Movie Review: Ouija (2014)

October 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

ouija

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Ouija, this year’s Halloween supernatural horror release, is really really stupid. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Ouija is really really stupid. And I don’t mean the idea that a board can communicate with the dead — I actually believe some of that stuff is real. Oujia is idiotic because of the poor execution of the idea, the unsubtle and shameless horror cliches, the trite dialogue, and the utterly incomprehensible human reactions that defy all common sense and rationality.

Try to come up with the most cookie-cutter plot you can possibly think of for a horror movie involving a Ouija board, and chances are you have just come up with the screenplay for Ouija. A girl (Shelley Hennig) dies under mysterious circumstances. Her best friend (Olivia Cooke), best friend’s sister (Ana Coto), boyfriend (Douglas Smith) and others (Daren Kagasoff and Bianca A Santos) try to contact her with a Ouija board — the same one she used before she died — and they end up releasing some demonic spirit. The spirit haunts them and kills them off, one by one, while the survivors try and figure out the mystery behind it all. People with knowledge of how Ouija boards work are contacted, and they must figure out a way to save themselves before it’s all too late. Feel familiar?

To be fair, Ouija is not completely devoid of scares. It’s a film that knows what it is and who its audiences are, and it makes no attempt to be subtle. You’re likely to jump at least a couple of times, but only because that’s all the film is trying to do. The attempts at scaring viewers are typical and almost always the same — silence, silence silence, BOO! It’s always a loud noise, and occasionally it’s accompanied by something coming at the screen, being pulled away from the screen, or some ghastly sight. They don’t even try to mix it up a little with the occasional feint. There’s the obligatory scene in the bathroom, you know, the one with the mirror on the medicine cabinet, and of course, a convenient need to go into both an attic AND a basement.

I admit the tactics got to me at first, making me flinch a handful of times, but as the film progressed the scares just became more and more predictable. It’s one thing to know that a BOO moment is coming, but it’s another to be able to anticipate exactly when it will come, and even how it will come. Towards the end I even predicted how the plot would turn out, including the so-called “twist,” the “climax” and the “epilogue” scene. I hate spoilers, but can I just say I almost lost it when the protagonist’s suggestively Latino grandmother is conveniently revealed, right towards the end, as an expert on Ouija boards.

I wish I could say Oujia‘s problems end there, but it gets worse. First-time feature director Stiles White has some craftiness in his direction, so I’d say most of the blame goes to the atrocious script. I expected the dialogue to be sub-par, but here it’s quite perplexing. Apart from the cringeworthy exposition tagged to every second line, characters would say things that made no sense at all. When you pop out of nowhere and scare someone, you don’t then say to their face, “It’s me!” They know it’s you. You’re standing right in front of them.

More criminal than the dialogue is the actions of the characters, which are designed so that the next “scare” can be slotted in. It’s as though the whole film began as a collection of scare scenarios, and the rest of the plot was written around them. Doors to buildings are left open for inexplicable reasons just so they can slam shut to scare us. Doors are purposely left open so they can swing by themselves. A guy would ride a bike very fast, as though he’s in a hurry to get somewhere, only to get off it so he can walk extremely slowly through a dark — and extremely flat — underpass. He’ll even leave his bike so he can walk into the darkness to check out strange noises. Two sisters would leave together their house to go to play with a Ouija board, but only one of them would be seen returning home without any explanation whatsoever. Characters would be totally freaked out by something extremely small and potentially innocuous, but suddenly become brave enough to keep going in the face of something 10 times scarier and obviously demonic. They would even voluntarily separate in extremely frightening situations so characters can be alone. Sloppy, poorly thought-through stuff like this just frustrates me to no end.

I’m probably being harder on Ouija than I should be because I find the spirit boards fascinating and wanted it to be more than your run-of-the-mill supernatural horror flick. Unfortunately, it was even more unimaginative than I thought it would be. That’s not to say those looking for a cheap thrill or two won’t get their money’s worth, but for me this was a huge disappointment.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Devil (2010)

December 10, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Unlike most people, I still look forward to M Night Shyamalan movies — even if he just produced it and came up with the idea for the story.

Yes, Devil is neither written nor directed by Shyamalan, but it is still very much his project.  It is the first film of the Night Chronicles trilogy, which deals with supernatural themes in modern society.  Without giving too much away, it’s about a bunch of strangers who get stuck in a skyscraper elevator, and one of them may or may not be the devil.

Sounds like a gimmicky film, and it kind of is, but Devil is better than I expected considering the low budget and the narrow premise.  There is an inevitability about the progression of the plot, but I was nevertheless kept guessing until the end — and knowing Shyamalan, there is always a clever “twist” or “revelation” of some sort to look forward to.

That said, potential viewers of Devil need to keep their expectations in check, for this is really not much more than an average film backed by an intriguing idea.  My biggest problem with the film is that none of the characters felt very convincing.  The situation, the reactions and the dialogue don’t feel very authentic, and as a result the film never becomes as scary as it should be.

Nevertheless, at a tight 80-minutes, Devil is a crafty little thriller that can be enjoyable if in the right mood.

3 out of 5 stars

Classic Movie Review: The Orphanage (2007)

March 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews, Paranormal

Most of the posters for this film are very disappointing, but this Spanish one's not too bad

I’m a sucker for supernatural thrillers, and for the last couple of years I kept hearing about this Spanish film called El Orfanato (The Orphanage), the debut feature of director Juan Antonio Bayona, and produced by his good friend Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and soon, The Hobbit).

I finally got around to watching it, and admittedly, the hype is justified.

The Orphanage tells the tale of a woman who returns with her husband and son to her childhood home, an orphanage, which they intend to turn into a home for disabled kids.  Needless to say, stuff happens.  I don’t think it’s a premise I’ve seen before, but I’m sure it feels familiar.

Three things that tend to be common in ghost movies: big old house, weird noises and creepy children.  The Orphanage ticks all three boxes, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s going to be a formulaic, predictable horror.  The Orphanage is multiple notches above your average supernatural story for a variety of reasons.

First, the atmosphere is genuinely creepy.  It’s a film that builds up the tension gradually, using a combination of eerie stories and spooky moments.  It unsettles you, makes you feel uncomfortable.  It rarely relies on the cheaps scares that plague horror films these days.  There are also some clever tricks that I won’t divulge, but they are freaking terrifying.  There are a couple of scenes in particular that are classics in my opinion, and they always give me chills when I think about them.

Second, you actually give a crap about the characters.  Laura, the mother and the main lead, is exceptionally played by Spanish actress Belen Rueda.  You feel her pain, her fears, and her desperation.  Rueda makes her a flesh and blood, believable character you care about.  The father, Carlos, played by Fernando Cayo, has less to do here, but he has his moments too in a subtle, controlled performance.

Third, it’s a great story!  Given the premise I described above, it would have been easy for the film to collapse into your run-of-the-mill haunted house story, but there is so much more to it.  There is mystery, intrigue, twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming.

In a way, The Orphanage shouldn’t even really be called a “horror” as that downplays the dramatic aspects of the film.  I think the main reason the movie has done so well (won 7 Goya awards) is because of how emotional and heartbreaking it is, in a way you don’t expect horror movies to be.

Watch it before the obligatory Hollywood remake comes out! (New Line has already acquired the rights)

4.5 stars out of 5!

The Haunting in Connecticut – Fact or Fiction?

April 10, 2009 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Paranormal

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Just how much of it is true?

Yesterday I watched the ‘based on the true story’ film The Haunting in Connecticut.

First, a short review

To be honest, despite the poor reviews the film was received, it wasn’t all that bad.  It was just average, and for a supernatural horror film, ‘average’ is pretty good these days.  In my opinion, it was one of those rare horror films that actually got better as it progressed.  In the first half or so, the attempted scares were your stock standard ‘boo’ moments and the bloody, visceral shocks you’d expect to see in any regular PG-13 horror.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I found myself actually frightened a few times in the second half, and that’s a rarity for me nowadays.  I even forgot how insanely and ridiculously stupid and non-sensical (even within the confines of the film’s own logic) everything was.  And for that,  3 out of 5 stars!

Fact or Fiction?

After I got home, I started wondering just how much of the film was really ‘based’ on the true story?  Was it even a true story to begin with?  Which characters existed and what parts of the film actually happened in real life?

And so I turned to the trusty old Internets for some answers.  The results were…interesting.

The film is ‘based’ on supposedly true events that happened to the Snedeker family in 1986 when they moved into a house that turned out to be a former funeral home.  Naturally, spooky stuff started happening.  Their oldest son, who was 13 at the time and being treated for Hodgkin’s disease (the ‘Matt Campbell’ character from the movie) started behaving strangely and their 17-year old niece said she was fondled by unseen hands.  The mother, Carmen Snedeker (the ‘Sarah Campbell’ character from the movie), also claimed to be the victim of demonic sexual assaults.  There were many other alleged disturbances (such as water to blood, putrid odours, crucifixes going haywire or disappearing etc) but these were the most serious.

Eventually, Carmen Snedeker brought in Ed and Lorraine Warren, the infamous old ghostbusting couple that covered the ‘Amityville Horror’ haunting.  The Warren’s nephew, John Zaffis, also joined in for observations.  They became convinced that the house was haunted by demons.  A Catholic priest was brought in and the spirits were exorcised, and things went back to normal after that.  The Snedekers left two and a half years after they moved in.

With help from the Warrens, the Snedekers’ story was first brought to light by the book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting by Ray Garton, a horror fiction writer, and was also the subject of an episode of the TV show A Haunting titled A Haunting in Connecticut.  From what I’ve read about the book and the TV show, both were incredibly frightening.

Fact?

I wanted to know how credible the true story behind the movie was, so I dug a little further.

What John Zaffis said

John Zaffis is the nephew of the Warrens that were brought in by the Snedeker’s for help. Here is the full article he wrote about the Snedekers and their funeral home house.

In short, he discusses some of the background and events detailed in In a Dark Place and talks about his own experiences in the house.  Here’s an extract:

This is the case where I had my first encounter with a full formed demon and it is something to this day that I will never forget. I was sitting at the dining room table when it started to get ice cold in the room, at this point I knew something was getting ready to happen. I tried to get the other researchers or family members to respond to me by calling out to them but they did not. I knew at this point this was meant for me to experience alone. I had gotten up and walked into the hallway and looked up at the top of the stairs, I began to smell something like rotting meat which was all over this area and it was unbearable. As I continued to look up the grand staircase, I started to see something begin to form, as it slowly descended down the staircase. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, it had come to the last step on the staircase and it said to me “do you know what they did to us, do you know”? That was enough for me, I left the home and did not return for three days. I do not think I’ve ever encountered anything that has scared me as bad as that, I would not speak to anyone for days after the encounter, but I did go back to work on the case, the family needed our help.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

What Chip Coffey said

Chip Coffey is a self-proclaimed ‘psychic, medium, spiritual counselor and paranormal investigator’ who became involved with the Snedekers when the TV show was made. Here’s his blogger site.

Coffey also wrote an article about the haunting in Connecticut titled ‘Demons from the dark’ which mirrored a lot of the things said in Zaffis’s article. Here it is anyway.

Carmen Snedeker’s website

Carmen Snedeker is still around and she has her own website, which was surprisingly difficult to find. Follow this link to visit the page.

I must say, had I only seen Zaffis’s and Coffey’s articles, I would have found it all pretty convincing (maybe not convinced, but it would have been convincing).  But Carmen’s website smells funny – from the smiling ‘star-shot’ portrait to the shameless promotion of herself, advertising for supernatural investigators (including Zaffis), her touring lectures about the hauntings and (here’s the clincher) the brand new book on the haunting she is working on with Zaffis and Coffey!  Now they don’t sound so convincing anymore.

Carmen also mentions the feature film, which she believes “will bring a new understanding of what went on in the house”.  Clearly she had no idea of what the Hollywood producers had in mind.

Fiction?

From Carmen’s website, the Snedekers’ story began to completely fall apart.

What Garton said about his own book

From first publication of In a Dark Place, author Ray Garton has been savaging his own ‘non-fiction’ book and the Warrens.  I’ve found numerous examples of him condeming what he wrote as, effectively, made up.  By him.  Fiction.

Probably the most complete account comes from his interview at Horror Bound Magazine (see entire interview here - worth a read because it’s quite funny and interesting – and has some good advice for aspiring writers at the end):

Q: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. In one case in particular, a book that was labeled “non-fiction” should have been labeled “fiction” (through no fault of your own). For those Horror Bound readers who have a huge interest in the paranormal and who have followed the careers of Ed and Lorraine, what would you say?

 

A: Ah, the Warrens. Ed, of course, has gone to that great haunted house in the sky, but Lorraine is still around. Back in the early ‘90s, I was offered a chance to write a book for Ed and Lorraine. As a kid, I used to follow their ghost-hunting exploits in the National Enquirer. I thought it sounded like a fun job, so I took it. I went to Connecticut and spent time with the Snedeker family. They’d moved into a house with their sick son and learned the place used to be a funeral home. They claimed all kinds of spooky things had happened in the house. They’d called in Ed and Lorraine, and after investigating, the Warrens announced that the house was infested with demons. Some of these demons had anally raped members of the family.

A little aside here. Back when I was reading about the Warrens, they were ghost hunters. Every house they investigated had at least one ghost, and there was always a spooky story behind it. But after The Exorcist was so wildly popular, first as a novel and then as a movie, Ed and Lorraine stopped encountering ghosts and began to uncover demon infestations. And it seems that wherever they went, people were being sexually molested by demons. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Carmen Snedeker was an unemployed wife and mother who was running an illegal interstate lottery business, about which she asked me numerous times to tell no one. I never met the son, who was said to be ill, although I was allowed to talk to him on the phone once, supervised by Carmen. When the boy began to talk about drugs and told me that he didn’t hear and see strange things in the house once he began taking medication, Carmen ended the conversation. As I gathered all the necessary information for the book, I found that the accounts of the individual Snedekers didn’t quite mesh. They just couldn’t keep their stories straight. I went to Ed with this problem. “Oh, they’re crazy,” he said. “Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary.” I didn’t like that one bit. But by then, I’d signed the contract and there was no going back. I did as Ed instructed – I used what I could, made up the rest, and tried to make it as scary as I could. The book was called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting.

As soon as it was published, I started telling my story, knowing full well that it would not be too popular with the Snedekers or the Warrens. I was right. Carmen Snedeker, now Carmen Reed, has denounced the book. She claims they had little involvement in it, which is a lie. Since the release of that book, the Discovery Channel has aired a “re-enactment” of the story called A Haunting in Connecticut, which, of course, presents the Snedekers’ story as hard cold fact. Now a feature film based on the story is going to be released soon called The Haunting in Connecticut. I suspect the movie will begin with the words “Based on a true story.” Be warned: Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn’t true. Last I heard, Carmen is working on a new book, to tell the real story – apparently they’ve settled on one. I don’t know if Carmen runs her little interstate lottery operation anymore, but now she’s claiming to be some kind of psychic healer. She says she’s always been a psychic healer, although I didn’t hear anything about it in Connecticut back in the early ‘90s.

These days, John Zaffis is the “investigator” being used to make this cockamamie tale look like something remotely resembling legitimate. Zaffis is the nephew of Ed and Lorraine Warren. He was around back when I was working on the book. He didn’t do much, just stood around. Lorraine told me he was learning the business. He told me a story about something he saw in the former funeral home – some kind of “fully formed demon,” or some such nonsense.

During my stay in Connecticut, Ed, Lorraine, and Zaffis repeatedly told me they had videotape of supernatural activity they’d shot in the demon-infested former funeral home (which I never visited because the current owners claimed the Snedekers were full of it and wanted nothing to do with the Warrens’ little dog and pony show). They assured me I would see that footage. Throughout my visit, they kept telling me the videotape was coming, that they were having trouble finding it, but they’d show it to me. By the end of my visit, there had been no sign of any videotape. After my experience with the Warrens, I talked to a couple of other writers who’d written books for Ed and Lorraine – and their stories were nearly identical to mine.

I found another message board thread on dejanews where Garton posted, and he had the following things to say about the Warrens:

I spent several days with the Warrens during that time.  I spent time with them in their home and ate with them and went on long drives with them.  Of the two, Lorraine is the sanest.  She’s an “enabler”.  Years ago, before their career in the “supernatural” began, Ed suffered from mental illness.  It was bad enough to keep him from working, and the only way he could make money was to hand paint haunted houses on dinnerplates and sell them door to door.  Once Ed decided that Lorraine was “psychic”, selling the haunted house plates eventually led to “investigating” haunted houses.  At first, they found “ghosts”.  But after the tremendous success of THE EXORCIST — both the novel and the movie — ghosts suddenly became demons.  If you go back and trace their career, you can see the sudden change.  Almost overnight, all ghosts were really demons trying to possess residents, and sooner or later, the demons anally raped someone. It never fails, every damned time, the Warrens’ demons bend somebody over a bed or a sink and beat down the back door, if you know what I mean.  From my time spent with the Warrens, I learned from Ed that their job is not really to “investigate” so much as it is to take the stories told by these families — most of whom are dealing with REAL problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and/or domestic abuse, problems that are buried by their supernatural fantasies, which are supported and made tangible by the very eager Warrens — and arrange them into a saleable package that will make a good book, and hopefully a movie.

Not only are the Warrens frauds, not only do they give a bad name to people who are SERIOUSLY investigating paranormal phenomena, I think they’re EVIL because of the way they exploit families already deep in despair and ready to shatter. I can ignore a simple con job … but the Warrens are actually damaging people who are already damaged, who are desperate and vulnerable, using them for the sake of a book, maybe a lucrative movie sale, or another story to add to their traveling dog and pony show.  Before I worked on that book, I’d followed the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren faithfully since I was a little boy.  I was excited to work with them.  Boy, was that a big disappointment.  It’s nice to believe there’s a smiling, grandparently couple out there chasing demons … but not when you know they’re hurting people for the sake of publicity and the almighty dollar.
What investigative journalist Joe Nickell found
Skeptical paranormal investigator Joe Nickell wrote a very insightful article entitled ‘Demons in Connecticut’. The article can be found here.
In it, Nickell discusses the background of the Snedeker family and why he thinks it was all made up for media exploitation.  It’s particularly interesting because Nickell was actively involved in trying to debunk the story when it first came to light and was being discussed on talk shows.  There are plenty of quotes from people who lived around the Snedekers who claim it’s all fake, and suggestions of how some of the paranormal activities could be rationally explained.

Concluding thoughts – so what actually happened?

After reading Garton and Nickell, I was ready to write the whole Snedeker haunting off as shameless attention-seeking and media exploitation.  But then I came across this message board, where two posters (brothers) claimed to have lived in the house after the Snedekers. Well, the problem is that their identities can’t be verified, but what they’ve written seems genuine enough.  And according to them, the house was definitely haunted, just not to the extent grossly exaggerated by the Snedekers.  There were voices, loud footsteps, swinging doors – but that was about it.

As someone who believes in ghosts, a former funeral home would be a prime candidate for a haunting.  And as someone who has done a fair bit of reading on ghosts, I understand that different people have different sensitivities to these types of things.  Further, people who are fit and healthy are less likely to experience things than people who are ill.  So it is possible that the house was haunted, and perhaps the Snedekers, with their sick son and multitude of problems, experienced more of it than other people.  But just about everything else points to shameless exploitation for a bit of money.

My guess is that there were probably a few spooky things that happened at the house (paranormal or not), but nothing as dramatic as they claim (and certainly none of the crap in the movie).  But when the Warrens got involved, things just spiralled out of control and it became nothing more than a money-making venture.  Assume you believe in ghosts for a minute – okay, it’s a funeral home, lots of dead bodies, so maybe a lost soul here or there - but why all these raging demons who like to molest people?  In real life (unlike in the film) there were no explanations offered, no dark history of torture or mutilation uncovered, no ancient burial ground or corpses in the cellar.

And come on, if you had something as terrifying as demons trying to anally rape you, would you stay in the house for another second?  I don’t care if you don’t have another dime in the bank – you wouldn’t just keep the lights on and go back to bed!

(SPOILERS!) FACT VS FILM (SPOILERS!)

Read on if you have seen the film or don’t plan on seeing it.

After looking into the facts behind the story, it seems there were only a few similarities between the film and the true story on which it was based.  We know that a family did move into a house that was formerly a funeral home, and they did it to be closer to the treatment facility for their son, who was suffering from cancer (Hodgkin’s disease).  We also know that the son did undergo some drastic changes in personality, and he would eventually recover, but he was probably nowhere near death as suggested in the film.  There were probably some alcohol and financial problems too.

Apart from that, just about everything else was different.  The Snedekers had 3 sons (aged 13, 11 and 3) and a 6-year old daughter.  2 nieces would move in with them later.  There was another tenant living upstairs.  Most significantly, there was no elaborate back story about a young medium boy who conducted seances, no stolen graves, no dead bodies stashed away in the basement, no dying reverend who happens to know everything, no carvings on the body, no box of human eyelids hidden under the floorboards, and certainly no burning down of the house.

As for the ghosts and paranormal events that happened in the house, only a few people know the truth, but the one thing we know for sure is that they were nothing like what was depicted in the movie.  ‘Based on the true story’?  Hardly.  Maybe more appropriate would be: ‘Inspired by events that may or may not have happened’ – but I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Seven Degrees…thing…

March 2, 2009 in Uncategorized

Just a quick one.  It’s been a while since I was tagged by Digital Dame for this Seven Degrees of Separation thing.  I’m ashamed to admit I still don’t know enough bloggers to pass the baton to, but nevertheless, here are 7 random facts about me.

1. I have a deep fascination in the supernatural and things we can’t explain, like ghosts, the afterlife, and UFOs.  Despite not having any personal experience with any of them (though I have read extensively and know people who have had experiences), I believe all three exist, especially the first two.  I have been struggling with religion for years (still am) and I consider myself an agnostic theist.  At least for now.

2. I am a huge, massive, enormous movie buff.  I watch around 3-4 movies a week per week during my studies, and averaged at least 1-2 even when I was working crazy hours.  I try not to discriminate between genres – I just like to enjoy good movies and even the occasional guilty pleasure.

3. I don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t mind a tiny sip at formal functions but if I had a choice I wouldn’t drink at all.  The reason: I simply don’t like the taste, and frankly I don’t understand all the fuss.

4. I can speak and read four languages at varying levels of fluency (the threshold being that I can carry on a normal conversation with it).

5. I write, eat and play racquet sports (and bowling) with my right hand but in all other sports I favour my left.  This could be the result of me being born left-handed but taught how to do most things with my right.

6. I’ve learnt various musical instruments throughout my childhood and a small part of my adult life – piano, recorder, violin and guitar.  I can’t play any of them.  In fact, I was so bad at the violin that I was encouraged to quit.

7. I love Japan – in particular the food, the cool technology and the wacky culture.  I’ve been there at least six times (I think) and I’ve even lived there for six months (where I met my wife, who was also on exchange over there at the time).

And there you have it.

 
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