Category Archives: Possession

The Conjuring 2 2016

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I first read the screenplay for The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist (as it was known then) when the company I was at was bidding to work on the effects. At the time I was struck by two things. One, that if we got it and I was to go on set to supervise then instead of some glamorous location I would be in grotty old Enfield, a miserable part of North London and home to my ex mother-in-law. It’s unlikely she would have invited me round for tea, which was at least something. And two, whilst the script was well written and solid it didn’t grab me as anything new or even that exciting.

It is well known that the screenplay is the foundation of any movie. If it isn’t a solid construction, the only thing the rest of the film can do is crash down around it. However, the screenplay isn’t the be all and end all of a production and The Conjuring 2 is a prime example of that. Okay, so it remains, as it did on page, a robustly constructed story with good dialogue (considering some of the exposition needed for such a film) and interesting lead characters. It also isn’t anything new, dealing with haunting in suburban homes and young girls getting possessed by demons, both of which have been done a hundred times before. However, what director James Wan and his team has brought to the screen supersedes what was written down in black and white. He has taken that basic foundation and built a castle on the top.

The Enfield Poltergeist is allegedly a true incident. A recently divorced mother and her four children are relentlessly tormented by a malevolent spirit, particularly the younger daughter, Janet, who may or may not be possessed by it. It takes psychic dynamic duo Ed and Lorraine Warren to fly in and solve the case and banish the demon back to hell, which isn’t much different from Enfield so I’m not sure why it bothered. When I say true I mean maybe bollocks. The Warrens actually didn’t get involved much, just turning up for a day unannounced before scuttling back to America. And even the film acknowledges that some of the photos of young Janet flying through the the air could just be her jumping.

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But The Conjuring 2 isn’t trying to be a historical document, it merely uses the “truth” to add an extra layer of fear to the proceedings. What this film is is a great ghost trainbat the fairground: you know where you’re going but it’s going to frighten the life it of you on the way.

The superstar of The Conjuring series is director James Wan. He said after the first film that he was through with horror but clearly the stress and strain of directing Fast and Furious 7 sent him back to the comfort of the genre he knows best. I was worried that his statement about being through with horror would mean he’d be phoning it in here for the cash, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Wan has long, incredibly clever tracking shots setting up the haunted house and it’s geography whilst at the same time developing the family in their environment. He uses the darkness and obscuring parts of walls and furniture to full effect, making you think there is something awful just out of sight (by the way – there usually is). He and his excellent crew also place a huge amount of attention to detail to recreate poverty stricken working class London in the nineteen seventies. This isn’t just as a faithful recreation of the events but also a way to increase the feeling of dread – the house is a ramshackle wreck of a property before anything supernatural happens. It’s like it is made to welcome ghosts.

It’s not all perfect though. They may have got posters of Purdey from The New Avengers on the wall just right but it’s really unlikely they would have had a colour television in a house like that, and no way in hell would they have had a remote control. Also is the house is a little TOO grim. With its flooded cellar and peeling mouldy walls it’s almost unbelievable that anyone could live there, but then maybe that’s the point.

There are other things that stand out like SImon McBurney playing local paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse. He looks like a comedy character from an old Dick Emery show. It’s hugely distracting. Look:

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However if you look at the real Grosse you realise that it’s a completely accurate portrayal afterall:

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One of my maths teachers at school sported the same look now I come to think of it. Oh and the London accents are all over the place, often sounding like characters from On The Buses in an attempt to capture that particular sound which has faded a bit nowadays. Weirdly the young American actor playing Janet, Madison Wolfe, pulls off the most convincing North London accent, and she’s only thirteen.

These are minor complaints. I really do hope they try something a bit different for the next movie, story wise, but this is such a well made horror film with such dedication from all involved that it is hard to criticise. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are back as the Warrens and both give it their all. Farmiga has the most to do with her wild visions and creepy trances, doing them without looking a bit daft is really quite a feat but she makes it look easy. However it’s the chemistry between the two of actors that makes them so compelling. I mean if you think about it, the Warrens are a middle aged couple who are basically weird social misfits with terrible clothes taste but Farmiga and Wilson commit themselves so much to their roles that it ends up feeling that they are the only thing protecting us from hell taking over the world. They may be oddballs but they know things we can’t ever know and should never want to.

That commitment runs throughout the rest of the cast and crew. There are hundreds of ropey ghost films about but none of them seem to put their all into making as good a piece of entertainment as The Conjuring movies. That goes for Warner Brothers too who are prepared to stump up a decent (but not over the top) amount of money to make a small intimate ghost story about a family and its protectors. No one is saying that The Conjuring films are completely original but they do show what can be done with a talented team given the resources to make as good a horror movie as they can do within the confines of the genre.

 

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Annabelle 2014

ANNABELLE

It is clear that all the best horror movies nowadays are being made by independents. The studios seem happy to churn out either overblown found footage films like The Pyramid and countless Paranormal Activities or haunted/possession numbers like Ouija or another Insidious. The independents meanwhile are knocking our socks with Starry Eyes, Honeymoon, Late Phases, It Follows etc. That’s not to say that the studios aren’t still capable of making great horror movies, its just that they seem to have fallen into the trap of playing it safe – giving us the same thing again and again. Keep them in low on budget and original ideas and market it well and a profit will surely ensue.

Annabelle is the perfect example of this trend. The haunting and possession thing has really reached a point where there seems very little left to say about it. The Conjuring was the best example of taking all the familiar ghost tropes and making something great out of them, but this spin-off about the creepy doll from the beginning of that film just rehashes those same old tropes without adding anything new. Annabelle suffers from a big lack of original ideas from its underdeveloped characters to its long black haired ghosts.

Saying all that I really liked it.

The Conjuring, I think we can all agree, is a modern classic, and the idea of having a spin off about the story from the opening few minutes is something I welcomed with open, rotting arms. However unlike The Conjuring which was kinda-sorta-probably-not based on a true story, here they’ve just made up some old guff. The opening set up is terrific though: a young married couple, Mia and John, are living next door to an older couple who’s daughter has “run away with some hippies”. As its the end of the sixties we see on the television news about the Manson family and the Tate killing. This sets up what happens next: in the middle of the night the next door neighbour’s daughter returns with some crazy cult friend and attack her parents. Mayhem ensues and Mia’s favourite new doll ends up with the blood of the daughter on it. Its a tight, violent and scary opening that wracks up the tension. Its just a shame that after that we go through the motions of things moving around and switching on and off for a while. Also there are some ghost children running through the house. Please can we have no more ghost children, they have been pretty boring and definitely not very scary for a long time. The last time I was scared by a ghost child was when I read Lost Hearts by M. R. James, when I was a child.

The unhappy couple, and now baby, get the hell out of their house, and not a moment too soon. The place look uncannily like the first house in Insidious for my liking, with the same layout and big, brown front door. Oh, that couple left their family home after the wife insisted in the face of scepticism from the husband too. Can you see how there are a lack of new ideas here? It follow the same story beats as all the other supernatural stories kicking around at the moment.

Things do pick up in the next location, a modern apartment block. Only slight trouble here is that now, with this waif, blonde wife being told she’s mad kicking around an empty apartment block rings of Rosemary’s Baby. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, and its definitely on purpose – Mia and John are named after Rosemary’s stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. It also learns from Polanski how to shoot an set for maximum effect.

What I like about Annabelle is that despite being incredibly derivative as far as the plot is concerned, it is really, really well directed, and looks fantastic. Director John R. Leonettti and his team take full advantage of the relatively small location with lots of long steady cam shots swinging around Mia as the mostly alone mother defending her baby against unseen forces. There is an absolutely beautiful and scary scene set in the basement when Mia is threatened by some demonic force, she make a dash for the lift, away from this hell, and instead of doing the old cliche of the thing grabbing the lift doors just as they close, the lift does close and move off, but then it opens and she’s still in the basement. This scene repeats itself several times but instead of getting repetitive, it gets more and more tense because of how they have set up the camera. We are viewing things from just behind Mia, so we can see into the basement but we are slightly off to the left so we can’t quite see ENOUGH. Admittedly this is an old Polanski trick again but it works really well.

The basement scene is not just a brilliant composition but is also really well lit, giving just enough of the horrors in the darkness without revealing too much. The other great moment involving shadows and light involves something with the Annabelle doll that I won’t spoil here but is a fantastic moment of horror imagery, and quite frankly Annabelle the movie is worth watching for this moment (and the basement scene) alone.

Annabelle Wallis as Mia is also terrific even though her role is fairly underwritten, being no more than a potentially-mad new mother, but being front and centre of the action means she has to keep a level of intensity that defies the role. Its a shame her character hasn’t been given a little more depth, the Rosemary’s Baby references are here quite apparent being a thin blonde trapped in her city apartment much like Mia Farrow, but a bit more originality wouldn’t have gone amiss.

And that sums up Annabelle as a whole. The film was rushed into production after The Conjuring surprise box office haul and whilst everyone involved has risen to the challenge to produce a handsome and occasionally brilliant looking film, the core of the movie, the actual script feels rushed and underdeveloped. The central couple aren’t given anything new to do, Alfre Woodard pops up as the all knowing spiritual woman almost as an afterthought and even Annabelle herself doesn’t do a hell of a lot.

After I finished the film, which I did enjoy a lot despite its problems, I figured I’d watch the opening of The Conjuring, just for completions sake. Its telling that those first five minutes where we first met Annabelle had more ideas and scares than the whole of the film of Annabelle. Its also a little bit sad.

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