27 July 2016

A Babadook-Shaped Shadow of Mental Illness: Lights Out

Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Eric Heisserer
Full cast and crew at IMDb

Darkness is a primal human fear that horror movies have long exploited; the structure of so many recent genre entries is: daytime exposition, nighttime scare, repeat ad infinitum. This movie strips that formula down. The malevolent force here is allergic to illumination, a Babadook-shaped shadow that disappears when you flick a switch or point a flashlight—that is, the villain is concentrated darkness itself. 

David Sandberg directs in the signature purist style of James Wan (who’s a producer here): Sandberg builds tension slowly, with camera movement and light. (The best scenes are a comic one, in which a potential victim scrambles to find more light, from his cell phone to a car-key fob, and a long sequence shot in maximally creepy blacklight.) But he shows that it’s not as easy as Wan makes it look—Sandberg is capable but not masterful, and Lights Out is scary but never terrifying.

The conceit, stretched out to 81 minutes by Eric Heisserer, is a bit too thin to support the backstory heaped upon its shoulders, but it’s actually the strength of the underlying ideas that makes this movie as effective as its classical construction. What anchors the story is the clear metaphor of the monster as a manifestation of mom’s mental illness, a harmful, lurking thing that gets rids of daddies and threatens children. It’s a moving (if irresponsible) look at how children cope with, and suffer under, sick parents. Alternatively, it’s a troubling look at how abusive people can dominate a relationship—or a family. Grade: B

05 July 2016

As Stupid As It Is Amazing: The Conjuring 2

Directed by James Wan
Full cast and crew at IMDb

I'm still surprised that the director of the campy Saw and the unwatchable Dead Silence matured into the most respectable horror helmer in Hollywood. The Conjuring 2 kept me with my heart in my throat, asking myself scene after scene why I'd bought a ticket to put myself through the relentless build-up of anticipation and terror—it’s awesomely effective, the most horrifying horror around. But that’s no surprise: James Wan is the best, which became an inarguable fact in 2011, when Insidious came out, and subsequent films have only upheld this reputation—even the ones he only produced (such as Insidious 3 and Annabelle, each a piece of strong horror filmmaking in the classical Wan style). 

He’s patient; he lets small sounds, creeping camera movements, deep focus create unbearable tension. Then he’ll let it break, but only a little, and then he starts up again, reaching a higher point of intolerable apprehension. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until it’s as exciting as it is unendurable. The daylight scenes in The Conjuring 2, the ones in horror movies in which the characters tend to be safe for exposition, are brief; the nights are long.

Those days are also pretty stupid. (Wan cowrote the script with Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson, each of whom has written more than their fair share of crap.) I’m generous with my suspension of disbelief, because there's often an emotional payoff more rewarding than cynical superiority. But even I balked at this one. Here’s the spoiler: the demon can only be defeated if the characters know its name, which they do, because previously they asked the demon its name, and it told them—they’d just forgotten! (Good thing they wrote it down!) Then there’s the incessant Catholicism, which adds hollow spirituality, as well as overly literal interpretations of good and evil that Catholicism often inspires (see: all of Guillermo del Toro's movies, The Exorcist, etc. etc.), the sort of simplistic black-and-white morality that deadens the richest art. It’s a shame that Wan can’t find writers as committed to the craft as he is. Then he could make masterpieces without asterisks. Grade: B+