Netflix review: James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013)

James Wan stumbled upon a cinematic universe which kicked off with the one that started it all, The Conjuring (2013). All told, The Conjuring Universe has put out eight features in seven years, as well as five shorts. The mythology has spawned sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.

In a world where the past decade of horror has been defined by The Conjuring, where it’s nigh impossible to remember life before it, it might be disappointing to hear it’s not worth the hype.

If you don’t know what to watch next, The Conjuring is available to stream on Netflix. The supernatural horror film purports to be based upon an historical Rhode Island haunting from 1971.

Eighty-five percent of critical reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes are positive, which is about five or six percent too high.

Set in Harrisville, Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and his wife, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), move into a farmhouse with their five daughters.

Once demonic activity befalls their home, they enlist the aid of paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), to combat these evil forces.

But the witch who cursed the land, Bathsheba Sherman (Joseph Bishara), sacrificed her child to the Devil before killing herself, and possesses Carolyn to do the same, using the franchise mascot, Annabelle the doll, to attack the Warrens’ daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins); however, the Warrens cannot exorcise the property without approval from the Vatican, and the Perrons are not Catholic.

As far as horror auteurs go post-Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), one of the last masterpieces of the genre until Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), Wan has done more to mold horror in his own image since his directorial debut, Saw (2004), than any of his contemporaries.

The maestro of jump scares, his are more effective than the lazy imitations paling in comparison against them because his are accompanied by honest-to-God horrific imagery.

Wan is a filmmaker who lovingly crafts the horror he directs, which is more than can be said for the studios that cynically slap together uninspired releases for the slower months of the year for no other reason than that the genre is so cheap to make that it almost always yields a profit.

Like, say, the other Conjuring entries.

And The Conjuring is a progression from the absurdly stylized, unwatchably edited Saw. Wan’s atmospheric aesthetic raises the hairs on the back of your neck like there’s something watching you over your shoulder. Terrors rise up the screen like nightmares ascending from Hell.

But all the film’s style is in service to a cliched, forgettable narrative. The story of a family unwittingly moving into a haunted house is told competently, but not altogether originally (plus, five daughters are too many to develop sympathetically in two hours of runtime).

Wan need not reinvent the wheel if this is the trope he wishes to visit, but, something more self-aware would have been cleverer.

As overrated and underwhelming as The Conjuring is as opposed to, well, Scream and The Babadook, it is still above average for its time. It is an important genre moment, and fans will find they could study a lot worse.

If you’re going to sit through any Conjuring Universe titles, this is the one.

Hulu review: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

In response to the moral panic surrounding the youth counterculture of the Cold War, with Communism threatening to indoctrinate pro-Kennedy children against their pro-Eisenhower parents, a cycle of “demonic child” films were released in the 1960s and 1970s.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) constructed a zeitgeist around Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the last New Hollywood masterpiece.

But Carrie isn’t Satanic, and the three productions that are, are said to be cursed – indeed, the year after Rosemary’s Baby came out, the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult of… well… Devil-worshipping hippies.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Rosemary’s Baby is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological supernatural horror picture is the auteur’s own Academy Award-nominated  adaptation of the same-titled 1967 novel by Ira Levin.

Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of creepy neighbor Minnie Castevet.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (independent filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes) move into an apartment in New York City.

A struggling actor, Guy befriends the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) right before he tells Rosemary he wants a baby.

Rosemary experiences a lucid nightmare about an incubus raping her in front of the Castevets and Guy the night they try to conceive, and that’s only the beginning of the the paranoid, conspiratorial dread Rosemary lives during her pregnancy.

Polanski honed the craftsmanship behind his atmospheric tension with his Nóz w wodzie (1962), one of the most impressive debuts ever put to film, a feature much like Rosemary’s Baby where the Hitchcockian terror lies not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.

In Polanski’s and the Master of Suspense’s hands alike, the most familiar moments throughout the everyman’s day become fodder for the most cinematic anxiety (which makes it all the more real).

They are inherently European artists, learning how to do more with less on the postwar continent without all the American isolationism and atomic imperialism shielding Hollywood from such ruination.

Perhaps Polanski’s Generation X Antichrist was born from being next-door neighbors to the far-left Soviet Union.

And the both of them reached their fullest potential when they came West.

Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood Renaissance masterwork, The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound film since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with its cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Carrie, too, owes its iconic twist ending to this Levin interpretation, the novelist also having written The Stepford Wives in 1972 as well as Sliver in 1991.

What keeps Polanski obsessing over these neurotic themes, notably in Repulsion (1965, which would go on to inspire Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)) and Chinatown (1974), is his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, as expressed through The Pianist (2002).

Rosemary’s Baby is the drama of a gaslit woman who suspects she’s the target of evil incarnate and turns out to be right about the people organizing against her.

The darkness tantalizes everyone around her via their most destructive characteristics, until Rosemary herself succumbs, too.

But Polanski himself is an abusive man.

In 1977, the filmmaker was arrested and charged for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ultimately fleeing to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced and avoiding all countries likely to extradite him to the United States.

Whether one can support a creative’s work without condoning their behavior, is up for debate, but whichever side you land on may color your interaction with the movie.

But how horrifying it is that a Polish Jew’s family was killed by white supremacists the year after he shot Rosemary’s Baby. It makes this tale of Lucifer’s bride all the more personal for its director.

And that much more powerful for its audiences.

Hulu review: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” (2018)

First, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) popularized talkies. Then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) distorted a single recorded word of dialogue just enough to influence the remainder of the narrative.

Next, A Quiet Place omitted spoken lines altogether for a mainstream, feature-length release, and the findings of this experiment are some of the most radical in the renaissance following the release of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014).

If you don’t know what to watch next, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The postapocalyptic science fiction horror thriller was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

Krasinski also co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the production.

Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his pregnant wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), along with their children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are living in a world where almost all life has been hunted into extinction by alien creatures attacking anything which makes noise.

Fortunately for them, Regan is deaf, so the family knows American Sign Language and can communicate with each other in silence.

When one of the monsters kills the Abbotts’ youngest child, Beau (Cade Woodward), the rest of the family resolves to fight for themselves and one another.

Krasinski and Blunt are married with children off-screen, and so the filmmaker directs out of himself as well as his leading lady thoroughly personal performances, characterizing a husband, wife, father, and mother desperate to protect their home.

Simmonds is also deaf in real life, marking a sensitive casting choice for the disabled community. Rather than functioning as a handicap to overcome, Regan’s disability empowers her to survive.

What’s more, Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterwork of its genre. Post-James Wan’s Saw (2004), jump scares have proven themselves to be most powerful when the sudden sound is paired with a horrifying image, instead of something cheaper and more mundane.

The hushed diegesis lends itself to effective jump scares like a dream (or a nightmare).

As progressive as the picture is with its positive, diverse (though not altogether intersectional) representation, and as much as it gets right about the scary movie formula, it is problematically regressive with what many critics interpret to be pro-life, pro-gun, conservative themes.

Some have even gone so far as to dismiss it as the antithesis to Jordan Peele’s social horror masterpiece, Get Out (2017).

Indeed, Evelyn still decides to give birth in spite of the mortal danger it poses to herself, and, by extension, her children.

While Lee’s altruistic parenting is good parenting, intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and it is irrelevant that Krasinski cites Get Out as a source of inspiration.

Art belongs not to the creator, but to the consumer, and one hopes Krasinski will learn throughout his promising career to handle his sociopolitical subtext with greater care.

A Quiet Place is important, effectual, “pure” cinema (according to the Hitchcockian school of thought), speaking to us with no words at all.

Amazon Prime review: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s “Pet Sematary” (2019)

Sometimes, the book is better.

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary (2019) is available on Amazon Prime, and if you don’t know what to watch next, this one is better left alone.

An adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name by Stephen King as well as a remake of the 1989 Mary Lambert cult classic, the supernatural horror film was released to a mixed reception. Just fifty-seven percent of critical reviews aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes are positive.

Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates from Boston to Maine with his wife, Rachel Goldman (Amy Seimetz), daughter, Ellie (Jeté Lawrence), and son, Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).

New neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) warns the family about the pet cemetery in the local woods, where children bury their dead animals in the hope that they will come back to life, even if demonic forces are at play.

Once tragedy strikes the Creeds, Louis is faced with the opportunity to play God, and must live with the consequences of it.

The movie is not without its redeeming qualities. As an adaptation and a remake, it is confronted with scaring the audience as horrifyingly as did the original, and it does so through its own edits to the twist and turns in the source material.

For example, the denouement harkens back to Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), one of the superior King interpretations.

Otherwise, the picture is a mediocre and forgettable affair. The pacing is better suited for King’s literary medium, which is empowered to internalize the themes of death more vigorously than the cinematic arts can articulate.

Pet Sematary isn’t so much an embarrassment against its production team as it is a waste of the viewer’s time.

They just need to let it die.

James Wan’s next film will be an “original horror idea” with “old school” special effects

In a Facebook post, James Wan says his next film will be released through New Line Cinema, and it will not be the remake of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) he was rumored to be working on, according to Bloody Disgusting. Indeed, Wan goes so far as to share that the “hard-R thriller” will be an original property – not a reboot, remake, or adaptation – and it will mark a return to his independent filmmaking origins with practical effects. The horror auteur also uploaded a series of pictures taken from the location scout for the movie; he is co-writing the script with Ingrid Bisu and co-producing alongside Michael Clear for Atomic Monster, and shooting is scheduled to begin this fall in Los Angeles.

Andy Muschietti’s “It” (2017) returns to the big screen with sequel footage

Starting Saturday, August 3, Andy Muschietti’s hit adaptation of the 1986 It by Stephen King, It Chapter One (2017), will be returning to theaters nationwide for two nights, according to CNET. This Fandango rerelease comes a month before the September 6 premiere of Muschietti’s It Chapter Two (2019), with a post-credits reveal of eight minutes of new footage from the upcoming sequel. Taking place twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, the now-adult Losers’ Club will reunite once more in It Chapter Two to confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who has terrorized the fictitious Derry, Maine, for centuries.

Amazon Prime review: Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019)

Once upon a time, there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow…

If you don’t know what to watch next, Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) is available on Amazon Prime.

The psychological horror film had the all-time second-best opening weekend for a live-action feature after James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), and the third-best behind Andy Muschietti’s It (2017) and David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), but the best for an original horror script.

Peele, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his directorial debut, Get Out (2017), is also the screenwriter for Us.

On Rotten Tomatoes, ninety-four percent of critical reviews aggregated for Us are positive.

Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke star as Adelaide Thomas and Gabe Wilson, who visit the family lake house in Santa Cruz with their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).

Adelaide is doubtful about the trip because of the mysterious, traumatic event which befell her at the beach when she was a child. Their first night there, a family of four strangers invade the Wilsons’ home and reveal themselves to be their doppelgängers as the Wilsons fight for survival.

Together, Us and Get Out showcase not only Peele’s genius for the horror genre, but also his talent for filmmaking in general.

His background in comedy does not arrest his passion for horror, but rather refines it with laugh-out-loud dialogue that endears you to the cast all the more devastatingly when the terror comes to claim them.

Us is as rich with subtext as its predecessor, yet speaks with a voice all its own. Where Get Out is a slow-burn suspense thriller, Us is a fast-paced horror show.

Nevertheless, between the two, Get Out is the superior movie, but only because it is so difficult to meet, much less exceed. Get Out is one of the greatest pictures of our time, and one of the most important horror pictures ever, a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.

This isn’t to say that Us isn’t still a scissor’s cut above the competition, because it is. Nyong’o’s dynamic performance alone, characterizing both hero and villain, deserves multiple viewings in order to truly experience each layer of nuance she delivers to this dual role.

In a way, Us is more subtle and sophisticated than Get Out, a thematic cocktail of motifs and visual metaphors and double meanings as open to interpretation as a hall of mirror is infinite with reflections.

Us might have been stronger, in fact, if it was more ambiguous, but as it is, it is still a horror piece more lovingly choreographed than the mainstream, cheaply-shot Hollywood release made for no other reason than to rake in an easy profit.

And that twist ending will echo through you forever.