the increasingly impotent attempts of Pennywise (at least Freddy Krueger had the chance to kill off some of the main cast members). While there are very well set-up scare sequences in the film, there’s also a sense of déjà vu by the time the running time crosses the halfway mark. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the ensuing decades between the original novel and TV series, and It being such an indelible part of pop culture that everything new feels old.

One major departure from the novel and TV series is a change in period – rather than being set in the 50s and the 80s, this first half of IT takes place in the 80s. It’s a change that makes sense since a good majority of adult viewers would have also grown up in the 80s, but the script does lean a little too far into the period to elicit laughs (seems like someone in the production is a big fan of NKOTB). Given a slightly tighter edit – a good half hour could probably have been lopped off without hurting the film – this version of IT would easily have been one of the best Stephen King movie adaptations, but even in its current form, it is an enjoyable, good-looking movie that stands on its own, even if the sequel doesn’t come to fruition.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Lights Out

Genre: Horror

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten

Running Length: 81 minutes

Synopsis: When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind.  Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), has reemerged.

But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger…once the lights go out.

Review: David F. Sandberg’s 3-minute short film in 2013 was an exercise in horror simplicity – a creature that only manifests itself when the lights are out. It was a relatively fun and clever film, and it wasn’t surprising that Lights Out went viral, and more importantly, it got popular enough to get the attention of horror master James Wan. Sandberg’s first full-length feature is based on the same premise, and although it is a little rough around the edges, works very effectively as a commercial horror film, and should please fans of the genre.

The entire 80 minutes of Lights Out is essentially designed as setting up one jump scare after another, and there’s really nothing much else to say except that almost all the scares work as planned. Sure, the mythology behind the female entity is a little muddled and requires a very healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, and like all horror movies the protagonists behave in inexplicably silly (and hence life-threatening) ways, but the film delivers enough thrills for audiences to look past these flaws.

Palmer is effective as the lead, bringing a gravitas to the role while not being cheesy or over the top, like how some scream queens could be. Bello is a little underused as the anguished mother, but the small number of cast members and their general likeability goes a long way in making the audience root for all of them. The most memorable performance, however, belongs to Alexander DiPersia as the slightly clueless love interest of Palmer, and his one big escape sequence from the entity delivers all the goods – it’s scary, it’s thrilling, and it’s actually very funny. Lights Out is the quintessential effective low budget horror film, and I for one will be looking forward to seeing what Sandberg can do in his sophomore effort.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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The Conjuring 2

Genre: Horror

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Lauren Esposito, David Thewlis, Bonnie Aarons

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: Reprising their roles, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as Lorraine and Ed Warren, who, in one of their most terrifying paranormal investigations, travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Review: The Conjuring was a breath of fresh air back when it was released in 2013 – an old-school horror film that managed to deliver genuine scares and a very engrossing storyline. While The Conjuring 2 was a sequel born out of financial necessity (The Conjuring made close to $400 million on a $20 million budget), it is still a very, very well-made horror film, even if it doesn’t feel as fresh the second time round.

James Wan is a true master at horror films, and his wizardry is clearly on show in The Conjuring 2. Virtually every scene in the film boasts excellent camerawork, and even the most mundane sequences pulses with menace and dread. Coupled with a terrific (and at times terrifying) soundtrack, even the most jaded moviegoer will be guaranteed a couple of scares. This is despite the truly old-school subject matter in The Conjuring 2 – haunted house, poltergeist activity, an old man apparition, demonic possession – nothing even a casual horror movie fan would be unfamiliar with. I can confidently say that Wan is currently at the top of the horror game with his multiple movie franchises, with no competitor coming even close.

Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back in The Conjuring 2, and a good part of why the film works is due to the strong performances by both actors. Not only are they able to keep the audience vested in their investigations, the couple dynamics are also quite convincing and really help to sell the Warrens’ cause as benevolent paranormal investigators.

While the film does run a little too long, with too much wheel spinning (almost an hour) before truly delving into the actual plot, the film does remain rather engrossing, resembling almost like a whodunit more than a horror film. This could dismay horror film purists, but for general audiences this may actually be seen as a plus point, since there’s more meat on the bones versus the “typical” horror film. While there seems to be a potential for a third film in the franchise, I doubt there is enough material left in the haunted house/demonology barrel for even Wan to not scrape the bottom.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Forest

Genre: Horror

Director: Jason Zada

Screenplay: Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca, Ben Ketai

Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: The story is set in the Aokigahara Forest, a real-life place in Japan where people go to end their lives. Against this backdrop, a young American woman comes in search of her twin sister, who has mysteriously disappeared. Despite everyone’s warnings not to “stray from the path”, Saraa (Natalie Dormer) dares to enter the forest to discover the truth about her sister’s fate.

Review: For horror aficionados, The Forest does not bring anything new to the table – it is a run of the mill horror film that, whilst showing some promise and serving up some decent “boo” moments in the first hour, completely unravels in its final reel. While no one expects new ground to be broken in a genre as well-covered as the haunted house (in this case a haunted forest, which isn’t exactly new either), at the very least the film should deliver a coherent plot and a proper denouement. Both are unfortunately missing in The Forest (pun not intended).

While it really may not be the best idea in the world to follow your missing twin sister into a “suicide forest” in Japan (which is a  genuine location, by the way), it’s a somewhat interesting premise to base a horror movie on. Unfortunately, the plot of The Forest is severely muddled, and the film concludes with multiple plot threads still hanging in mid-air, which diminishes the horror element simply because audiences are left puzzling over these plot points than focusing on the horror. For example, it is never clear if there is indeed a presence in the forest that is actively seeking out new victims, or if it is simply an outward manifestation of one’s internal demons.

Natalie Dormer tries her best to put forth a convincing performance, but we’ve definitely seen better work from her elsewhere. Since almost the entire film is focused on Sara, it is almost irrelevant that she is playing two characters in the film (conveniently – and some would say lazily – demarcated by different hair colours). While she does a great job looking scared, there’s very little depth of character to be seen.  Taylor Kinney is ostensibly the romantic interest in the film but comes across as a dimensionless character existing solely to advance the plot at key points in the film.

There’s a sense that too much of The Forest has been left on the cutting room floor – there are moments in which an almost good horror film seems to be peeking out from behind the obfuscated plotting, but the speed at which the film hurtles towards its confusing, unsatisfying conclusion seems to suggest that given a different edit, The Forest would have had more of a fighting chance to leave a positive impression.

Rating: * ½  (out of four stars)

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Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Genre: Horror, Comedy

Director: Christopher B. Landon

Screenplay: Carrie Evans, Emi Mochizuki, Christopher B. Landon

Cast: Tye Sheridan, David Koechner, Cloris Leachman, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Running Length: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Three scouts and lifelong friends join forces with one badass cocktail waitress to become the world’s most unlikely team of heroes. When their peaceful town is ravaged by a zombie invasion, they’ll fight for the badge of a lifetime and put their scouting skills to the test to save mankind from the undead.

Review: It’s exceedingly clear that anyone shelling out money to watch Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse will have known in advance what they are getting themselves into – as long as one has watched any trailer of the film, they would know that this is more Scary Movie than a scary movie, and that age and enjoyment of the movie has an inverse relationship. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is unyieldingly sexist and puerile, proudly wearing its T&A badge on its sleeve, yet it still comes up somewhat short even when viewed forgivingly through the eyes of a teenaged boy who managed to sneak into the M18-rated movie.

The problem is mainly that the film doesn’t go far enough, especially since it is supposed to target a slightly older demographic. Other than a few moments of bawdy humour (yes, the strip club is really called “Lawrence of Alabia”, and you’ll be in for treat if you’ve ever wondered about zombie cunnilingus or zombie penises), there is barely anything else that seems to justify its M18 rating. In fact, Tye Sheridan and gang are such sweet leads that they seem more suited to be in a teen romance flick than a zombie film.

While there are certainly great moments of gore, a small number of laugh-out-loud sequences and an excellent opening sequence, a lot of Scouts Guide is painfully predictable, and the film heads steadily downhill as it progresses. Fortunately, it’s a fast-paced and relatively short film, and the end credits starts to roll just as it begins to get tiresome. And despite its title (and its leads staying in uniform the entire time), the Scouting aspect plays a minimal role, which feels somewhat like a missed opportunity.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Horns

Genre: Horror, Romance, Comedy

Director: Alexander Aja

Writer: Keith Bunin, based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Horns is a supernatural thriller driven by fantasy, mystery and romance. The film follows Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the number one suspect for the violent rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). Hungover from a night of hard drinking, Ig awakens one morning to find horns starting to grow from his own head and soon realizes their power drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses – an effective tool in his quest to discover the true circumstances of his late girlfriend’s tragedy and for exacting revenge on her killer.

Review: It was probably a mistake from the get-go to adapt Horns into a film – I have not had the opportunity to read the novel by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), but if all the elements in the movie were found in the source novel, it should definitely be classified under the “unfilmable” category. Horns simply fails to work as a movie – it is overstuffed with clashing elements and can’t decide whether it wants to be a dark comedy, a horror, a whodunit or a romance, and tries to be everything all at once. The end result is unsurprisingly a muddled mess that even Harry Potter can’t save, and a film that swings so wildly in tone and pace that it feels like it was helmed by an amateur.

And to be honest, Daniel Radcliffe is actually part of the problem. One can definitely understand the need to divorce himself from an iconic role like Harry Potter, but whilst Radcliffe has appeared in a good number of indie films in the process, his performance in Horns is too much. Radcliffe has to realize that his dial need not be set at 11 the entire film, and just because it’s a forceful performance doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Radcliffe’s portrayal of Ig is so forced that all subtlety is lost, and although he does prove that he can work with a broad range of emotions, and there are moments of brilliance amidst all the overacting.

Although it seems that Horns has aspirations to be a genre bender, it does not do so very successfully. The coming of age flashbacks are pretty decent, but the romance, the mystery and the horror are all subpar. We’re never fully convinced of the supposedly deep love between Ig and Merrin, and the mystery has a laughably obvious reveal, done in by screenwriter Keith Bunin’s script which telegraphs every twist way in advance. The horror just comes across at best as being darkly comic (not exactly a bad thing, but the film doesn’t go far enough with this aspect either), and at worst it’s farcical and underscored by awful CG effects (some of the worst I’ve seen in a long while).

The final reel of Horns is really what takes the cake – it feels as though the writers were making up the ending as they went along, and the result is a lazy, inexplicable, genuinely ridiculous denouement that threatens to unravel the entire movie. The film ends with a whimper instead of a bang, and that it took a good two hours to get to the unsatisfying finale is just rubbing salt in the wound. Although there were a number of enjoyable moments in the film, Horns is simply too inconsistent to earn  a solid recommendation.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Deliver us from Evil

Genre: Horror

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman, based on the book Beware the Night by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool

Cast: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Joel McHale

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramrez), schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Review: The problem with movies about exorcism is that audience expectations are pretty much fixed, and there’s very little leeway for innovation or for a movie in the genre to feel fresh. However, one does not need to reinvent the wheel in order to deliver the goods, as exemplified by the excellent, old-school The Conjuring in 2013. While Deliver Us from Evil is a couple of rungs below The Conjuring, it does manage to deliver most of the goods. However, possibly in its efforts to not seem overly run of the mill, Deliver Us from Evil also incorporates a familial drama and a buddy cop setup, both of which do not fare as well as the horror and police procedural elements.

Eric Bana is a dependable actor and even though the material here isn’t the most challenging, his performance as Sarchie is perfectly acceptable. Edgar Ramirez is rather wasted in his role as the unconventional priest, which provides too little characterization to make him a believable character, and he ends up being essentially a generic caricature of a “maverick exorcist movie priest”. Joel McHale is an odd choice as Sarchie’s buddy cop, and once again because his character is so thinly written, the wiseass police officer ends up feeling like Joel McHale being himself, in between episodes of The Soup and Community. It could have been an inspired casting choice but the pairing just doesn’t work very well. The same can be said of Olivia Munn, who is given the thankless, dimensionless role of being the troubled sergeant’s wife.

I would have expected better from Scott Derrickson, who directed the far more disturbing Sinister and also The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but the scares for the first part of the film falls squarely into the “unexpected loud noises” and “animals jumping out from hidden places” categories. The second half fares better, but the exorcism sequence is about as run of the mill as it gets, almost as though Derrickson had a list in hand and checked off every clichéd sequence of every exorcism movie in cinematic history. I also have some issues with the cinematography, which is consistently dark and murky – understandable since Sarchie is a cop on the midnight beat, but surely some scenes could have had some additional sources of light apart from torch lights.

For a movie that’s purportedly based on a true story, much of Deliver Us from Evil feels too fantastical (yes, even for a movie about exorcism) to be grounded in reality. It also leaves several subplots unresolved and unexplained at the end, which can be frustrating since there’s obviously not going to be a sequel. However, it’s a decent horror film with reasonable production values, and the police procedural aspect is actually quite watchable, which is more than can be said of many horror films in recent years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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