RUNNING SCARED (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence and Language, Sexuality and Drug Content

Directed by: Wayne Kramer

Written by: Wayne Kramer

Starring: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Chazz Palminteri, Karel Roden, Johnny Messner, Ivana Milicevic, Michael Cudlitz, Bruce Altman & Elizabeth Mitchell

Paul Walker is mostly known for his part in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, but he had a few other notable roles before he passed away. The grittiest, darkest film he ever starred in is most likely RUNNING SCARED. Milking the maximum amount of tension out of a simple premise, RUNNING SCARED is one hell of a thrill ride! It’s not a perfect film because things will likely get too over-the-top for some viewers and the film’s style occasionally gets in the way of its storytelling. Still, RUNNING SCARED is more than worth a watch for those who want a unique crime-thriller that gets crazier with each passing second.

Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a mafia associate who’s been assigned to get rid of a gun that was used to kill a corrupt cop. Unfortunately for Joe, he takes a little too long to do his job. Joe’s procrastination leads to neighbor kid Oleg (Cameron Bright) stealing the piece and using it on his abusive father Anzor (Karel Roden). Joe is suddenly thrust into a race against time to recover the gun before he gets whacked by the mafia or nabbed by corrupt cop Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri). Meanwhile, Oleg is on the run and comes across various unsavory individuals who might mean the death of him.

To put it simply, RUNNING SCARED is batshit nuts. Director/writer Wayne Kramer was trying to hearken back to the hard-R crime-thrillers of the 1970s, while also incorporating Grimm’s fairy tale elements into the mixture. This results in a bonkers mix of bullets, colorful characters, a rip-roaring fast pace, and an overall strange style. I’ve never quite seen a thriller like RUNNING SCARED and there’s something to be said for that alone. Even though the film does make a couple of missteps, I’d argue that the many positives far outweigh the few negatives.

One of those positives comes in the sheer intensity that gets going the minute Oleg shoots his father and Joey goes looking for him. The race against time formula has been used in thousands of action flicks and thrillers, but RUNNING SCARED keeps things going at a ridiculously fast pace that barely lets the viewers catch their breath between violent encounters and dark developments. It certainly helps that Paul Walker shines in the role of Joey Gazelle, a protagonist who’s far from perfect to say the least. There are distinct moments where the audience can’t help but wonder if Joe will commit an evil deed. After all, this neighbor kid is putting Joe’s life on the line. Yet, Paul Walker still keeps us rooting for this low-level thug from beginning to end.

Cameron Bright was a child actor who never impressed me with any of his performances. To be fair, he starred in crappy films like X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, GODSEND, and ULTRAVIOLET. However, RUNNING SCARED has a surprisingly great turn from Bright as Oleg. His journey is just as compelling to watch as Walker’s storyline. The naturally shifting narrative, from Walker’s Joey to Bright’s Oleg, keeps things interesting. There’s never a dull moment, though I’d argue that certain plot developments are a little too convenient and the film’s style (flashy editing and a melting reel) occasionally distract from the on-screen insanity.

The various scumbags that Oleg meets bring different threats and deadly scenarios to the table, though a couple of them seem underused. A shadowy homeless man disappears in an anti-climactic way and I’d argue that the always intimidating Chazz Palminteri doesn’t get much to do as Rydell. Meanwhile, Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell star as the scariest damn characters in a subplot that comes right the hell out of nowhere and shocks the viewer in a big way. Vera Farmiga also gets time to shine in this subplot, with one of the best scenes in the entire movie.

RUNNING SCARED is absolutely nuts and I mean that as a compliment. Wayne Kramer crafted something special in this unique crime-thriller. The fairy tale qualities are further hammered home by an animated end credits sequence that nicely summarizes everything in a whimsically trippy way. The film features great performances, slick camera work, and fast-paced storytelling that revels in being as crazy as humanly possible. If you’re looking for something weird, cool, and thrilling, then RUNNING SCARED will more than satisfy your cinematic cravings.

Grade: B+

THE CONJURING 2 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror and Horror Violence

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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+

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