Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Last Exorcism And Then Some, Apparently

The current found-footage horror craze began in 1999 with the still-effective The Blair Witch Project, a movie that ditched its videotaped format for a more traditional narrative with its first (and mercifully, only) sequel, the dreadful Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. One of the more moderately successful found-footage knockoffs, 2010's The Last Exorcism, loses the shaky, handheld camera for its sequel as well. The cinematic conceit of a camera crew capturing an exorcism as it's being performed on a naive, demon-possessed farm girl was the chief obstacle to the original Last Exorcism being a better film, I thought. A potentially interesting third-act twist gave way to a hasty, unfulfilling wrap-up, since the story reached a point where no one in their right mind would still be holding a camera or a boom mike--they'd be running for their lives instead. The Last Exorcism Part II (a title only slightly less laughable than, say, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) may have jettisoned one overused trend, but it replaces it with an even more annoying one. Like last month's Dark Skies, this is another movie that features eighty or so minutes of frustratingly vague buildup, followed by ten minutes of confusing, mostly offscreen mayhem, followed quickly by the end credits...and, presumably, another installment to come. The movie opens somewhat promisingly as Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) mysteriously appears in a New Orleans couple's home, dirty, dishevelled, and with no memory of what happened to her in the first film. I can relate--I haven't seen it since it was first released, and other than a Rosemary's Baby-style twist about a cult that wanted the baby she had inside her, it's kind of a blur, and the new film doesn't do a lot to explain it either. Anyway, Nell winds up in a home for troubled girls, where she is set up with a job cleaning rooms in a hotel. The shy, repressed young girl begins to open up and make friends, first with the other girls in the home and later with a co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark--Bruce Willis' kid from Unbreakable, all grown up). However, it's not long before Nell starts being tormented by weird phone calls, the ghost of her father, and out-of-focus figures lurking in the background, and her new life starts to unravel when clips of her exorcism are found by her housemates on YouTube (begging the annoyingly unanswered question--who exactly uploaded the footage?). The demon Abalam is not done with her yet, it seems, and a mysterious (and frankly, pretty incompetent) organization of do-gooders takes one last stab at purging Nell of her infernal suitor. William Friedkin's classic original The Exorcist turns 40 this year, and the fact that people are still ripping it off today is a testament to that film's power. Even though the idea of a loved one suddenly acting like a hostile, dangerous stranger is a scary idea, none of the annual knockoffs really ever seem to bring much new to the table. The original Last Exorcism at least tried to meld it with the found-footage trend, but the sequel doesn't even have that going for it. Ashley Bell, with her strangely old/young features, is effective and sympathetic, but the first film also had Patrick Fabian as the charming, funny priest who tries to save her. No one else in this film leaves much of an impression, and Bell can only do so much on her own. Director Ed Gass-Donnelly gives it his best shot, with lots of attempts to convey a creepy, paranoiac atmosphere during brightly-lit afternoon scenes, but he falls back too much on the ol' "made ya jump" combination of two or three frames of something scary undercut by a loud noise. As in the first movie, Nell has a weird fondness for red Doc Martens, but I'm not quite sure what they're supposed to be a symbol for. Tempation? Materialism? An out-of-place reference to The Wizard Of Oz? Once again, producer Eli Roth proves himself to be a canny capitalist, making this movie on the cheap for a quick turnaround on his investment (the movie already made its budget back on a still-lackluster opening weekend of $7 million), but too many mediocre movies like this with his name on them can only hurt his legacy as a horror icon. I've still got high hopes for Roth's upcoming Netflix series Hemlock Grove (debuting this April), but I hope and pray that this Exorcism truly is his last.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dark Skies (2013)

In the sleepy slump period between the end of Oscar Season and the beginning of Summer Blockbuster Season, you can always count on at least one demon possession thriller hitting the multiplexes. March already has one such release--the Eli Roth-produced Last Exorcism Part II--but writer-director Scott Stewart's new alien abduction flick Dark Skies could just as easily fall into this same category. The sinister alien invaders who torment the film's family might as well just be demons from hell, given their penchant for ominous tomfoolery and nightly visitations. The result is a fairly shameless cross between Poltergeist and Signs (PolterSigns?) with a healthy dash of the Paranormal Activity franchise thrown in for good measure. The Barrett family--realtor mom Lacy (Keri Russell), out-of-work architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton), teenaged Jesse (Dakota Goyo), and youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett)--are an average family that finds itself at the mercy of all sorts of creepy goings-on, both in the daytime and after dark. Sam starts spacing out weirdly, shrieking in a high-pitched squeal, publicly wetting himself, and exhibiting weird bruises on his body. Lacy witnesses a mass avian suicide of Birdemic proportions and starts smacking her head into a window. Daniel sleepwalks out into the yard in the middle of the night, and Lacy finds him making an "O" face while staring off into nothing. And Jesse experiences strange electrical disturbances, like streetlights inexplicably going out one by one as he bikes home. Objects are piled up mysteriously in the kitchen Poltergeist-style, and all the family photos in the living room go missing. While Daniel sets up an expensive new home-security system (that keeps being mysteriously triggered by nobody, seemingly) and a series of surveillance cameras that go all staticky whenever anything spooky happens, Lacy becomes obsessed with online accounts of alien visitations. She and Daniel meet with a UFO conspiracy nut (J.K. Simmons) who tells them that their youngest son may be targeted for abduction. The Barretts batten down the hatches for a final showdown, not realizing that the alien invaders may in fact have a different target in mind. Dark Skies does its best to tap into certain societal anxieties that would provide an interesting spine to a better story; the family's money woes and Daniel's job search take up a lot of screen time, as does a subplot about the bad influence of an older boy Jesse hangs out with, not to mention the fact that the suspicious bruises on Sam's torso make the Barrett parents into neighbourhood pariahs. However, all these subplots really do is try and divert attention away from the fact that Dark Skies doesn't have an original idea in its head. Why else would the filmmakers spend so much screen time on Daniel's largely unsuccessful job hunt, only to have him find employment late in the second act and never bring it up again? Why devote so many scenes to Jesse and his oafish pal getting into trouble when they ultimately have no real bearing on the larger plot? Former VFX artist Scott Stewart sets the scene nicely--Dark Skies is a well-shot, confidently directed film--but most of the running time is devoted to trying to make us care about the characters, all of which is worthless without a satisfactory predicament to put them in. The film's Big Twist is incredibly obvious, and a brief postscript shows the remaining family members putting the pieces together three months too late to do anything about it. Dark Skies wants you to look to the skies in fear, but it'll most likely have you looking at your watch.