Posts Tagged ‘Ghosts’

MOVIE: The Conjuring (2013)

August 6, 2013

conjuringSo, The Conjuring.  Hmm.  Where to begin?  I guess I better begin with this: there are some spoilers below (for this and for Insidious) and there will likely be more in the comments, so head’s up if you care about stuff like that.  Additionally, there is profanity AND a quiz, and this is going to be a long one, because — well, you’ll see.  Brace yourselves.

I really wanted to like this film and went in with the best of expectations.  I even waited a few weeks so I could increase my chances of an empty-ish theater (best way to go with scary movies), and I was rewarded by getting to see it in an utterly cavernous space with only two other people in there with me — talk about scare-conducive settings!  Plus, not only did I love director James Wan’s previous film Insidious, but even the mass media critics, not known for their enthusiasm about horror movies, were mostly diggin’ this one.  Add to that: Lili Taylor!  I love her!  Everything combined to make for some pretty strong excitement on my part.

And so it is with heavy heart that I report to you the major suckage of this movie.

When I first left the theater, disappointed to the max, I wondered if maybe Wan had been as clichéd, hammy, and tedious in Insidious and I had just been swept away by the right mood or Patrick Wilson’s swoopy hair or something.  So, I immediately went out and rented it, watched it again, and nope — that movie still works for me.  It doesn’t matter that it ultimately has a silly plot; the road from first scare to silly reveal is effectively creepy — for me.

So, what’s different?  That’s actually kind of a funny question, because, first of all, The Conjuring is basically the same movie with different people, dumber people, and no humor whatsoever (oh, nerds from Insidious — you were sorely needed here).  Both films are about young families with little kids who move into new houses and then end up both haunted and demonized.  Heck, both films even start Patrick Wilson and his increasingly receding hairline (what the swoop is for, I determined this time around).  I suppose I could have predicted this, based on the limited information I’d let myself see before going (trailer, the briefest of plot descriptions), but I had been hoping The Conjuring would be a straight-up haunting, and instead, it was boring, boring, boring ol’ demons again.

Ghosts and hauntings actually kind of spook me out; demons typically do not.  Demons, to me, are dumb.  I don’t believe in demons, not even a teeny tiny doubting bit, and so it’s kind of like trying to make me be scared of evil unicorns.  There is patently no such thing as evil unicorns, so what is there to fear? (I mean, duh, unicorns are never EVIL.)

But hey, wait!  Insidious was also about demons, and so were all the Paranormal Activities, and I liked all (most) of those, right?  So, what gives, The Conjuring?

Well, first of all, the family in Insidious was a whole lot less dumb than the family in The Conjuring, and that goes a really long way with me when it comes to movies like this.  To wit, a quiz:

1.  It’s moving day!  Everybody’s enjoying the new house except for, what’s this? Your dog is barking on the porch and refuses to cross the threshold?  What should you do? 

A.  Chuckle at your silly dog and go back to unpacking.

2.  You’re exploring the house and you discover, how weird!, the previous residents appear to have walled off the creepy cellar!  What should you do?

A.  Pull down the wall and go downstairs to explore!
B.  MOVE OUT, because PREVIOUS RESIDENTS KNOW THEIR SHIT.  (Actual quote from the mom in The Conjuring: “I wonder why it was boarded up?”  Actual quote from me in that moment, “I’LL GIVE YOU THREE GUESSES!”)

(Incidentally, I can’t resist mentioning here that the first thing they found when they went into that walled-off cellar was the furnace, which made me wonder where the hell they thought it was before they knew there was a cellar?  Never mind that, though — I have bigger demon fish to fry.)

3.  Have all your clocks suddenly started acting weird?  I mean, ALL your clocks, TOTALLY WEIRD? If so, what should you do?

A.  Nothing — you can just restart them all by hand every morning, tra la!
B.  MOVE OUT, because CLOCKS KNOW THEIR SHIT (or . . . whatever!).

4.  If a bunch of the doors and closets and such are opening up by themselves repeatedly:

A. Say to yourself, “Ha ha, this silly house!  These doors are so silly!”

5. Wait, even better:  If the door to the creepy cellar creaks itself open right in front of you and you hear something clapping down there even though you know all your kids are upstairs asleep and NOT, in fact, playing “hide and clap” with you in the basement, do you:

A.  Go down into the creepy cellar all by yourself without a flashlight or, seemingly, your brains? (Hey, thank god your husband so pointedly left those matches on the top step for no good reason earlier!)
B.  Turn around immediately, walk out the front door, keep walking FOREVER.

Here’s a hint, intrepid quiz-takers:  The answer to every one of these questions is B!  If you answered A to any of the above questions, you should stop reading here.  There’s no hope for you.  You might as well just possess yourself right now and get it over with (what? I don’t know.).

Now granted, when it comes to moving out of a haunted/possessed house, those of us who have seen 80,000 movies just like this one know this almost never solves your problem.  Persistent little bastards, those spooks. However, even more rarely does it make any sense at all not to at least try!   That’s one of things I liked about Insidious, in fact — the family moves!  The wife is like, “Dude, I am so out of here!” and the husband is all, “You got it, lady.”  It doesn’t work, but at least it’s a normal human being sort of thing to do.  The typical excuse for not moving in these kinds of movies is that the family sunk all their money into the new house and therefore can’t leave without losing everything.  This is idiotic.  What even modestly sane person is going to stay in a house that has doors that open by themselves and FRIGGIN’ GHOSTS playing “HIDE AND CLAP” in the BASEMENT?

Ugh.  RAWR!

Another annoyance for me was the excessive use of shrieking-strings “BOO!” music to make sure we’ve just noticed the terrifying thing we could not possibly have failed to notice because it’s on a screen that is 70 feet across and RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!  This is one of my biggest pet peeves in horror movies — overdoing the shrieking-strings (I blame Psycho for this, incidentally).  Wan does a little of this in Insidious too, but it’s not as noticeable there (at least for me, and I was watching/listening for it the second time around too).  It’s unnecessary and it undermines my intelligence and keen observation skills (see above re: 70 foot screen).  Trust your audience to notice when you zoom in on a little girl’s foot and something invisible gives it a tug. We’ll get it.  We’re not morons (mostly).

Oh, and speaking of which, another quiz question:

If you were a child and something grabbed your foot in the middle of the night, would you:

A. Hang your head off the edge of your bed to see what’s under there, dangling your face an inch away from whatever that thing is going to end up being?

Oh my god, no kid would pick A!  NO KID WOULD PICK A!  The bravest and/or dumbest kid on the planet would NOT PICK A.  That is just ridiculous.  Stop being ridiculous!

I seem mad, right?   It’s because I’m really disappointed.  If Wan is going to make the same movie over and over now, only dumber every time, I have just lost all hope for the future (of Wan movies, anyway).  After the crazy success of Paranormal Activity, not to mention Blair Witch Project, I was hoping horror movie makers would at long last catch on to the fact that it’s what we DON’T see that scares us the most.  Just because you have super-duper CGI technology doesn’t mean you should use it!  The invisible thing is the scariest of all the things.  The minute you show me a dumb cartoon ghost is the minute you start to lose me.  (Including in Insidious, by the way, but Wan waited a decently long time to reveal the (admittedly lame) fire-face demon in that one, and waiting a long time is a more effective way to do that.  Just ask Jaws.)

Also, someone has to say it and it might as well be me:  the end of this movie, in which the “issue” is finally “resolved,” was really goddamn dumb.  Seriously?  That’s all it takes?  Really?  Sheesh.

Look.  I’m sure there are lots of you guys out there who saw this movie and enjoyed it and that’s totally cool and understandable and you are in excellent company!  But I think anyone who is a big horror movie fan and has therefore seen rather a lot of movies just like this one isn’t going to find much here to cling to.  There isn’t a single truly unique moment in the entire movie.   It is every other movie just like it, and that’s all.


[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Ghosts, Demons
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joey King, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Mackenzie Foy, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland


BOOK: A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds (1997)

December 13, 2012

Finch Noble is an older woman who, as this novel opens, recently lost both her parents and now spends her free time tending the graveyard in which they’re buried.  Badly burned and disfigured as a child, she’s grown up the butt of whispers and jokes, which long ago led her to isolate herself from others.  As Finch grew up, she eventually become more or less accustomed to her misshapen face, the stares, and the loneliness, but it’s merely gotten easier, never easy.  Then one day, while tending her father’s grave, Finch Nobel’s comfortable, rote existence gets all shook up anew — when her long-dead dad suddenly starts talking to her.

Soon Finch discovers she can hear and speak to a  dozen or more ghosts in the graveyard. And the more she does, the more each of their unique stories are revealed to both her and us — the baby boy who never stops crying, the gentleman revealed after death to be a transvestite, the young daughter who tries to get Finch to make her mother accept her suicide, etc.

As Finch gets to know each ghost over time, listening to each of their individual and poignant stories of courage and suffering gradually begins to make her see her OWN story (also one of courage and suffering) in a new light.  Cutting herself off from the world may have helped to protect her heart from pain and rejection, but it also protected it from love and friendship, a trade-off Finch finally decides just ain’t worth it.

This isn’t brilliant novel — it’s fairly simply written and doesn’t really delve too deeply into any majorly-emotional or “thoughty” kinds of themes.  However, despite what may sound here like fairly dark content, this is actually a very  light, feel-good kinda book.  Finch is sharp-minded and sharp-tongued, making her exactly the kind of lady I like to hang out with, and the story itself moves quickly and is presented engagingly.  If you’re looking for an even-keeled, no stress, easy-readin’ sort of novel to dive into between hectic holiday moments this month, you might give this one a shot.  See what you think.  Recommended!

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BOOK: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff (2006)

November 6, 2012

I meant to post about this entertaining little horror novel last week for your Halloween reading assignment, but I failed miserably (obvs.) because I continue to be massively swamped and the more I fall behind on reviews here, the more intimidating it has become to sit down and write something.  Maybe it’s time for a “draft post” purge in which I just haiku the heck out of everything from the last two months?  I’ll think about it.

Prometheous in 5-7-5, though?  Have mercy.

I wasn’t expecting much from this novel — never heard of the author, the book flap told me it was her first book, etc. etc.  But I was drawn in by the plot description on the jacket because, in short, I am a terrible sucker for a good spooky ghost story.

And, surprisingly enough, considering the things I’m about to tell you about it, this novel is, in fact, a pretty good spooky ghost story!  Hooray!  It’s set in a small private college, which has emptied out for Thanksgiving, but for a few students who have stayed behind to avoid their respective dysfunctional families.  The five students end up meeting the first night of the long holiday weekend when the loneliness drives them each to the common room to watch TV.  Bored, one of them whips out some booze, another a joint, and the group quickly becomes tight (double entendre intended).  Then one of them finds a Ouija board, and they decide, hey, what’s the worst that could happen?

Ha ha!  To a group of pot-smoking, underage-drinking teenagers with a Ouija board?  Oh, nothing.  Go for it, you guys . . .

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same exact thing in that moment — you’re thinking you know exactly where this story is headed, and for pity’s sake, if people are going to keep writing the same damn stories over and over and make money off them, what the hell is taking YOU so long, you insufferable loser?  (Okay, it’s possible you weren’t thinking that “insufferable loser” part.  Though if you were, I feel your pain.)

Making matters worse (worse, even, than a wholly predictable plot!), the five main characters are all classic stereotypes.  For the gents, we have the indie musician (updated metal-head), the jock, and the nerd; for the  ladies, the socially inept girl and the bad (but vulnerable!) girl.  But despite the fact the story is one that’s been told a bazillion times, and the characters aren’t even remotely unique, the story was still a success for me (at least until the ending, but that’s hardly rare for ghost stories, in my experience — it all has to be explained somehow, after all, and it’s almost never in a way I find satisfying).  The Ouija board gets a lot of action in the story, to pretty thrilling and chilling effect, I have to say, and as the behavior of the ghost dude escalated, I found myself staying up later and later at night, having a harder and harder time putting the book down.  Good sign!

Definitely recommended for fans of the Ouija board genre (what?  it’s a thing!), and I have another of Sokoloff’s novels checked out from the library right now.  Given the fact this was her first novel, I’m willing to give a second or third one a try  — see if she can keep up the spookiness while also taking some brave steps toward originality.  If she does, I’ll let you know.  (Eventually, anyway.  Possibly in 5-7-5.)

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MOVIE: Grave Encounters (2011)

June 5, 2012

While continuing to procrastinate on finishing up the first Boyfriend of the Week write-up for 2012 (I know, I know — I’m getting lamer by the year!), I happened upon this film on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, loaded it up with my Roku, and spent an additional 90 minutes NOT working on the Boyfriend.  You know, the thing you ACTUALLY want to read about.  Ha ha ha, ha. Ha.  Sorry.

The good news, though, is that despite the fact this low-budget flick had all the earmarks of unwatchable dreck (check out that cheesy cover, for example!), I ended up really enjoying it.  I’ve always had a thing for ghost movies, first of all, and though it’s a shameless rip-off of The Blair Witch Project set in a shamelessly cliche location for a ghost movie (old abandoned psychiatric hospital, yawn), the filmmakers somehow managed to make Grave Encounters both entertaining and (occasionally, anyway) authentically unnerving.  There’s a reason old abandoned psychiatric hospitals are a frequent setting for creepy ghost movies, after all, and that reason is that they are FOR SERIOUS CREEPY.

The movie is about a group of reality TV peeps who recently began a Ghost Hunters-style cable TV show.  The story opens with the producer informing us that after filming their 6th episode, the group disappeared, leaving behind only their raw footage, which has now been spliced together for us so we will never forget the brave ghost hunters who came before.  Or something like that.

Then begins the footage.  The group has arrived at ye olde abandoned psychiatric hospital, and they quickly decide to begin the episode with an interview of the building’s caretaker (condemned buildings have caretakers?), who tells them there’s been a long history of ghost sightings in the building ever since the hospital closed down decades ago when a group of the patients, many of whom were psychotic criminals, broke free and killed the hospital’s director.

After some additional introduction, including a scene in which they offer to pay a Hispanic groundskeeper (condemned buildings have groundskeepers?) money if he’ll say on camera he’s seen a ghost there himself, the group heads inside and has the caretaker lock them in.  The plan?  To spend the entire night trapped in the haunted hospital, filming whatever spooky things they can find. (The question?  What kind of crazy hospital has a front door that gets locked from the outside?)  (No, no, don’t ask questions.  Questions only get in the way.  Sorry.  Just ignore me.)

Our intrepid ghost hunters, as it turns out, don’t actually believe in ghosts.  They spend most of the early hours joking around and wishing they could at least get something WEIRD on camera, and, failing that, if they might be able to manufacture something weird instead.  (This is the moment when I muttered under my breath something along the lines of “Be careful what you wish for, dopes.”)  Sure enough, not long after that discussion, strange things begin to befall the crowd.  Followed shortly by things not so much “strange” as, like, “downright terrifying, WHERE IS MY MOMMY?”  Doors slam shut.  One of their crew disappears and reappears later completely crazed out of his mind.  An invisible hand tousles one of the women’s hair.

And then, you know, people start to die.  (Spoiler?  Shut up — they tell us nobody survived in the first five minutes, you guys!)

The group immediately tries to make its way back to the front door, in the hopes they’ll be able to unlock it and get out.  But the hospital is enormous and they keep getting turned around.  Or so they think!  As the night progresses, it becomes clear that something in the hospital is altering their perceptions so that the building continues to change with every turn they take.  By the end of the film, there’s only one dude left.  One dude with one flashlight.  One dude with one flashlight whose batteries just died.  Oops.

There are, of course, pa-LENTY of hokey moments in this movie, including a scene in which a bunch of huge black ghostly hands shoot out of the walls, something that looked so ridiculously fake, I wished they’d saved the dough on the CGI and put it to use somewhere else (craft services, perhaps).  That said, though, overall, this was a pretty entertaining little flick.  The acting was passable and there were, believe it or not, a few scenes that were truly spooksville.  I did spend a LOT of time yelling at the characters (Really?  Ghosts of dead patients are showing up and killing your friends, so you think a great place to hide is right next to the bath tub where you’ve already been told a woman committed suicide?  NICE WORK, MORON!), but I also felt kind of sorry when they all died horrible deaths.  So, you know, that tells you something.

All in all, well worth a gander if you have access to Netflix’s streaming movies.  You could do a lot worse, that’s for sure.  And hey, filmmakers?  I think we’re all pretty much done with the whole “found footage” gimmick.  It was done fairly well here, surprise, surprise, but the chances of YOU (yeah — you over there) doing it fairly well yourself are really, really low.  Let’s retire that one.  Move on to something else.  What?  I don’t know.  (He’s on third, and I don’t give a damn.)

Recommended!  Sort of!

[Netflix it (streaming or DVD)]

Genre:  Horror, Ghost
Cast: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko, Mackenzie Gray, Arthur Corber

BOOK: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (2008)

April 12, 2012

After reading and enjoying Hill’s ghostly novel The Woman in Black, I went looking for other spooky tales she might’ve crafted and found this one right away (thanks to its subtitle, “A Ghost Story”).  This novella is about an evil painting, but not in the way of The Picture of Dorian Gray (or Amityville: The New Generation, for that matter, though technically that was a mirror, not a painting).

It begins with a young man named Oliver visiting his elderly mentor, Theo Parmitter, who is ailing and close to death after years of being a revered but lonely scholar.  The two begin to talk and as Oliver studies Theo’s apartment, a painting along the back wall catches his eye.  He goes to look at it more closely, and finds there an 18th century scene of a carnival on the streets of Venice.  It’s very detailed work, and obviously old.  Only, the more Oliver looks at it, the more he becomes somewhat troubled by certain elements.  First, it seems every one of the people painted in it is looking right at him, even as he moves from side to side, and then Oliver notices that one of the men, who is depicted looking terrified as he’s being carted off by two others, seems to look anachronistic.  Wrong clothes, strange facial expression, something just a little off.

When Oliver mentions the painting to Theo, Theo decides it’s time to tell someone the true story of the piece, so he sits Oliver down and begins.  After telling the first part of the story, which is primarily about how Theo came to own the painting, Theo is so exhausted he begs Oliver to let him finish the tale another day.  Frustrated and wanting to know more, Oliver reluctantly agrees and then is horrified to discover Theo nearly dies of a stroke later that evening.  Blaming himself for pushing Theo to tell him a story that was clearly upsetting, Oliver decides to stay in town and help him get back on his feet.  When Theo’s feeling better, he finally tells Oliver the rest of the truth about the painting, a story that involves an evil woman and the disappearances of several people who later appear in the painting as if by magic.  Or, more accurately, by curse.

It’s not a terribly scary story, all in all — in fact, it’s kind of hokey.  But the same was true of The Woman in Black, and, as with both books, the reason I ended up really enjoying them is because Hill is extremely talented at setting a scene.  Her descriptions of both characters and the spaces they inhabit are subtle perfection.  She never spends paragraphs simply describing things — instead, you pick up on things slowly, forming a detailed image in your mind as you read.  The way the characters talk, for one thing, plays a major role in how they start to look in your mind.  That’s crafty writing, right there.  Same thing goes for physical sensations the characters report — the smell of a room, the touch of an object.  She’s very, very good at that sort of thing, which goes a long way toward letting me overlook some flaws in her storytelling.

Hill is also the author of a six-part series of mystery novels about a London detective named Simon Serrailler — I have the first one out from the library right now (The Various Haunts of Men) and it’s up next in my pile. Here’s hoping it’s as well written as her ghost stories have so far been!  If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought in the comments section below?


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BOOK and MOVIE: The Woman in Black (Book by Susan Hill (1983), Movie (2012))

March 9, 2012

When I first saw the trailer for this film a few months ago, the plot sounded awfully familiar.  I went online to dig around a bit and found that, sure enough, it’s based on a novel of the same name that I read about a bazillion years ago in high school.  It’d been so long, though, that I barely remembered anything about it — time to pick up a copy of the book, I decided, and dive in anew while waiting for the film to be released.

Now as any book and film lover knows, it can be hard to tell what to do when there’s both a movie and a book version of the same story available.  In some cases, reading the book first is best; in others, seeing the movie first is the way to go.  In thinking about this quandary lately, I’ve come to the decision that making that choice almost always boils down to which one is better — you want to experience the better one first.  The film for Let the Right One In, for example, was absolutely stunning — beautiful and strange and moving.  The book, on the other hand, was less mesmerizing, but had a lot more stuff about the characters to offer, adding a little more depth to the story I had experienced in the film.  Perfect.

When it comes to The Woman in Black, I have now discovered, the book is vastly superior to the movie.  Luckily, I did it right instinctively.  And now you can do it right instructively.  YOU’RE WELCOME.

Though both the book and the film share the same basic story, the way that story gets told is radically different.  In both cases, a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Harry Potter), who recently lost his wife and has been falling down on the job ever since, is given one last assignment by his boss — fail to complete it, and he’s fired.  Kipps, grateful for the second chance, takes on the task.  He’s sent to a small village in England called Crippin Gifford, where he is to review all the personal papers of the late Mrs. Drablow, a hermitish old woman whose house is known as “Eel Marsh House” because, wonder of wonders, it’s surrounded by Eel Marsh, a series of deep, deadly bogs.   Kipps soon discovers there’s something else considered deadly at Eel Marsh House — the ghost that haunts it.  Despite frequent warnings from the locals, he ends up staying in the house overnight, eager as he is to finish his task and prove to his boss he’s worth keeping, and, well, you can probably imagine how well THAT goes.

The problem with the movie is that, really, this is a fairly predictable ghost story, as most ghost stories tend to be — the plot moves along just as you expect it to (maybe the end could be considered a bit twisty, but I sure saw it coming a mile away while reading the book), and the characters do all the things characters in these movies always do (that is, they go in all sorts of places they SHOULD NOT GO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DO NOT GO IN THERE, ARE YOU CRAZY MY GOD!).  To make the movie more exciting, and ostensibly to make it appeal more to today’s fans of splashy violence and gore, the filmmakers threw in a lot of extra horror stuff that isn’t in the book — images of a woman hanging herself, scary ghost faces that suddenly appear out of nowhere, lots of BOO! moments punctuated by overly dramatic music, etc.

The book, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with this kind of crap; the scary parts are way more subtle.  The first time Kipps sees the ghost, for example, is vastly different in the book and ten times creepier too (partly because it lasts longer, that scene, and takes place in a church, the one place it’s assumed you’re safe from evil).  There’s also a long scene in the book in which Kipps wakes in the middle of the night in the house to hear a strange thumping sound coming from outside his room.  He goes to investigate and finds it’s coming from a room at the end of the hall.  His dog is going berserk.  The next page starts with just the words, “THUMP THUMP THUMP,” which, for three words in a terribly short sentence with no nouns, sure scared the bejesus out of me.  THAT scene is scary — a noise with no identifiable source, a man you’ve come to like very much standing extremely close to the origin of that noise and sure to go even closer.  Oh my god, I can’t read on.  I can’t take it!  Don’t go in there! Go in there!  Don’t go in there!  Go in there!

This kind of suspense is completely missing from the film (in the movie version of this scene, it’s all over in seconds and is ruined by the source of the sound way, way overacting).  This leads me to believe the filmmakers assumed audiences no longer have patience for slow-moving suspense-builders.  We don’t want a scene in which a man stands outside of a door and wrestles with himself about what to do next (don’t go in there, go in there, i.e.).  We want a scene where he bursts in and is immediately confronted with the worst of his imaginations.  Except, do we?  Because the thing is, the scene in the book is SCARY.  The scene in the film is YAWN.  It’s the things you DON’T see that are frightening, if you ask me (and Shakespeare, who is known for this sort of trick).  It’s the things that can’t be explained.  The things that make you wonder if maybe you’re crazy.  And the movie just wrecks all this — it’s obvious the house is haunted, there are no deeper questions to be asked.

That’s just . . . not that interesting.

The one change in the film I DID like, though, was the increased role of Ciaran Hinds’ character Daily (who may have had a different name in the book — I can’t remember now).  He’s a wealthy local man in Crippin Gifford who meets Arthur on the train and takes him under his wing, loaning him his dog when Kipps says he’s staying in the house overnight, and coming to check on him periodically.  I love Ciaran Hinds, so I’m always glad when he has a lot to do in a movie.  Unfortunately, the also-increased role of his wife in the film kind of undoes all the good parts of Hinds’ work — she’s over the top, and she her character merely added to the film’s overall “tell don’t show” feeling.

Overall, I did enjoy the film.  I’m glad I watched it.  I might watch it again some day.  Harry Potter does a good job with his role and the scenery is lovely.  And while I probably would’ve enjoyed it even more had I not read the book first, not knowing, then, how simplified they’d made the story, I also probably wouldn’t have bothered with the book after seeing the movie.  And I’m telling you, if you like scary ghost stories, this is a book to pick up.  It’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s well-written and engaging, and far more successful at creating an eerie, “Don’t turn off the light!” kind of mood.

Book: recommended!  Movie:  whatever!

Book: Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews

Movie:  Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Shaun Dooley, Roger Allam

BOOK: The White Devil by Justin Evans (2011)

January 6, 2012

I’m way behind on movie and book reviews again — I left for a week’s vacation for the holidays (sans computer, go me!) and then, naturally, went down for the count with a nasty cold and subsequent sinus infection.  But I’m finally back in action, and since my “Best of 2011” lists are about to go up on the Boyfriend page, I want to whip through a few last-minute 2011 reviews here this weekend.  Getcha all caught up.

This book was the book I bought to read on my vacation, after reading several reviews of it that recommended it strongly, including one by Stephen King.  Stephen King!  Have I learned nothing in my 38 years of life?  I was so excited to pick up a new ghost story — total sucker for those — that the Master of Horror had said was not only spooky as hell, but literarily grand as well.  Oh, Stephen King.  You have absolutely abominable taste, sir.

This boring, overwritten, overwrought novel is set in a fancy-pants private school for teenaged boys in the UK, the Harrow School.  As the story opens, American 17 year-old Andrew Taylor has just bought his way into the school after having burned his way through several US institutions by selling drugs and getting expelled.  He’s ready to start over and knows a mention of the prestigious Harrow School on his college applications is the only way to save his future bacon.

It takes Andrew some time to adjust, but he finally begins making friends with the boys in his dorm, as well as his resident adviser of sorts, Professor Piers Fawkes.  But when one of Andrew’s new friends dies of a mysterious and sudden pulmonary illness, gasping out his last bloody breath in Andrew’s arms, Andrew soon finds himself accused of murder by his peers.  Trying to boost him back up a bit, Fawkes casts him as the lead in his new play about the poet Lord Byron, one of the school’s most famous alumni, saying Andrew looks uncannily just like him.  But as soon as Andrew begins to delve into the world of Byron and his history at Harrow, he finds himself being visited by a vicious spirit he soon comes to realize is also connected to the great poet.  And is the monster responsible for killing his friend to boot.

From there, a series of additional deaths, the discovery of a love affair that turned to murder, a ghostly sexual assault scene I really could’ve done without, and a whooooole lotta boring inanity.

Among the many problems I had with the extremely bloated mess of story lines in this book was the absolute lack of any creativity whatsoever.  The ghost is pale, gaunt, and breathes with a death rattle.  Yawn.  The two main characters, Andrew and the first female student at the school, Persephone, bond over their troubled pasts and fall into an equally troubled love.  Zzzzz.  And the ending — oh brother.  Ghosts real or not aside, the stuff about tuberculosis was wildly inaccurate, and the story of Byron’s homosexual love affair, based on a true story (sort of) is so twisted and nasty it almost felt cruel to me.  And the way they finally get rid of that pale, rattling ghost?  Golly, that was easy.  And convenient.  And dumb, dumb, dumb.

I ended up reading this entire novel primarily because it was the only book I had with me.  Big mistake.  Had I given myself an additional option, I would never have made it past page 50 in this stinker.  Badly imagined, boringly conceived, this book is an absolute waste of your time.  LEARN FROM ME!


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MOVIE: Insidious (2011)

May 2, 2011

One part Poltergeist, one part The Exorcist, one part The Entity (well, you know, Barbara Hershey, anyway), one part The Lone Gunmen, and three parts “I’ll be leaving the light on at night for weeks, I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING.”

Dear Leigh Whannel (writer of both this film and the original Saw) :

You are mother-f*cking HIRED, sir.  I was all, “Aw, MAN!” at the end and then I was all, “HELLS YES, GENTLEMEN!”  And now I would like to buy you a beer.

Sincerely, Meg.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Ghosts
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Barbara Hershey

MOVIE: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

October 30, 2010

I was having a crappy day last Saturday, so I decided in the afternoon to flee the house and hit a movie.  One of my favorite movie reviewers, Slate’s Dana Stevens, had just posted her opinion of this flick, and when she said she thought it was a blast, I knew it was a safe bet for me too.  As it turns out, we were both right.  Go us!

This movie serves as both a prequel and a sequel to the first Paranormal Activity.  The bulk of the story is set a few months before the original film, with the final scene set the day after.  Because of this, it is, I’m afraid, an absolute prerequisite that you’ve seen the first one.  Two of the three 15 year-old girls I smuggled into this R-rated movie (“Um, yeah, I’m her big sister. . .”) hadn’t seen the original and therefore spent the entire 90 minutes alternating between screams of terror and obnoxious questions like, “Wait, who’s that guy?”   It was pretty damn annoying, frankly.  And so, when I say “prerequisite,” mind you I’m saying it mainly for the sake of others in the theater who would like to be left to watch the film in peace. Keep your questions to yourself.  Write ’em down, Google ’em later.

For those that saw PA1, a quick reminder:  it was about a young couple, Katie and Micah, who suspected they were being haunted by some kind of spirit.  They set up a video camera in their bedroom and began to record the nights, watching the footage together each morning.  They monkeyed with a Ouija board, because they were idiots who never watched horror movies.  And gradually, they began to realize not only that they were, in fact, truly being haunted, but that the spirit was an evil one out to get them.  Hints were dropped that it was something Katie had seen before, as a little girl sharing a room with her younger sister, Kristi.  And eventually, the evil demon spirit got super-duper mad and all hell broke loose.  Litrilly.

Paranormal Activity 2 focuses on Katie’s sister Kristi and her husband and two kids — a teenage daughter (her step-daughter) and the couple’s new baby, a boy named Hunter.  Essentially, it’s the same story as the first film:  haunted house, escalating violence, bloody denouement.  But this time, we get a little more of an idea of what the Bad Thing is doing there, as well as what it wants.

The story is hardly the point, though, right?  What you really want to know is whether or not it’s scary.  The answer to that is a yes and a no from me.  That is, no, it didn’t scare me in the way really, really good scary movies scare me.  It’s not a problem I could relate to, not believing in demons, and therefore not something that dug into me in a personal way.

However, the movie is perfectly crafted to make even the most jaded horror movie fan jump three feet into the air roughly every ten minutes.  It’s loaded with those moments I call “BOO!” moments, when things are quiet, quiet, quiet, and then KAZAM! something suddenly happens outta nowhere and your brain throws your body instantaneously into flight mode.  Upwards.  At one point near the end, I was convinced one of those 15 year-old girls I snuck in was going to jump into my lap and stay there for the rest of her life.  This, I would say, is a fairly good quality in a scary movie.

The other thing I liked about PA2 was the way it was set up.  This time, instead of a single, hand-held camera, perched on a tripod at night (as in the original), this family has about four security cameras set up in the house, thinking initially that their problem is a pesky human being.  That means that every night, when the world goes dark, what we see is a rotation through each camera — a steady cycling for a minute or two through each location.  Cut to the pool — everything’s quiet at the pool.  Cut to the kitchen — everything’s quiet at the kitchen.  Cut to the staircase — everything’s quiet at the staircase.  Cut to the baby’s room — mostly quiet, though the dog looks distressed (dogs always know, don’t they? Dogs, babies, and Catholic nannies).   Cut back to the pool — everything’s quiet at the. . . holy shit, THAT ain’t natural!!

It’s the perfect set-up for what is, essentially, a 90-minute series of loud-quiet-loud gimmickry designed to keep you precariously perched on the edge of your seat.  And man, does it ever work.

If you’re looking for a Halloween movie this weekend, in other words, I think you’ve got your flick.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Ghosts
Cast:  Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Sprague Grayden, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

BOOK: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)

July 28, 2010

This book tried hard to market itself as a ghost story, with a spooky front cover and a back-jacket blurb about a haunting.  But though I usually adore ghost stories, the ghostly elements of this novel just cluttered it up, turning what otherwise might’ve been a great book into simply a good one.

The story focuses on the Ayres family, wealthy landowners in the small English village of Warwickshire.  The family has lived in their grand estate house, Hundred Halls, for centuries, and every year, they’ve thrown an enormous party for the entire village, in part as a way to maintain good will with the villagers, most of whom are  hard-working poor people.

But when World War II comes and goes, it takes Mr. Ayres with it, leaving the only remaining Ayres male, his young son Rod, disabled.  Unable to maintain all the land, the family fortune, and with it Hundred Halls, begins to crumble.

One of the locals who attended the Ayres’s lavish parties as a child — his mother was a servant at Hundred Halls — grew up to become the town doctor.  Now, in the late 1940’s, Dr. Faraday is hired as the family’s[primary care physician.  The more time he spends with the three remaining Ayreses, the more he begins to like them, especially Mrs. Ayres and her daughter, Caroline.  Rod also befriends Faraday, though hesitantly at first, and eventually even accepts the doctor’s offer to help with his chronic pain.

Something about Faraday’s interactions with them seems to revitalize the family a bit.  For years, they’ve kept to themselves, the subjects of a lot of speculation and town gossip, and now Faraday has let some of the light back in.  Deciding it’s time Caroline got out more, Mrs. Ayres throws the first party Hundred Halls has seen in years.  This will be their great comeback.  Life’s pickin’ up.  This is gonna be good.  So, so good.

Orrrrrr not.  The party starts off kind of awkward, the guests taken aback by the decrepitude of the once great estate.  But it takes a turn to outright awful when suddenly the Ayres family dog viciously attacks a little girl — seemingly unprovoked.  The town and the family once again estrange themselves from each other, despite Faraday’s efforts to settle things down, and Mrs. Ayres slowly sinks back into a deep, dark funk.

Slowly, and I mean reallllly slowly, we begin to learn that Hundred Halls is haunted.  Rod alerts Faraday to it first, describing his own bizarre experiences the night of the fateful party.  But instead of believing him, Faraday assumes the stress of Hundred Halls has finally driven him crazy.  Only then the maid, Betsy, starts to see things too.  And finally Caroline.  Eventually, the identity of the ghost is revealed to us, as well as its tie to the decline of the once-great Ayres family.

The problem is, this ghost story is so minor an element for the first 3/4ths of the novel that it felt to me more like an underdeveloped afterthought tossed in there in an attempt to re-genre the novel into something “sexier” than “general fiction.”  I’m sure that’s not what happened, of course — Waters hardly needs to resort to gimmicks to sell books at this point.  But the ghost story was disappointingly unoriginal, and mostly just kept getting in the narrative’s way.

What WAS good about the book, and what I wish had been its sole focus, were the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the slow-burning, hesitant affection between Faraday and Caroline, two adults too smart for their own social good, lonely and unexperienced in the ways of romance.  Waters is a great inventor of people — her characters are always so real, so full, and these two were no exception.  The story of a doctor from humble beginnings who brought a wealthy, sleeping family back to life would’ve been a great book.  Tossing in this ghost hoohah?  Waters, what were you thinking?

Despite this flaw, though, I did enjoy reading The Little Stranger.  I’m a big fan of Waters’s other novels and her writing here, if not her storytelling, is as sharp and engaging as always.  If you’re new to her work, though, skip this one for now and dive into the incredible world of Fingersmith instead.  That one’s great, no two bones.


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