Insidious: Chapter 3

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I’ve gone on the record as saying that Insidious is probably one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade. Sure, it doesn’t really have that much to compete with, but still. Sadly, Insidious 2 shat all over the success of the original in a misguided attempt to wring a few more dollars out of the property. So, here’s Insidious: Chapter 3 to complete the process and turn the franchise into another Final Destination or Friday the 13th or whatever.

Horror icon James Wan steps away from the director’s chair for this entry in the series to be replaced by his long-time writing partner Leigh Whannell. Wan and Whannell have been collaborating for years, and their combined efforts have yielded some modern-day horror paragons like the Saw and Insidious series. However, as I said way back in my Insidious 2 review, the story was well and truly over even after the first film and just continuing to tack on more installments was just blatantly unnecessary.

The first Insidious is a bit of an odd duck for me, because while it really doesn’t do anything new or advance the genre to any great degree, it executes its tight, self contained story so well and with such undeniable style that I didn’t really care. There was such a constant atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness, temped with a beautifully slow-boil kind of tension that built to an emotionally harrowing climax.

While Insidious 2 let itself down on pretty much every one of those points, Insidious 3 at least maintains that methodically building tension, but really missteps when it comes to paying it off. The highlight of the experience for me came around the midpoint when our protagonist, Quinn, lies in her bed with two broken legs, immobile and incapable of defending herself. The monster of the hour appears in a nerve-wracking sequence, and essentially begins toying with Quinn, throwing her out of bed and slowly, methodically moving around the room, closing the curtains, shutting her laptop, and really eliciting the kind of psychological torment that we don’t see enough of these days. I was kind of stunned; the Insidious 3 cash-grab was the last place I expected to find such a beautifully crafted and genuinely frightening sequence. That’s horror, my friends: being absolutely alone and defenseless against something that hates you and is determined to gradually wear away your resolve until you’re little more than a quietly weeping mess. It is not, however, a super-powered granny using a Dragon Ball Z super stomp attack during the film’s climax.

Yes, things really fall apart at the end as the film kicks any notion of a tense and emotionally satisfying climax in the head. You were doing so well, Insidious 3! It turns out that all that tense, atmospheric intrigue that had been building up is pretty much thrown out the window in the final act, in favor of Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainer running around a slightly dark maze and performing the super-stomp on the bad guy at the end. That ain’t my Insidious, I can tell you that.

The recurring “comedy” characters in the series, Tucker and Specks, played by Angus Sampson and Whannell, respectively, also make an appearance, but I find their necessary inclusion kind of misguided. Whenever these jokers show up, the tension automatically dissolves because it’s hard to maintain the proper tone with Laurel and Hardy bumbling around. As far as the plot is concerned, their presence is hardly necessary and it seems like they were just included because that’s what the first Insidious did.

Look, either be a horror film, or be a comedy. When you try to be both at the same time, you end up with a movie that so schizophrenic in tone that it ought to be in a straight jacket. I can appreciate the desire to include some moments of levity to juxtapose with the horror so that the really dark moments are more emotionally impactful, but horror and comedy are such opposites that a major tonal shift half way through the movie is going to undermine everything you’ve been working for up until that point.

Insidious: Chapter 3 is marred right off the bat by being an unnecessary sequel, but if you can manage to look past that, it’s competently paced and builds up to a frightening moment or two around the midpoint. After that though, it’s all down hill. The atmosphere and tension whither away into nothing when Jake and Elwood show up, leaving the film to potter around for another hour before winding up with the incredibly disappointing granny super moves. If you look closely, you can see glimpses of the original winning formula, but the original vision has been exploited for coin twice now, so it’s not entirely surprising that the idea well is running dry.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

 

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Annabelle

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It’s finally October, the spookiest month of the year, and I am so freaking excited. The leaves are changing, Movie Bob is doing his annual “Schlocktober” series over at The Escapist, and this year’s horror movies are about to hit cinemas everywhere in an unassailable tide. This week’s Annabelle is kicking things off, though unfortunately not with a bang but with a whimper.

The film comes to us from cinematographer cum director John R. Leonetti and is indented to be a prequel to James Wan’s 2013 horror hit The Conjuring. Leonetti, having been Wan’s associate and cinematographer on nearly all of his films to date, takes a crack at a directorial role while Wan himself fills the position of executive producer. Wan, perhaps the hottest name in the horror genre right now, has certainly shared many of his techniques and approaches with Leonetti, and as such, Wan’s signature style and tone are omnipresent. As anyone who has followed Wan’s career with any attention can tell you, his approach is nothing is not formulaic, but, on the other hand, I suppose there isn’t much sense in fixing what isn’t broken.

Annabelle Wallis stars opposite Ward Horton as Mia and John Gordon, respectively; and, to be fair, to do a fairly decent job with the rag of a script that they had to work with. In keeping with the status quo of The Conjuring, Annabelle portrays the struggles of white, middle-class suburbanites, caught up in some freaky paranormal nonsense, as they are eventually aided by an a good samaritan who eventually helps banish the offending entity. It’s like a damn mad lib with these guys, honestly. You could basically run a search-and-replace program and substitute the names of the characters from Insidious or The Conjuring and get essentially the same, yet inferior, film. But why is that, exactly? Well, let me break it down.

The traditional problem with these generic, cash-in horror flicks (and a cash-it, this certainly is) is that the film startles, but doesn’t ever horrify, which, as one might assume, is kind of a crucial aspect to the whole ‘horror movie’ thing. There are jump scares abound, but that’s kind of all there is. I can point to maybe a single scene in which the audience is made to feel any kind of dread or anxiety, and even that tiny sequence takes way too long to build to, considering how small a payoff it actually is. Annabelle really strikes me as a kind of “baby’s first horror movie” and ultimately leaves the audience unsatisfied and angry at being metaphorically blue-balled for an hour and a half.

I find myself being pretty disappointed in Annabelle (although I can’t imagine why I let my expectations get so high in the first place) because I think there’s some really fertile ground to be tilled with the whole “Warren Files” mythos that The Conjuring had established. Indeed, I hope they keep delving into that cornucopia of possibilities, but, my God, they’ve got to quit phoning it in like this.

So, Annabelle turned out to be a bit of a dud, despite the fact that it made its money back about ten times over already, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the search for the year’s next great horror movie. We’ve still got The Green Inferno coming up in a bit, as well as Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead; but then again, we also had Devil’s Due earlier, so what do I know?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Devil’s Due Review

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Let’s not beat around the bush- 2013 was a pretty terrible year for the horror genre, with James Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, along with the possible exception of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem, accounting for the bulk of the noteworthy releases. Understandably, we move into 2014 with our fingers crossed and our popcorn in hand for the first horror release of the year. Unfortunately for us all, Devil’s Due happens to be another entry into two of the most bloated and overdone horror sub-genres around: found footage, and the coming of the antichrist.

The film comes to us from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, both of whom collaborated on the 2012 horror anthology V/H/S. Allegedly, the duo had declined to take on other projects in favor of focusing on Devil’s Due, as they were intrigued with the more character-based plot. Though admirable in its own way, I can’t help but feel as though their intentions were misguided when they took on this project, mainly because Bettinelli and Gillett aren’t quite skilled enough in their craft yet (their entire filmographies consist solely of V/H/S and Devil’s Due) to turn an overdone premise into something memorable. More to the point, I don’t think that a story like Devil’s Due was ever particularly conducive to sending the audience on an emotional roller coaster in the first place.

Starring Zach Gilford and Allison Miller as newly married couple Zach and Sam McCall, the film comes in to its own a little more where the acting is concerned. Gilford and Miller have a surprising chemistry between them, and the usual groan-worthy forcedness that plague these kinds of movies isn’t really present. I can kind of see where the directors were coming from with the whole “character-based” angle, especially in the film’s early scenes, but at the same time, it’s not nearly enough to carry the entire movie on its own. On a side note, Gilford is slated to appear in the upcoming sequel to The Purge, so I’m debating whether to save his inevitable ritualistic debasement for later on or to get it out of the way now.

Before I get into the the film’s problems- of which there were many- I do have one positive thing to say about it; that is- the narrative does a great job of depicting the two leads as the smitten, happy couple before coming out and hitting the audience with the heavy stuff. Devil’s Due actually is a great example of a movie that gives the viewer a point of reference and context, so when things start to go down hill, it carries much more emotional weight because we’ve already, at least to some extent, become invested in the couple’s happiness.

Like I mentioned before, the film kind of trips right out of the gate thanks to its flawed concepts. It baffles me why anyone, at the start of 2014 no less, would choose to integrate found footage into an antichrist story. The fact of the mater is that we’ve all seen this same song and dance so many times before, and we’ve seen it done better. Theres an overwhelming stench of stagnation about the project, which is ironic because of the directors’ supposed desire to innovate.

After a certain point, Devil’s Due, like so many other horror movies, ends up losing me. Personally speaking, that point came during the last quarter of the movie when it was apparently decided that the lovely Mrs. McCall could use telekinetic powers, apropos of nothing, to sling people around left and right in the laziest excuse for jump scares I’ve seen in a while. Compounding the problem- again ironically- is the fact that the cameras selected to best capture the found footage feel of the movie are ill-suited to special effects; the same effects, I might add, on which the later half of the film relies heavily. Bettinelli and Gillett shot themselves in the foot from the word ‘go,’ and I suspect that their lack of experience was primarily to blame.

Briefly- I know I’ve rambled on for too long here- for all the posturing that was made about the story being character focused, it seems like the actual plot kind of takes a backseat during most of the movie, and instead the story seems to be told piecemeal through a series of mostly unconnected vignettes. It seems silly to think that such an emphasis was placed on character development when most of the scenes could be arranged in any order and the final product could have been of more or less the same quality.

Chances are that you know if you’ll like Devil’s Due already, and sure, there are worse ways to chew up a couple of hours. At the same time though, there are so many other, better movies that capture the spirit of this film that it isn’t really worth your time.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Insidious: Chapter 2 Review

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Well, I suppose that the beginning of October is as good a time as any to take an in-depth look at Insidious: Chapter 2, although at this point it might as well be a retrospective. With the original Insidious (2011) still firmly maintaining its position in my top horror movie superstar tag-team, expectations were understandably high for the sequel. ‘Prolific’  might be a good word to describe James Wan’s career in 2013, with The Conjuring having been released in July and now Insidious 2 not even a few weeks later. The former, by all accounts being generally decent, may be the superior of the two films, as Wan takes another earnest stab at his hugely popular franchise.

Wan teams up once again with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who reprise their roles as the world’s unluckiest suburbanites Josh Lambert and Renai Lambert, respectively. As far as the acting is concerned, we’ve got quite a case of “second verse- same as the first.” If you saw either Insidious or The Conjuring, not a whole lot can really be added apart from the fact that there’s just more of the old “white people acting scared.” I will say that Wilson takes a slightly transformative role in Chapter 2, in that he evolves from the somewhat soft spoken, mild mannered suburban father to a bloodthirsty killer on account of his being possessed- which isn’t really as big a spoiler as it sounds. Strangely, the transformation doesn’t really become him, especially as far as his physique is concerned, and a lot of his possessed posturing and subdued antagonism comes across as more humorous than frightening; granted, it’s possible that Wan might have wanted to play this whole sequence for laughs in order to aid in a little juxtaposition, but it seems like such a jarring shift of the established tone to be of any real value.

The thing about Insidious: Chapter 2 is that I’m not entirely sure it needs to exist at all. I was under the impression that The Conjuring was essentially the spiritual successor to Insidious’s legacy, especially because Insidious had a strong ending the wrapped protagonist’s respective stories. Clever folks might remember that the very end of Insidious had a certain amount of ambiguity to it, which added mightily to the unnerving quality of the narrative and the film’s overall effectiveness. The audience was free to come to their own conclusions as to what became of the individual characters, although the overarching plot of that film had decidedly been wrapped up. Insidious 2, therefore, stumbles at the first hurdle by necessarily having to contrive a new reason for the story to continue. Furthermore, and this is really just the due to the nature of the genre rather than an attempt to discredit the writing, the characters simply aren’t interesting or dynamic enough to cary two distinct movies, and I think the sequel suffers for it.

The other main issue I have with the film is the overall concept of the antagonist. Here’s a screenwriting master class for you: the antagonist always remains more mysterious and dangerous the less you see of it. That, in large part, is what made the original Insidious so successful. Throughout the film, it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of hell-spawn was pursuing the protagonist, and indeed, all the audience really sees of the antagonist are two extremely brief glimpses- both of which are obscured. You see, the audience will always, always be more successful at scaring itself than the filmmaker will ever hope to be, for the simple reason that no one knows what scares the viewer better than the viewer himself. Now, in Insidious 2, instead of allowing the audience to imagine what satanic malevolence has clawed its way out of the blackest recesses of the stygian pit to devour every mortal soul, the writer explains precisely who and what the baddie is, while Wan fills the screen with copious lingering shots of the aforementioned baddie, to allay any vestige of interest or engagement we may have managed to retain.

So, with an uninteresting antagonist and a contrived story, I guess the real question that we have to ask of a horror movie is “does it scare me?” Sadly, the answer is no. I really wanted Insidious 2 to be great, and while it has it’s moments here and there, I kind of feel like James Wan has lost his way a little. Wan’s directorial style, while usually very effective, is nothing if not formulaic. As a fan of nearly all of his movies to date, including Saw, Dead Silence (controversially), Insidious, and The Conjuring, I’ve certainly started to pick up some patters. I suppose that when you get right down to it, Insidious 2 is just kind of predictable, which is really a first for Wan.

As far as horror movies go, Wan remains a master of the craft, despite Insidious 2 being a bit of a miss. However, I, personally speaking, will be waiting with baited breath for Wan’s next film… Fast & Furious 7. I kid you not. FAST & FURIOUS 7. What a time to be alive.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.