Movie Review: The Conjuring 2

conjuringpostersmall

In 2013 James Wan scared the hell out of millions of people and turned the horror genre on its head by delivering The Conjuring, a superb, terrifying film chronicling a purportedly real life case of haunting and possession investigated by the husband and wife team of Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Now we have The Conjuring 2, which picks up several months after the Warrens concluded their involvement in the Perron case (the basis for the original film).  As the new film opens, Ed and Lorraine (again portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who still share an electric chemistry which provides the film with its emotional core) are investigating the Amityville haunting, the case that catapulted them into the spotlight. During this sequence (which, unlike the original film, actually earns this sequel its R rating), Lorraine has an encounter with something evil, leaving her afraid for the safety of her husband.

While this is going on, we’re introduced to Peggy Hodgson and her four children, who live in a run down council house in Enfield, North London.  A series of terrifying paranormal occurrences (centered around daughter Janet) besieges the family, increasing in frequency and ferocity. These events are witnessed by multiple people and when even the police realize they are unable to provide any substantial help, Peggy turns to the church. News travels across the ocean to America, where the Catholic church again turns to the Warrens for assistance.

conj2frame2Despite Lorraine’s objections, Ed and Lorraine make the trip to London and investigate the events, which would go on to achieve global fame as the Enfield Poltergeist case – one of the most documented paranormal incidents in history.

The cast is superb, with Frances O’ Connor as Peggy Hodges and Madison Wolfe as young Janet being the two newcomers ably holding their own with Wilson and Farmiga. Simon McBurney is also on hand in an effective turn as psychical investigator Maurice Gross, who was one of the first to believe the Hodgsons claims.

Writers Cary and Chad Hayes (along with David Leslie Johnson) deliver a screenplay equal parts smart, scary and involving, taking time to develop these characters as human beings, establishing a connection between them and the audience before unleashing all manner of horrors on both families.

And there is indeed horror. James Wan returns behind the camera to deliver a knockout sequel, a film every bit as terrifying as its predecessor. If some of the scares in The Conjuring 2 seem familiar at times, the execution is anything but. Wan understands better than anyone working today how to use darkness, sound and our instinctive fear of the unknown to weave sequences that will have audiences jumping out of their skin or gripping their armrest with white knuckles.  Moreover, there are entirely original moments of legitimate genius throughout, evoking the best moments of Carpenter and Craven, such as a skin crawling, hair raising conversation Ed is forced to have with the ghastly specter harassing the family with his back turned.

However, that isn’t where the film succeeds. All of those attributes would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. On that score, The Conjuring 2 isn’t just a terrific sequel and a great horror film, it’s one of the best genre entries I have ever seen.

conj1frameAs was the case in the original, these characters are fleshed out. They have substance and flaws, fears and hopes and are not mere horror movie cliches.  The scorn and derision Ed and Lorraine were frequently subjected to at the hands of skeptics isn’t glossed over here (Ed loses his temper on live television at one point), neither is the fact that certain reports emerged from the Enfield case indicating young Janet Hodgson was in fact faking at least some of the phenomena.  These are real people and, as such, their fate matters. I’ve seen a lot of films that put everything into scaring the audience only to have the human quality suffer, but few as diligent about demonstrating the behind the scenes drama inherent in an experience like this as the Conjuring films. Some of the best moments in the sequel are the quieter ones, such as a truly moving and gentle scene where Ed entertains the Hodgson family by strumming a guitar and crooning a respectable rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” It’s a warm, generous moment, representative of this film’s soul.

conj2frame3Going into this movie, I was aware that many liberties had been taken with the case records and that, for the most part, this is a fictionalized Hollywood representation of the real story. That doesn’t matter. This could be made up whole cloth (and there are certainly a number of people who think that’s exactly what this story is) and it doesn’t make a difference. Whether its complete fiction or based on a true story as the titles claim, The Conjuring 2 is a surprisingly effective human drama wrapped inside of an absolutely frightening horror thriller.  The Hodgsons are sympathetic and the Warrens continue to be a likable couple you’ll end up cheering for.

Like the first film, this is one the few movies determined to convey the ideal that love, courage and faith are still the most powerful tools we possess for combating evil in any form. At a time when the news is filled with hideous stories capable of draining people of hope, that’s a message we need to hear. It just so happens it’s been delivered in the form of one of the best horror sequels I’ve ever seen.

***** out of ***** stars. This is the rare sequel that’s every bit as good as the original.

Movie Review: Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Halloween 6 poster
Halloween 6 poster

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers  (Theatrical version) – 1995

Directed by Joe Chappelle. Starring Donald Pleasence; Paul Rudd

When Halloween V failed to recapture the success of its predecessors (it’s the lowest grossing Halloween film to date), Michael Myers lay dormant for six years. Then the early 90’s saw attempts to resurrect slasher properties with Jason Goes to Hell and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.  Consequently, 1995 saw the series return with Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers.

The story picks up six years after the jailbreak which ended part V, with Jamie Lloyd  (JC Brand, replacing Danielle Harris to no great effect)  having been abducted and held prisoner in a sanitarium by the mysterious man in black who freed her uncle. It’s established that Michael is also being kept on hand by this man, who is the leader of a shadow group that worships Thorn, a force represented by the strange, triangular tattoo revealed to grace Michael’ s arm in the previous film.

There’s a poorly edited sequence which seems to imply that Jamie is impregnated by her uncle before she flees, with Michael in quick pursuit of her and her newborn baby.

Paul Rudd appears in this entry.
Paul Rudd appears in this entry.

The film switches back to Haddonfield, where a realtor has moved his family into the old Myers house (which he cannot sell, due to its history) while an adult Tommy Doyle – the boy Laurie Strode babysat in the original Halloween (played here with quirky charm by Paul Rudd)- watches from a boarding house next door, spending his time researching the cult of Thorn and deducing that Michael will soon return.  Oh, and some college kids are protesting that Halloween has been banned in Haddonfield and have invited an obnoxious radio talk host to come to town on the holiday to make their point.

Most of the film focuses on the family in the Myers house being stalked by Michael. The thread about Thorn is introduced and we’re told that Michael was chosen to sacrifice his family so the cult can benefit, but it’s never properly fleshed out.  An attempt to merge these plots at the climax is a convoluted mess.*

On the plus side, Curse is well shot and the special effects are excellent (the kills are brutal).  Donald Pleasence (in his final role) invests the film with as much class as he can, with an able assist from Paul Rudd. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the movie.

Beware the Shape!
Beware the Shape!

It’s worth a look for the effects, Donald Pleasence and a solid early performance by Paul Rudd. Otherwise, with a plot that is both ridiculously convoluted and underwhelming, Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers is easily the weakest film to feature The Shape.

** out of ***** Effective kills and both Pleasence and Rudd deliver.  Beyond that, it’s a mess.

*The Producers Cut of this film is longer, with alternate footage and a different ending.  There’s less gore and it’s a bit more coherent, but it’s still a very weak entry.

Check out the Halloween 6 trailer:

Movie Review: Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Halloween 5 poster
Halloween 5 poster

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers – 1989

Directed by Dominique Othinin-Gerard. Starring Donald Pleasence; Danielle Harris

With the success of Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, the fires of the franchise had again been stoked.  To capitalize on this renewed interest,  a year later horror fans were treated to Halloween V (subtitled The Revenge of Michael Myers in all of the promotional materials and later home video releases, but on screen referred to merely as Halloween 5).

 

The film opens a year after Return, with a now-mute Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) spending her days under care at a pediatric hospital. Also present at the hospital is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who has become aware that a strange psychic bond exists between Michael and his niece. Whenever Michael is on the hunt anywhere in the vicinity, Jamie can sense where he is. Loomis realizes that this could give everyone the edge they need to stop Michael and wants to exploit this connection, but Jamie is understandably reluctant.  Unfortunately, Michael -having survived the assault at the end of the previous film- has resumed his murderous rampage, once more targeting Jamie, leaving her little choice but to face him again.

Dr. Loomis tries to appeal to Myers.
Dr. Loomis tries to appeal to Myers.

 

This flick is wildly uneven. In the negative column,  Director Othinin-Gerard has no clue how to elicit performances from his supporting cast. The secondary characters here are all interchangeable cannon fodder, existing specifically to set up gruesome kill shots (it must be noted, though, that the makeup effects here are terrific. Halloween V features some of the bloodiest deaths of the franchise and they are well executed).  Also, the ending to this one is convoluted and bombastic, another cliffhanger involving a mystery man who breaks Michael out of a cell. This time it comes off as irritating, not intense.

 

Countering these faults are solid performances by Pleasence and Harris, the latter really taking it up a notch. Considering she doesn’t have any dialogue for roughly the first half of the film, Danielle Harris does an incredible job here.

 

This little girl has gone through Hell and back.
This little girl has gone through Hell and back.

The cinematography is pretty sharp, too. There’s a car chase through some fog-enshrouded woods, a scene in a barn and a cat and mouse chase through a dilapidated house that are all eerily shot and really capture the creepy vibe of the holiday.  It’s also worth mentioning that Michael himself is an impressive visual presence here. A stuntman/actor by the name of Donald Shanks assumes the role, and the man stands about 6’7. Michael is an imposing force throughout and he’s graced with a redesign of the classic mask that looks unusually sinister. There’s a real sense of physical danger in the scenes where he’s pursuing Jamie.

 

Factor all of these elements together and you have a sequel that only partially succeeds as a Halloween film, but is a surprisingly effective slasher flick.

 

It’s flawed, but you could do a lot worse than Halloween V.

***1/2 out of ***** Standard slasher fare with a bit more story and style.

Check out the Halloween 5 trailer:

Movie Review: Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Halloween 4 poster
Halloween 4 poster

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers

Directed by Dwight H. Little. Starring Donald Pleasence; Danielle Harris

By1988, sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Phantasm, Friday the 13th and Hellraiser were scoring at the box office.  Producer Moustapha Akkad realized that the time was ripe to resurrect the slasher who had started it all.

Thus October 1988 saw the arrival of Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, which picks up ten years after the events of Halloween II.

In the film, we’re introduced to young Jamie Lloyd, the recently adopted daughter of the Carruthers family and biological daughter of Michael Myers’ sister Laurie Strode (who, we learn, has apparently died in the interim, covering the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t interested in returning to the role).

Michael- who survived the fiery blast at the end of part II – learns about his niece, discovering that she lives in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois.  He violently escapes custody and attempts to find and kill the girl. As Michael returns home and subjects the town to another deadly rampage, little Jamie and her older step-sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell) find themselves struggling to stay one step ahead of the psychopath.

The entry that introduced Danielle Harris to the franchise!
The entry that introduced Danielle Harris to the franchise!

Once again pursing the unrelenting maniac is Dr. Sam Loomis ( the always entertaining Donald Pleasence), who also survived that terrible night in 1978, albeit worse for the wear. The characterization of Loomis in this sequel is one of the strongest aspects of the film. At times, the doctor seems almost as crazed as his most notorious patient as he ceaselessly pursues the killer. Pleasence really sells it, refusing to just phone it in.

 

Top marks as well to Danielle Harris, who delivers a remarkable performance as little Jamie. This kid ably holds her own with Pleasence and the rest of the cast. Playing off Harris directly for much of the running time,  Ellie Cornell is also terrific, with her character demonstrating incredible inner strength as the film progresses.

 

The mantle is passed?
The mantle is passed?

Dwight H. Little (who would go on to direct the excellent version of Phantom of the Opera starring Robert Englund the following year) directs the proceedings with a sure hand, while Alan B. McElroy’s tight screenplay gives us a film with a focus on suspense rather than gory shocks.  For a slasher sequel released in the late 80’s, Halloween IV is admirably restrained with the bloodletting. It also boasts better than average plotting.  Characters in this movie avoid the stupid mistakes abundant in most horror films, taking proper, logical precautions to protect themselves. Yet they still find themselves fighting for their lives.  That’s a lot more frightening than watching teen models stumble around in the woods making one idiotic decision after another.  Even the cliffhanger ending- by this time already an overused genre trope- is effectively staged.

Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers represents a welcome return to form, ranking as one of the best of the series.

****1/2 out of *****.

Check out the Halloween 4 trailer:

Movie Review: Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch Poster

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch Poster

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

Halloween III: Season of the Witch– 1982 -Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace

Starring Tom Atkins, Dan O’Herlihy

With Halloween firmly established as a bankable horror franchise after two successful outings, creator John Carpenter wanted to try something different for the third film in the series. To that end, he opted to abandon the story of Michael Myers- which had come to a fiery conclusion in the previous film- in favor of an anthology approach, with each year witnessing the release of a new movie telling an original horror story set on All Hallows Eve.  It was definitely an attempt to try something outside of the box. Unfortunately, “original” doesn’t necessarily translate as “good”.

This sorry sequel follows a doctor (the usually reliable Tom Atkins, who seems to be on autopilot here) as he investigates a plot by a famous toymaker (Dan O’Herlihy, being an awfully good sport)  to mass murder every child wearing one of a line of Halloween masks he produces. The idea here is to invoke some vaguely referenced Celtic tradition by spilling the blood of the children on Halloween night. The toymaker plans to convince the kids to gather in front of their television sets by saturating the airwaves with ads promising a “big giveaway” on October 31st.  When the kids tune in to watch, the image of an electronic Jack O’ Lantern will be broadcast, activating a laser embedded into a disc fastened to the back of each mask and frying the kids brains.

Halloween 3
Hey kid, don’t sit so close to the TV! Your head might melt!

There are some decent gore effects and cinematographer Dean Cundy returns for his third and final time in the series to give the film something of a boost by providing a spooky visual sheen. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to overcome a plot that is so nonsensical as to not even work on it’s own terms. This is a film where the villain inexplicably opts to pursue an elaborate plan that can be defused by either turning off a television set or taking off a mask while he already has a small army of robot assassins running around, dispatching people at his behest.  Additionally, there’s never any concrete reason given as to what exactly killing the kids is supposed to accomplish, other than some rambling dialogue about “a joke on the children.” It all feels slapdash.

Halloween 3 Tom Atkins
Tom Atkins calling his agent.

Even worse, the overall production looks really cheap. Considering the success of the first two films, I would have expected the studio to put more money into making Halloween III. If they did, it doesn’t show.

This film has developed a cult following over the years, but it isn’t really deserved. Not so bad it’s good but just plain bad, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a dreadful, poorly scripted misfire that doesn’t deserve to bear the franchise name. It also features the single most annoying television jingle ever composed.

 

* out of ***** stars for some effective make up effects. Fans can skip this one and it literally won’t make the slightest difference.

Movie Review: The Exorcist 2: The Heretic (1977)

Exorcist II The Heretic Poster

EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC

Exorcist II The Heretic PosterIn the early 1970s, director William Freidkin and author William Peter Blatty successfully combined forces to adapt to the screen Blatty’s tremendously successful novel of terror and possession, The Exorcist. The film became a worldwide phenomenon and has gone on to generally be regarded as the gold standard for horror by most genre fans. So naturally, plans for a sequel were immediately green-lit.

A few years later, in 1977, director John Boorman (who would go on to deliver the superb Excalibur) brought us Exorcist II: The Heretic. Filmed sans the involvement of either Blatty or Friedkin, this film teamed a returning Linda Blair with Richard Burton in a plot that had them…..

…..you know what? To this day, I have no idea what in the hell this movie was actually about. As far as I can tell, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs a psychiatric clinic for children where Regan McNeil (Blair) works, occasionally utilizing a hypnosis machine that functions like some sort of skating-rink-disco-ball nightmare to try to probe into whatever repressed memories Regan has of the time when she was possessed by Pazuzu. Burton portrays a priest who gets involved and somehow Africa and locusts factor in. I did not embellish that synopsis in any way.

Look, let’s cut through the crap. This is a terrible film. The pacing is lethargic, the acting stilted and the plot mundane. Only in a flashback sequence involving Father Merrin (Max Van Sydow, returning for a brief cameo) performing an earlier exorcism does even a hint of the atmosphere exuded by the original resurface.

In all other regards, this a muddled waste of time and effort, with a conclusion that stupidly brings Regan back to the house on M street and attempts to equal the suspense and horror of the original film’s climax by recreating it. This only serves to remind audiences of the original film, which in turn heightens the sense that what we’re watching is actually a second rate cash grab.

Horror fans who wish to see a truly frightening, inventive and thought provoking sequel should check out the sadly overlooked  Exorcist III: Legion which was written and directed by William Peter Blatty. It’s far and away superior to II and, based on the connective narrative tissue, is the legitimate sequel to the original.

The Bottom Line: Exorcist II:The Heretic is exactly that: Heresy towards the name of the motion picture many fans still regard as the greatest horror film ever to roll before a camera. You know you’re in trouble when James Earl Jones appearing as an African witch doctor who transforms into a tiger can’t lift a picture out of the mire.

0/5: My worst rating. Don’t even bother. Watch the original again and then skip straight to Legion. You’ll save the price of a rental and actually end up with a better sense of continuity.

Check out the Exorcist 2: The Heretic theatrical trailer:

Movie Review: HALLOWEEN 2 (1981)

Halloween II Poster Art

Halloween 2 art

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

Halloween II -1981- Directed by Rick Rosenthal

Starring Donald Pleasence; Jamie Lee Curtis

“You don’t know what death is!” — Dr. Samuel Loomis

By 1981, the runaway success of Halloween had lit a fire under the burgeoning slasher genre, with 1980’s sleeper hit Friday the 13th picking up the ball started by Carpenter ‘s film and rolling with it. Suddenly cinemas were saturated with masked maniacsoften with a theme tying to a holiday- stalking attractive teenagers and dispatching them in increasingly inventive and violent ways.

So it was that Halloween executive producer Moustapha Akkad joined forces with Universal Studios and Dino De Laurentiis to continue the saga of unstoppable killer Michael Myers in the 1981 sequel Halloween II.

Picking up immediately where the original film left off, part II continues the story as Michael relentlessly hunts Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the survivor of the previous film, who has since been moved to the local hospital. Meanwhile,  Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence, again delivering a fine performance) is still hunting the killer, albeit with a lot more help from the local police as the murders from the first film have been discovered.

Halloween II is something of a mixed bag. It definitely nails some terrific scarescinematographer Dean Cundy (who shot the original and would later go on to film dinosaurs for Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park) returned to film this one as well, so it looks and feels a lot like it’s predecessorbut John Carpenter returned only for writing duties with his long time partner Debra Hill, allowing Rick Rosenthal to take over at the helm.

Rosenthal actually does an admirable job considering whose footsteps he has to follow,  but the film relies heavily on the standard slasher cliches, with obvious set ups for creative kills replacing the layered suspense of the previous movie.  Also, Jamie Lee Curtis has zero character development. Forget the smart, strong woman from the original.  Here Laurie spends the majority of the running time in a drug induced haze.

Still, there’s an undeniable sense of danger and urgency as Michael relentlessly pursues his victims and, once again, his perpetual silence and ability to shrug off physical trauma are employed to maximum effect. The kills are fairly spectacular as well, with a scene involving an overheated sauna a particularly horrifying standout.  Plus, Halloween II earns points for having an actual ongoing storyline rather than being a mindless retread, which gives the events unfolding onscreen a little more weight than one normally sees in this type of film.

It’s not quite the equal of the previous film, but if you accept that it’s a bloodier, more traditional slasher flick instead of the suspense masterpiece the original was, Halloween II is hell of a lot of fun.

**** out of ***** stars. A worthy, if somewhat inferior, follow up to the classic.

Check out the Halloween 2 trailer:

Movie Review: HALLOWEEN (1978)

Halloween DVD Cover

[Editor’s Note: Halloween: The Ultimate Collection is now available and contains EVERY Halloween movie made! Check it out!-TMW]

 HALLOWEEN (1978)

Halloween DVD Cover

“I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”

     –Dr. Samuel Loomis

 

If horror fans are going to talk about the genre as it relates to Halloween, then there is no calendar year of greater importance to that discussion than 1978. That was the year a young filmmaker named John Carpenter released his third film, a terrifying essay of almost non-stop suspense titled Halloween.

 

For those of you who may have been off the planet for the past few decades,  John Carpenter’s Halloween tells the story of a psychopath named Michael Myers, who breaks free from a sanitarium on October 30th, 1978 and – pursued by Sam Loomis, his long time doctor (the late, great Donald Pleasence turning in a superb performance) –  cuts a path of death and destruction back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, the same locale where he murdered his older sister Judith as a little boy back in 1963.

 

Once he returns home, Michael dons an eerily expressionless white mask, picks up a large butcher knife and embarks upon a reign of terror that would alter the course of horror film history and elevate the slasher genre as a box office force to be reckoned with.

 

The genius of Halloween is that it’s all about fear.  The film is more interested in getting under the viewer’s skin than grossing them out. There’s violence, but no overt gore. The chills come from watching the silent killer play sadistic cat and mouse games with his victims, a trio of local babysitters (including a young Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first major role)  he targets from afar early on and proceeds to hunt for the remainder of the film.

 

Michael Myers is presented here as pure, unstoppable malevolence, the absence of reason in the face of pure evil. He is death incarnate and rightly earns a place as one of the legendary cinematic nightmares.

A huge hit, Halloween spawned multiple sequels, the first of which would bring the killer back to terrify audiences in 1981.

 

***** out of ***** stars. I still consider this the greatest American horror film ever made, with only The Exorcist seriously challenging it. If you’ve somehow never seen the original Halloween, treat yourself this October 31st.  But don’t watch it alone.

Check out the Halloween trailer: