Category Archives: Possession

Death Spa 1989

I understand that there is a never ending desire for a good idea in Hollywood. And that that good idea will hopefully sell tickets by the bucketful. This is why an article in the New Yorker can become a A-List feature or a dance trend can become the next Step Up or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even a silly face on a phone text can be turned into The Emoji Movie. This must have been going through some deranged producer’s mind when they figured that the keep-fit trend of the early eighties needed some kind of filmic representation. They came up with Perfect. It was not perfect. John Travolta starred as a Rolling Stone journalist investigating Jamie Lee Curtis’ perfect gym addicted body. The film producers whispered in their stars’ ears the word ¨Oscar¨ but the only awards they went on to get that year were a bunch of Raspberries. Travolta didn’t act for another four years.

So after that folly it really is flummoxing as to why, oh indeed why, someone thought that what people really wanted to see,  after not giving a monkey’s about a big budget health freak studio movie, was a horror movie set in a gym where the building itself was the killer. This wasn´t even still at a time when keep-fit was particularly popular. Even 1985‘s Perfect was considered jumping on a bandwagon that had long since left (Jane Fonda’s incredibly successful workout tapes came out in 1981).

I don’t know why this is even bothering me. The film is called Death Spa. It is already doomed to an eternity of ridiculousness.

The film (for it is indeed a film, with a beginning, middle and end) begins with a crane shot of the gym in question. As the camera tilts down on the gaudy neon sign that reads Perfect Body Health Spa a number of the letters explode making it now read “d    eath Spa”. Amazing. A couple of things immediately spring to mind. Firstly, if we’re talking exploding neon signs and cameras on cranes then the film obviously had more money to spend than it undoubtedly deserved. And secondly, this gag is as clever as the film is ever going to get.

In fact Death Spa is quite well shot. Okay that´s not true. It’s been photographed with some thought. Unfortunately all those thoughts are terrible ones. The eighties did like its bright and garish colours and this movie embraces the yellows, pinks and royal blues with aplomb, especially with the excessive use of colour gels to light every scene in the most eye-gouging way possible. When computer rooms aren´t being lit like Margaret Thatcher’s knickers we are subjected to extensive dance scenes. Men in leg warmers and tiny tight shorts prance and leap about like they are auditioning for The Kids of Fame. Everyone gurns at the camera as if they are in a pop promo for Duran Duran rather than a horror movie. The opening, er, I’m going to call it a set piece but that´s being generous,  has the bouffant haired Laura dancing around the gym. She kicks and spins seemingly for the camera crew (she’s looking directly at the camera throughout) although she’s meant to be alone there. Once this musical number reaches its climax Laura jumps into the steam room, which is an odd thing to do after a sweaty work out,  and is promptly burnt to near death by chlorine sprayed out of the ceiling.

You better get used to this because their is a lot of death by spray in Death Spa. Whether its the sauna, showers or just a rouge hot water pipe people will die horribly and repetitively from this deadly health club. Mostly women, usually naked.

After Laura’s near fatal assault, two cops show up to investigate what the hell is going on. A woman was nearly killed from the burns she received and the best these police can come up with is this:

Sargent Stone: Does this suggest anything to you, Lieutenant?
Lieutenant Fletcher: Yes. I’ll have to ask my wife to start smoking in bed.

Tumble-weeds from hell can’t even be bothered to blow past.

These police are particularly incompetent. When they first arrive the manager, understandably suspicious as neither of them dress like cops, asks to see their badges. The male cop tries to pull out hisbadge but it gets caught in his long detective style rain coat, that’s fine says the manager without it even seeing it, the other cop doesn’t even try to show hers.

Anyway the main problem is that these sleuths are the moat tragically inept police LA can offer. The case is thus: the health spa is fully automated and run by one of those fancy lights and bleeping computers that only existed in movies back in the eighties.  But then various staff and members are being mutilated and murdered by faults in the machine. But no, says David, the architect and wizz behind this mechanised body trainer, there is no way in hell the machine could ever make a mistake. It would have to be reprogrammed to do that and the only person who has the access and knowledge to do such a thing is David himself.  Ergo it must be David who is doing it. He’s basically admitted it in his opening scene. However the cops don’t buy it. He’s suspicious yes, and he is the brother of Michael the manager’s dead wife and blames him for her death and wants him to fail because of it. So he’s got motivation. Still not enough for the force, its too obvious.

But it IS him! He barely even tries to hide it. He even pops round to see the now blind Laura to torment her whilst Michael is out. Okay yes, he is possessed by his dead sister Catherine (who is also his twin, natch*) who is probably more into the killing than he is, but there’s no red herring here. David is the murderer.

Talking of blind Laura there is an amazing sex scene involving her and Michael. And when I say amazing I mean awful. Michael has just brought her back to his gaff after the hospital and her eyes are bandaged with the hugest pads you can imagine and she is clearly in some pain. So to cheer her up Michael decides to cook her some asparagus and slowly dangle it into her mouth in the same way Mickey Rourke got Kim Basinger all hot and bothered with those jalapeños and honey in 9 1/2 Weeks. Its even lit all sexy like. But LAURA IS BLIND. She’s almost certainly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and even if she isn’t,  she has dirty great big bandages covering her eyes. No Asparagus,  no matter how well cooked it is,  can be a turn on when youve just been blinded with chlorine by an insane killer steam room.

Add to that as she can’t see her other senses have probably been heightened so her urine is going to smell even more disgusting than normal after eating asparagus. Also Michael makes multiple comments about how good she looks and nice it is to see her. Rub it in that she´s blind why don´t you,  you mullet-headed monster.

Anyway, more gym related death ensues. One woman who walks around the place in her bra and knickers (I belong to the Easy Gym on Oxford Street and it may be called easy but I have never seen a woman walking around in her underwear there) finds her self in a dark corner of the spa and is garrotted by a pipe of some nature. A chap is split in two by a computerised chest expander and I´m not even sure what you need the computer for in that scenario. Then a member looks in a mirror and the mirror cracks then explodes blowing her up in the process. None of these deaths makes any sense but its all topped by what happens to Lieutenant Fletcher with the police badge problem.

Towards the end of the film the weird shit really hits the fan. After multiple deaths, instead of closing the gym down to find out what is going on or just close it down for good for health and safety reasons, Michael decides instead to hold a great big party. Obviously the doors lock themselves Carrie-style and the whole place goes up in flames taking as many people as it can with it. Meanwhile David and/or Catherine is wandering around like a ghost or a Psycho wannabe (its never made clear which) dealing out dumb death left, right and centre. Poor old Fletcher gets it the worse. The walk in freezer behind the bar bursts open and icy air sucks the unsuspecting copper in. You´d think this would be a good thing as everyone else is burning to death in the inferno outside. However no. Fletcher is attacked by frozen kippers which leap at him and tear his throat out.

I know the old saying goes that no one sets out to make a bad movie but really? At what point do you not realise that killing one of your main characters with a frozen fish is a terrible idea?

Fortunately, the cast are well up to this nonsense. The actor playing Michael it seems was cast because he used to actually BE a manager of a health spa, rather than, say, an actor. There´s a dreadful English man who brings shame to our entire nation with his performance, and evil Catherine was so bad that they had to redub her with someone else´s voice. Obviously the dubbing is shockingly out of sync.

The most famous cast member at the time was Merritt Butrick who played Captain Kirk´s son in Star Trek´s 2 and 3. When that´s the biggest star you can muster you can tell that you´re script sucks even without having to read the title. Even Butrick is pretty lousy in it but then he was close to death when the film was being made (the poor guy died of AIDS in March of 1989) so maybe he had his mind on things other than whether he was possessed by his evil dead twin sister or not.

The script doesn´t help anyone at all with some risible dialogue like:

¨I´ve known some real pricks but you´re the king. Take it as a compliment.¨ I´m not sure Daniel Day-Lewis could make that line work.

Or when Catherine floats into the computer room the staff member guarding it is turned on when she takes off her dressing gown to reveal a very unrevealing nightie. ¨Mmm…¨ he says. ¨Nice arms¨.

Catherine is not impressed by this compliment and sucks his face off.

Don´t be fooled into thinking this is some wild gorefest though, a lot of the killings are difficult to see and poorly executed anyway, often hidden by bad wigs. The final shot is of a bloody and mangled dime-store wigged Catherine lying on the floor of the gym swearing revenge before her one remaining eyeball,  that is clearly a ping pong ball, explodes all over the lino.

Look, to be honest apart from all the endlessly stupid deaths, fire and David/Catherine´s nice arms this actually looked like it was quite a good party. There was an endless supply of booze, lots of people, all in leotards and if you liked terrible bass-slapping eighties music then you were laughing. More importantly Dawn of the Dead´s Ken Foree was there and I bet he could tell a story or two.

That party looked ace. And I bet it was more fun to film than it was to watch Death Spa. Despite what fun it sounds like above, it took me five goes to get through it all. I suffered through Death Spa so you don’t have to. And I don’t feel any healthier for it.

*I’m always seeing this “natch” word and had no idea what it meant. I looked it up, natch is short for naturally. I will never use it again.

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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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