It was almost 10 years ago that Saw hit theaters and kick started not just the wildly popular, long running horror series, but also the career of its sophomore director, James Wan. And given my reaction to the Seven-lite knockoff (I wasn't impressed, despite the gleeful sadism on display), I never would have guessed that nearly a decade later, James Wan would make one of the creepiest, most classically effective horror films in recent memory.
I never would have guessed his simple shot compositions and standard issue, blue-filtered visual style would evolve, from Saw to 2010's Insidious, into a nearly masterful control of his frame, of the atmosphere contained therein and the tone of dread that Saw sorely lacked. I never would have guessed he'd become an actor's director. (Remember how terrible Cary Elwes really was in Saw? How out of place Danny Glover seemed?) He's able to cull genuine performances from his cast that pull the audience in, while reinvigorating some well-worn horror film tropes.
Step Away From the Light, Carol Anne. Supernatural forces scare the shit out of some kids and parents alike in The Conjuring, a way-better-than-expected flick.
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But, damn if he hasn't done it. Even better, the promise of Insidious's first two, deeply suspenseful acts (the third act kind of falls apart, but that's almost forgivable considering how good the buildup is) are fulfilled by Wan's latest and easily greatest, The Conjuring.
Based (somewhat loosely) on the true events of the Perron family in 1971, we meet Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston, Office Space and Lili Taylor, Public Enemies) and their five daughters as they move from the big city into a rustic, 18th-century house in rural Rhode Island. They bring their dog, too, which won't even set paw inside the place.
Almost immediately things get weird: all the clocks stop at 3:07 a.m., invisible hands grab the girls in the night, birds inexplicably kamikaze into the side of the house, and their youngest starts talking to her new, seemingly imaginary friend Rory.
It's not long before the events escalate ever more violently, compelling Carolyn to seek the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Insidious and Vera Farmiga), a self-styled demonologist and clairvoyant husband-and-wife team. Unconvinced that the Perrons are indeed in danger (most suspected haunted houses turn out to have perfectly rational reasons for going bump in the night), Ed and Lorraine quickly find that they are facing down a supernatural force more hateful and malevolent than any they have ever experienced.
Directed by Wan and written by Chad and Carey Hayes (House of Wax; they've come a long way, too), The Conjuring finds most all of its talents in top form. The script is a lovingly crafted ode to horror movies of the late '70s -- in particular The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror and the under seen George C. Scott starrer, The Changeling -- and is a wonderfully crafted slow-burn of meticulously built tension. From the one-off beginning, introducing the wildly creepy 1968 story of Annabelle, a possessed doll that would inexplicably show up in different rooms on its own and sometimes write messages ("Miss me?"), the story of the Warrens and their museum of possessed artifacts to the increasingly alarming terrors endured by the Perrons, the writing is damn near effortless at weaving the narratives' organic threads into an elegantly constructed whole.
James Wan and his evolved directorial hand guide the proceedings with easy confidence and an assured sense of style -- both visually and tonally -- that sets the stage for some genuine chills. Of course, there are elements of a few films mixed in here, and in that regard, The Conjuring isn't really doing anything particularly groundbreaking. Indeed, Wan has largely recreated the elements of what worked with Insidious and augmented them with a new story and a more consistent execution. But what The Conjuring does it does so well that it's kind of impossible not to let the comfortable familiarity fall away as Wan expertly ratchets up the tension levels.
Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor are fine as the Perrons, and their five daughters bring varying levels of depth to their roles -- but can pull off scared, which is really the name of the game. Wilson and Farmiga are pretty great as the Warrens, a truly odd couple whose lifelong (and controversial) devotion to the paranormal was only fueled by their devotion to each other.
The Conjuring might well be Wan's best film. It sure as hell got to me, and that's not anything I expected, at all. The plan is for a franchise (the Warrens were also involved in the Amityville case among others) and I, for one, would be totally on board to see a series of kind-of, sort-of true tales of the macabre with this creative team at the wheel. It would seem, looking at the box office numbers, that everyone else is onboard, too.
Only God Forgives
Like most Nicholas Winding Refn films, Only God Forgives is bound to divide an audience. Refn's style, coldly vibrant narratives painted in detailed visual textures, stylish atmosphere and punctuated by often brutal violence, demand engagement. From his Herzog-on-acid Viking masterpiece, Valhalla Rising -- which utilized every badass fiber of Mads Mikkelsen's awesome being -- to the Walter-Hill-meets-Jodorowsky-inspired Drive, Refn subverts seemingly straightforward genre pictures by defying cinematic expectations. Only God Forgives, his interweaving tale of vengeance and retribution is every bit as uncompromising and ruthless.
Reuniting with star Ryan Gosling after 2011's Drive, Only God Forgives drops us into the steamy, neon-drenched mazes of Bangkok, Thailand. Julian (Gosling) runs an underground Muay Thai boxing club that is a cover for his real business as a heroin trafficker. He's partners with his brother Billy (Tom Burke, Donkey Punch), a sexual sadist and overall psychopath who rapes and beats a teenaged prostitute to death.
When the local sheriff, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, The Hangover II) allows the dead girl's father to take revenge against Billy, their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, Gosford Park), comes to town to make sure, with Julian, that everyone involved in her beloved firstborn's death are forced to pay the price.
Unfortunately, Chang, is a stoic, ice-cold enforcer who believes himself to be God and seems to be completely unstoppable. And if you noticed the title, he's not that big on forgiveness. So he takes time out from his karaoke nights to become a sword-toting, divinely inspired killing machine. That's not as funny as it sounds. In fact, if it's one thing I will never anticipate existing, it'll be a Nicholas Winding Refn comedy.
Only God Forgives finds Refn playing with the same aesthetics as his last film while marginalizing the plot to a supporting structure for 90-minutes of brooding tone. It's a really simple story, with the repetitions of a violent poem, one that descends into the thickly rendered atmosphere he's created. The neon-soaked, back-lit alleys, the repeating forms of temple-like hallways as Julian stalks, practically mute though this alien nightscape -- and his strangely detached trysts with a call-girl (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Jan Dara: The Beginning) all serve to build a nearly Lynchian dystopia.
Visually stunning, Only God Forgives -- which again is dedicated to Jodorowsky -- feels like a parable shot through with arty pretensions that might turn some off. But while Refn's tendency to be crushingly serious might come off as self-indulgent (actually, it totally is) the overall effect of Only God Forgives is enigmatic, creepy and exciting. It's the self-indulgence of a visionary who knows what he wants and dares the audience to follow him under the waves of meaning.
Alcohol and Tattoos Means We’re Badasses. Darkness, revenge, and Ryan Gosling — hey, something for everyone! Only God Forgives is now playing.
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The gorgeous look of the film is matched by an equally effective soundtrack -- again, feeling like a sibling to Drive -- the effect of which only serves to deepen the densely atmospheric world, accentuate the austere thematic layers, and punctuate the slowly built tension.
Gosling is largely in Drive mode here, too, not given over to much emoting (or even talking), and that works. He's almost as much an effect as the city he's living in. Kristin Scott Thomas is creepy, dangerous and kind of great as Crystal, one of those moms who seems somewhat based on a combination of Cruella DeVille and MacBeth -- weirdly sexual and sadistic to her offspring but ultimately beholden to them when she overplays her hand. As Chang, Pansringarm is Clint Eastwood, essentially, the lone badass in a Far East Western who stands for the law but doesn't fuck around when it comes to dispensing justice. He's awesome, and it's through him that the film achieves its most viciously memorable moments.
Only God Forgives isn't Refn's best film (at least I'm pretty sure it isn't, it demands repeat viewings), but if you're already a fan of his singular style and unwavering cinematic vision, then it doesn't really have to be.
Because no one else is making movies like he is, like returning from the other side of another world.
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