SAW (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language

saw-poster

Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega & Shawnee Smith

The 2000s were an interesting time for horror cinema. Though many people are quick to say that the decade didn’t pump out many original horror flicks, it seemed like audiences got a solid amount of surprisingly great remakes (along with plenty of crappy cash-ins), cool indie fare and plenty of foreign scares. 2004’s SAW falls into that second category. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, SAW grossed 55 times its one-million budget at the U.S. box office and spawned the biggest horror franchise of the 2000’s. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is subjective, but I personally loved the entire series as a teenager and they’ve held up as guilty pleasures for me as an adult. Having now revisited SAW for the first time in years, I noticed that its faults definitely stick out now and yet, it still stands as a disturbingly creepy horror-thriller.

saw-1

Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in an abandoned bathroom. Leaving isn’t an option because both men are chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. A corpse, a tape recorder, and a gun lie in the middle of the bathroom. After some crafty maneuvering, the men soon discover that they are the latest victims in the sick “games” of a serial killer known as Jigsaw. To win their game, one man must retrieve the gun in the middle of the room and shoot/kill the other. Don’t worry though, because Jigsaw has left them a gift: hacksaws. These aren’t strong enough to cut through chains and are strong enough to cut through bone. You get where this is heading. With a ticking clock, the men must try to figure out of a way to escape…or face their grisly dilemma head-on.

saw-2

SAW’s premise is wicked and simple, arguably too simple. If this were only 103 minutes of two men sitting a room with this insane scenario, then the viewer would probably die of boredom or find themselves depressed beyond belief. Director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell wisely throw in flashbacks to subvert the viewer’s attention to backstories behind both men and their captor. The script also has a subplot involving a rugged cop who’s on the trail of Jigsaw and hostage shenanigans at Dr. Gordon’s apartment (his wife and daughter are being held as “prizes” to be won or lost). The way in which SAW slowly puts together its twisted puzzle of a story is kind of amazing. The flashbacks slowly fill the viewer in on who the two men are and give little clues that ratchet up the tension to high levels.

saw-3

The Jigsaw Killer’s gruesome traps (which became more and more over-the-top with each passing installment) are realistic(ish) and leveled in this first film. The games are deadly scenarios with horrifying hazards (e.g. razor wire, broken glass, flammable goo, etc.) and the only big device used is a jaw-ripping reverse bear-trap that has become a symbol of this torture-porn franchise ever since this film’s release. The scenes with Jigsaw’s games are brief, but leave a shudder-inducing impact. A scene that has always made me squeamish involves a razor wire maze and a man stripped down to his undies. That’s truly terrifying beyond words and the verbal description of the crime scene makes the me cringe more than any gory visual could (though rest assured, there are definitely moments of gore).

saw-4

Two big problems muddy SAW’s many positive qualities. The film frequently relies on frenetic editing, which makes intense moments seem more like a heavy metal music video than a horror movie. The gritty atmosphere and visuals keep things appropriately creepy, but the editing occasionally detracts from the film as a whole. The second issue is far more egregious. Most of the acting in SAW is terrible, like embarrassingly bad and unconvincing during many moments. Not every actor is terrible, because Danny Glover is well-cast and a few of the supporting characters have their moments. However, Cary Elwes should be ashamed of his unconvincing American accent, unbelievable mood swings, and hammy line delivery. He’s horrible in damn near every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious that Leigh Whannell was new to acting in 2003 because he’s just as annoying as Elwes. Whannell has the excuse of being a newbie though, which makes Cary Elwes seem even more awful by comparison.

saw-5

SAW has problems that cannot be ignored (frenetic editing and bad acting), but the plot, suspense and genuinely terrifying conclusion still holds up over a decade later (feeling old yet?). This is a rare case where great writing and terrifying ideas outshine crappy performances and amateur filmmaking. Though it’s not the stellar gory scarefest that I remember adoring as a teenager, I will still attest that 2004’s SAW is a good horror film. It’s a creepy indie effort with lots of disturbing scenarios, smart writing, a nightmare-inducing ending (I still get chills when I see it), and noticeable flaws.

Grade: B

THE CONJURING 2 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror and Horror Violence

Conjuring2 poster

Directed by: James Wan

Written by: James Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes & David Leslie Johnson

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley & Benjamin Haigh

Whether it’s through a gory serial killer thriller or a supernatural spookfest, James Wan knows how to scare people. That being said, I wasn’t a massive fan of 2013’s THE CONJURING. I found it to be a good horror flick that built up solid chills for its first two-thirds and then fell apart due to a cheesy final act. After taking a break from horror to make FURIOUS 7, James Wan has returned to craft another CONJURING film. This time around, he’s tackling one of the most infamous hauntings in recorded history. Even though there are suspicious reasons to believe most of its “true story” is an utter hoax (shocking, I know), THE CONJURING 2 is one hell of a scary good time!

Conjuring2 1

London 1977: the Hodgson family is a low-income, single-parent household, consisting of a stressed out mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. Financial troubles become the least of the family’s worries when strange events begin occurring in their home. Objects are thrown, children teleport, beds levitate, a foreboding figure keeps appearing throughout the house, and unseen physical assaults seemingly target 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe). Desperate for help, the Hodgsons receive a lifeline in the form of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Though Lorraine is reluctant to take on this dangerous poltergeist case, due to frequent nightmares of a presence from their notorious Amityville investigation, the Warrens soon find themselves facing a supernatural threat unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before.

MK2_0464.dng

THE CONJURING 2 shows that it’s not messing around from its opening scene, in which James Wan demonstrates that he can make anything scary. In this case, “anything” means the rather lame Amityville haunting. Amityville’s “true” story has been brought to film a few times already, through a 1979 lackluster horror flick, its many sequels, a flashy 2005 remake of that original film, and so-so documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (which had turned into an all-out character study by the end). In a mere ten minutes, Wan accomplishes what none of those films were ever able to do. He actually makes the Amityville haunting (which is widely regarded to be a scam) into something genuinely scary.

Conjuring2 3

The frights don’t stop there though, because the rest of CONJURING 2 relies on classy horror elements from films like THE EXORCIST and POLTERGEIST. Wan wears his influences on his sleeves and makes this sequel all the better for it. I jumped many times during CONJURING 2. The film doesn’t rely on cheap scares either, as it combines a lot of quiet suspense with nightmare fuel imagery. CONJURING 2 understands that a shadowy silhouette or a briefly glimpsed reflection in a television screen can be just as frightening as a gangly apparition or a gory hallucination. Wan is a master of misdirection and delivers a number of scenes that rival his spooky brilliance of INSIDIOUS. A disturbing character called “The Crooked Man” freaked me out beyond all reason and one specific moment nearly jolted me out of my seat.

Conjuring2 4

That’s not to say that CONJURING 2 is without faults, because occasional scenes go overboard and become slightly cheesy. Besides the scary-as-hell Crooked Man (who is made all the scarier for not being a CGI creation and is actually played by an extremely skinny contortionist), there’s also a demonic-looking nun and a ghostly old man. This nun and old man both receive some stellar scares as well, the former having a fantastic nightmare sequence and the latter being at his creepiest when he’s left out of focus. However, they both can be a little too in-your-face during certain points. This is especially true of the nun. It’s been said that if you show the monster too much, it becomes less scary. While there have been exceptions to this cinematic rule, it definitely fits this pale-faced demonic nun who seems slightly less frightening every passing minute we see her. The same goes for close-ups of the old man ghost. The Crooked Man remains terrifying because we only get small bits and pieces of his nightmare-inducing figure.

Conjuring2 5

CONJURING 2 brings substance to go with its scares, because the characters are actually compelling this time around. In 2013’s THE CONJURING, I didn’t care about the bland psychic Warrens and was occasionally pulled out of the mood during the slower scenes. In CONJURING 2, the script actually gives them a personal conflict and sets up strong plot points in advance. Both of these allow for the paranormal investigator pair to become somewhat more relatable and three-dimensional. The Hodgson family members are also fleshed out, with second-oldest daughter Janet and mother Peggy being the main protagonists.

Conjuring2 6

Even though it runs at over two hours, THE CONJURING 2 feels perfectly paced. Two plotlines start off separately in the first third. The Warrens begin battling (literal) personal demons and the Hodgson family goes through the expected haunted house motions. I worried that these two different storylines wouldn’t fully fit together, but they matched up perfectly and complimented each other in ways that I didn’t expect. It also helps that the characters are worth caring about, the scares are actually scary, and the film sends the viewer out on an appropriately unnerving note with pieces from the actual case (recorded audio, real photographs) woven into the closing credits. By the time this film was over, a still shot of a chair became a shiver-inducing image. There’s something special to be said in that. THE CONJURING 2 is a rare horror sequel that easily surpasses its predecessor in storytelling, characters, and (most importantly) scares!

Grade: B+

DEAD SILENCE (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence and Images

DeadSilence poster

Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Judith Roberts, Michael Fairman & Laura Regan

Hot off the heels of SAW, James Wan seemed to the next big thing in the horror genre. However, that didn’t quite take hold until 2011’s INSIDIOUS graced the big screen. Before that frightening box office hit arrived, Wan worked on three movies consecutively and DEAD SILENCE was the second of these films. Far different from Wan’s torture-porn roots of SAW, 2007’s DEAD SILENCE relied on a supernatural story and fog-laden atmosphere to deliver its scares. While the film wasn’t exactly well received upon release (garnering bad reviews from critics, mixed response from horror fans, and barely making its budget back globally), I always found the film to be fun in a ridiculous “turn your brain off and enjoy it for what it is” sort of way.

DeadSilence 1

One dark and stormy night, a mysterious package arrives on the doorstep of Jamie Ashen’s apartment. Inside lies a creepy ventriloquist dummy. Like an idiot, Jamie decides to get some take-out and leave his wife alone with the puppet to keep her company. When he returns, she lies dead with her jaw split open and her tongue missing. Jamie is prime suspect number one for his wife’s murder, but thinks that something supernatural might be afoot. So, the young widower returns to his hometown of Ravens Fair to get to bottom of an old ghost story that may have something to do with his wife’s gory demise. However, doing so will also put himself and others in the path of 100 murderous dummies and a pissed off undead ventriloquist.

DeadSilence 2

The best phrase that I can throw onto DEAD SILENCE is that it has atmosphere out the wazoo. The fog-laden, dank visuals give you the impression that you’re watching an old-timey ghost story from Universal’s glory days of horror. I cannot recall a single moment in this film where I saw the sun shining, but that’s a huge benefit when nearly every frame looks like a macabre painting brought to life. The acting on the other hand is much more of a mixed bag. Ryan Kwanten does an alright job in moving the story forward as Jamie, but his character seemed really bland. All we know about Jamie is that he’s upset over his wife’s murder and he also despises his crippled father. Those are the only two traits given. Kwanten is definitely better than 90% of the rest of the cast though as he’s not acting in a ridiculous over-the-top manner for most of the film. Donnie Wahlberg plays an appropriately annoying cop and mainly serves as comic relief. Some of his jokes hit, while others fall flat. Judith Roberts is enjoyable as the ghostly ventriloquist Mary Shaw. Aided by a disturbing make-up job, Roberts manages to be freaky in spite of only having a handful of lines.

DeadSilence 3

The plot of DEAD SILENCE is its biggest problem though. Plot holes and silly moments make their way into the script and distract from potential scares at hand. For example, the ghost’s main motivation of “she won’t stop until the screaming does” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a bigger mystery at hand too, but a final plot twist reaches eye-rolling levels of absurdity. While the fog-laden atmosphere, elaborate sets, and creepy moments are impressive, the film really drops the ball in terms of its CGI. However, the scares are mostly centered around a less-is-more approach. Instead the ridiculous computer effects are reserved for the final act which, although fun, is as dumb as a rock.

DeadSilence 4

DEAD SILENCE gets by on the appeal of being an old-fashioned ghost story that just wants to scare you. There’s solid atmosphere throughout and quite a few scares are legitimately well executed. This horror flick falters in terms of story, characters, and bad-looking effects. This is one of those films where you have to turn off your brain to fully enjoy it. There are absurd plot holes, a ridiculous last-minute twist (probably Wan banking on his SAW reputation) and boring characters. There are also eerie sensibilities, well executed moments and a couple of solid scares. Taken as a whole, DEAD SILENCE is only okay. If you can ignore its shortcomings, then you’re likely to have fun with this creepy combination of a ghost story and an evil doll B-movie.

Grade: B-

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Terror and Violence, and Thematic Elements

Insidious Ch2 poster

Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey & Steve Coulter

Warning! The review contains SPOILERS for INSIDIOUS. If you have not seen INSIDIOUS yet, do yourself a favor: go buy it, turn out the lights, crank up the sound, and prepare to witness one of the scariest horror movies of the new millennium. If you have seen INSIDIOUS, then feel free to read on!

In 2010, a little movie called INSIDIOUS premiered at TIFF and made huge waves in the critical world. In 2011, the film was put into wide release and grossed almost 100 million. This was particularly impressive when you consider that INSIDIOUS was budgeted just over 1 million. Hollywood took the money as a sign that a sequel was necessary and two years later, we have INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. One thing that should be praised to the heavens about this sequel is that it isn’t necessarily the same thing over again. Wan and Whannell actually try to take the newly born franchise into a different direction and it works with mixed results.

Insidious Ch2 1

After a flashback sequence set in the 1980’s involving a young Josh (father from the first film) and a séance gone awry, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 picks right back up where the first film left off. The Lambert family just got their son back from the ghostly netherworld known as The Further, but the murder of Elise (the elderly psychic) has the family shaken up. While the police investigate their home, the Lamberts stay at Josh’s mother’s home. Turns out that the supernatural forces that began terrorizing the family aren’t done with them quite yet. Renai (Josh’s wife) begins seeing ghostly apparitions around the home and Josh isn’t acting like his usual self. For those who have seen the original film, you may already have a good idea why Josh is being so weird, but let me assure you that you don’t have the full picture. Things go from bad to worse, grim grinning ghosts come out to do more than just socialize, and some seriously freaky scenarios occur!

Insidious Ch2 2

To re-examine the first INSIDIOUS reveals that the ghosts were plentiful and there was the constant threat of a demonic presence throughout. By the time the third act had broken out, Josh had ventured into The Further to find his son, while all hell was breaking loose in the Lambert household. The last-minute revelation that Josh had brought back the evil spirit of an old woman, who had haunted him as a child, wound up being one of the scariest twist-endings in quite some time. So we pretty much have a good idea who’s responsible for Elise’s demise, but CHAPTER 2 does a great job of ramping up the tension in spite of that.

Insidious Ch2 3

This sequel is actually more focused on two spirits in particular. The creepy old woman inhabiting Josh’s body and another freaky apparition who’s appearing constantly around the house. In this sense, it’s more confined in that we don’t see many other spirits and it’s more of a straightforward possession story with a dash of haunted house thrown in. The script is still smart and has some neat twists thrown in. There are some genuine scares throughout and the atmosphere is thick with dread. CHAPTER 2 is spooky fun while it lasts, but it’s not without some major faults.

Insidious Ch2 4

There is some really awful dubbing in the opening flashbacks of Lin Shaye’s voice coming out of a much younger actress and it takes the viewer out of what could have been a much creepier scene. The logic behind this decision doesn’t make much sense. Our voices evolve as we grow older. It would have made just as much sense to dub an adult Patrick Wilson over the actor portraying him as a child. Then there are some of the scares that don’t work too well. Some of the typical gotcha moments that have no place in an INSIDIOUS movie. The first film made you jump because there were real scary things to the scares. In this sequel, there are shocks that feel so predictable that they’re dusty. Finally, the conclusion seems a bit half-hearted. There was massive build up to the finale and nothing much came from it. The final seconds feel phoned in as if begging for a CHAPTER 3, which I wouldn’t really welcome after seeing 2.

Insidious Ch2 5

The best scares do come from a new character introduced in this sequel. Elise’s former assistant, who communicates with the dead by rolling lettered dice and spelling out the words that come in those letters. This provides some really intense moments, particularly in a confrontation between him and a possessed Josh. Credit where credit is due, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 doesn’t merely retread old ground and continues the story in an interesting way. I just wish that some of the ideas turned out better on film than they probably did in script form. This is said to be Wan’s last horror movie. After viewing this and the overrated critically acclaimed THE CONJURING, I think the man needs to get away from horror, at least for a little while.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is entertaining and spooky fun, but that’s about all it winds up being. I expected more, but this is okay. Take that for what you will.

Grade: B-

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑