Horror High – Class of 2016

Some of the horror films from last year that I finally got round to watching:-

Lights Out (2016)

Rebecca returns to the family home to rescue her young brother Martin from the clutches of mother Sophie, who has all sorts of alcohol and mental health issues. The authorities insist that the boy must stay with his mother though, which is when the trouble really starts, because attached to Sophie is a malevolent entity, the spirit of Diana, a woman with photosensitive skin who befriended Sophie when they were in an institution together. And Diana is hostile to anyone who is likely to come between her and Sophie, which puts Rebecca and Martin’s lives in deadly danger. The twist is that Diana can only come out when the lights are off. There are some interesting characters here, with the actors all doing credit to their roles. And in the ‘lights out’ gimmick and the figure of Diana, a long nailed maenad who will tear you to shreds, there is a borderline original monster, one who can carry the weight of horror fans’ expectations. All in all this is an assured little film, one that knows what it is doing and does it well, bringing enough new material to the table to satisfy the most jaded appetite, but at the same time it is not a striking film, not one that you are going to remember or seek out the DVD so that you can watch it again whenever you wish. It was fun and I had a good time with it, and I’ll probably catch the sequel which is in the works, the first one having done fine box office, but it won’t appear on any ‘Best Of’ lists, even if I was the sort of person to compile ‘Best Of’ lists (actually I am, but it’s a secret vice).

The Witch (2016)

Now here is something rather remarkable. Filmed in muted colours, and set in the America of the Puritans, it tells of a family who go off into the woods to live on their own terms, after a religious falling out with the settlement where they were previously. But there is a witch in the woods (or is there?). Eking out a subsistence level living, the condition of the family deteriorates further after the baby Samuel is abducted by the witch. Both their faith and their trust in each other is severely tested, with the apportioning of blame and a growing feeling of helplessness, that the Lord has deserted them, though patriarch William is too stubborn to return to the Puritan settlement, despite the worsening mental health of his wife. Further complicating matters are accusations of witchcraft, flung at each other by the children in the family, accusations that the adults treat with a deadly seriousness. The stage is set for the hallucinatory final chapter. Except we don’t know if anything is hallucinatory or if what takes place is real, and that ambiguity is part of the strength of director and writer Robert Eggers’ film. Billed as a ‘New-England folktale’, the film incorporates into the script the text of actual testimonies from witchcraft trials and related documents, adding a feel of authenticity, and soliciting our ability to believe in a world where the numinous is never far away, where the supernatural and threat of damnation was very real for its denizens. Alongside this is a story about family relationships, about the toll of superstition, and how isolation can undermine the human psyche. The muted palette that Eggers uses, with dull browns and greens dominating, adds further to the bleakness and feelings of hopelessness that the landscape inspires. It is a location to crush the soul. You can see both why these people might fear witches, and why pledging allegiance to the Devil might eventually be something that would appeal. The cast are all excellent, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as young Thomasina, the one who bears the brunt of temptation and is almost driven into witchcraft by the actions of her family. The real star of the show though has to be the goat Black Philip, possibly the most sinister animal to ever appear on the screen. This is a film that I will be watching again, the first horror film I’ve seen in recent years that might actually be in contention for classic status. And yes, I know it was made in 2015, but it didn’t get a general release in the UK until 2016 and that is what we’re going on.

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Another case from the files of paranormal investigators and exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles from the first film. This time around the couple travel to London, against the better judgement of Lorraine who has had a vision of Ed being killed, to the Hodgson house in Enfield, where a mother and her children are being terrorised by the malevolent spirit of an old man. The Warrens have been asked to consider the veracity of what is taking place, and there is evidence that one of the Hodgson children is responsible for the phenomena taking place, but in fact something far more sinister and deadly is hiding in the woodwork. Director James Wan knows his stuff and, if it lacks some of the freshness and effective chills of the first movie, this has an intriguing story, with solid performances from all the cast and plenty of the jump moments that are Wan’s main scare tactic. Ed and Lorraine seem a little too lovey dovey and holier than thou for my liking, but I can see how these characteristics are right for the people they are meant to be. Based on the story of the Enfield poltergeist from 1977 (it was in all the papers, mostly as an expose as far as I can recall) this is a crowd pleaser of a horror movie, one that has no ambitions other than to entertain and raise a few doubts in our minds as to the reality of the supernatural. As far as that goes it works tolerably well, but with little in the way of emotional engagement for the viewer, who never has the feeling that this was anything more than a movie, with the characters almost symbols or the embodiment of certain attitudes (faith, innocence, etc.). The best way I can categorise it, is as the poor man’s Poltergeist. I enjoyed it, but won’t be in a hurry to watch it again.

The Boy (2016)

Arriving to work as a nanny for the Heelshires, staying in their isolated house and caring for eight year old Brahms while the elderly couple go off on a trip, American Greta gets a big surprise – Brahms is a porcelain doll. Left to her own devices, Greta decides to chill out, ignoring the list of activities the Heelshires have left for her to follow, such as dressing and feeding Brahms, putting him to bed and playing music for him. Before long the doll starts to act out, vanishing and reappearing, locking her in the attic; Greta becomes convinced that the doll is possessed by the spirit of the original Brahms, who died in a fire twenty five years previously (she has delivery man Malcolm to thank for this information). With the arrival of abusive ex-boyfriend Cole the horrific truth is revealed in a fight to the finish finale. I really rather liked this film. There’s a lovely sense of atmosphere building, as Greta (a wide-eyed Lauren Cohan) comes to terms with her unique and slightly disturbing situation, gradually realising that it is even weirder than she suspected. The ever smiling Brahms, the perfect model of a little gentleman, is sinister in a way that his more successful ‘sister’ Annabelle could only hope for. But all of this is only misdirection, with the shock revelations of the third act turning everything that has gone before on its head. I can’t say more, for fear of plot spoilers, but this was a very different kind of horror film from the type it initially presented itself as, and the twist elevated the movie out of the average, by the numbers spectral jaunt into something a little bit special. Not a classic, but rewarding and, mostly, original. I liked it a lot.

Blair Witch (2016)

A sequel that ignores the events of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, instead serving up what almost amounts to a remake with a bigger budget of the original film. Some Burkittsville locals discover another tape in the woods which is the stimulus for James and his three besties to go off in search of sister Heather who disappeared in those same woods nearly twenty years ago, begging the question of how old would James have been at the time. The two locals invite themselves along, and before you can say Blair Witch three times they are all lost and blaming each other, with sylvan artwork appearing overnight. Things swiftly escalate with perpetual night, crashing sounds off in the woods, and everybody running in circles, before those who have survived this far find the ruined house in the woods, which is when the shit really hits the fan. For a moment there, with all that crashing sound and trees falling, I thought they were going to give us a Wendigo tale, but alas no, they stuck with the tried and tested formula behind the franchise, which was a big mistake in my opinion.I suspect I would have been a lot more impressed with this if the original film didn’t exist, but as it doesn’t do much more than replay the whole thing, with bigger effects, as with the end game in the house, and a bigger budget (these guys have a drone along for the ride). And things seem to go to hell pretty quickly, with little time to build atmosphere and the necessary sense of dread anticipation, while the characters all seem two-dimensional, with nobody who has the presence of Heather Donahue from the first film, and the novelty of shaky cam has worn off. Whatever its faults, Shadows tried to bring something new to the table, but this film is just more of the same. I enjoyed it, but not to the extent that I felt my time couldn’t have been better spent. It was a pass the time sort of movie, something you could never have said about the two previous outings. Perhaps one day they’ll do a crossover with The Witch – now that might be interesting.

So what 2016 releases scared the shit out of the rest of you?

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