My friend and colleague at WBOC, David Gordon, told me about a web site
where users watch a different horror film everyday throughout the month
of October, ending on Halloween. I do like horror films, but I'm not as
big a fan to do that, but, based on Gordon's recommendation, I did
decide to review one horror film for the trick-or-treat tradition.
Yet, even before Gordon said anything, I was already interested in the film because it's based on a true story, involving real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The reason I was interested was due to my other friend and filmmaker Eric Walter who introduced me to the real Lorraine Warren two years ago. Walter was filming her as part of his documentary My Amityville Horror, which was released this past spring. Not only did Walter introduce me, but he took me with him and his crew to Monroe, Connecticut, to Warren's house, the same house depicted in the film.
Patrick Wilson stars as Ed Warren, the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church. Ed shows a reporter his Monroe home, which also acts as a museum, a collection of artifacts that the Warrens have gathered from their various cases. Each artifact has had some paranormal or demonic connection. When Ed is showing the reporter the collection, I received an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The layout isn't an exact replica of the real Monroe home, but the filmmakers here, particularly the production designer, did the real place justice, so much it gave me a chilling reminder of how creepy that Warren museum is.
When I was in the Monroe home, the one thing that disturbed me was the museum's cramped back room, which had what I would describe as a shrine dedicated to dolls. In this film, a doll becomes a disturbing focal point. Directed by James Wan, this focal point fits perfectly with his filmography. Wan has helmed Saw (2004) and Dead Silence (2007), two horror movies that involved creepy and often possessed dolls.
Oscar-nominee Vera Farmiga stars as Lorraine Warren, the clairvoyant wife and mother of Ed's prepubescent daughter in 1971. Lorraine accompanies Ed to houses where people report paranormal activities, suspecting the presence of ghosts and demons. Lorraine assists in the detection and the documenting of the haunting, as well as the riddance of the problem, if at all possible. In a scene where Lorraine assists Ed in a film footage presentation of a recent case at Massachusetts Western University, Wakefield, the filmmakers place the actual Lorraine Warren in the audience, and it's obvious that Farmiga has the look down, which in terms of fashion and style hasn't changed much for Lorraine in the past 40 years.
Having met the real Lorraine or having seen Walter's documentary, one can tell that Farmiga also nails the mannerisms and overall spirit of the actual woman. Farmiga and Wilson also have a great rapport. Even in scenes where they have to deliver a ton of crazy exposition about witches and curses, Farmiga and Wilson make it work.
The screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes is not groundbreaking. In fact, the first hour is pretty standard haunted house trappings. A lot of it is not even that different from Wan's previous haunted house film Insidious (2010). As such, it's not all that scary, but that doesn't mean it's not entertaining to watch because it is. What saves the movie from being just another ghost story is Wan's direction, which is nothing short of fantastic. It starts with his cinematography. Yes, there's a lot of modern techniques here, but his film is set in the 1970s and I was pleased when Wan used camera work that invoked shots by prolific filmmakers of the 70s.
Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston co-star as Carolyn and Roger, a married couple with children, all daughters, five of them. They move into an old house built into a wooded area in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Right from this beginning, Wan lets the audience know that it's the cinematography that's going to be outstanding. He apparently loves long, continuous shots because there are many of them in this movie. A good deal of them really helps to orient the audience and perfectly establish the geography of the house. As the family moves their possessions into the house, Wan begins with a long, continuous shot. At first, the shot is on high as if on a crane and then floats underneath a piece of furniture being lifted through the front door and glides into the house, breezing through rooms smoothly and steadily as if on slick train tracks. For a moment, it reminded me of the tracking shot at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975).
From that point forward, Wan just delights with shot after shot that is interesting or with sequences that are very well crafted. One shot that impressed me was when one of Carolyn and Roger's pre-teen daughters is looking under her bed and a creaking door makes her look up. The camera is her point-of-view and starts upside down and flips right side up stunningly. A sequence that is probably my favorite is toward the end when one of the teenage daughters is attacked in a literally hair-raising and hair-pulling way. The camera work along with the stunt work, visual effects and editing are amazingly fused here.
Other sequences seem ripped from films like Poltergeist (1982) or The Blair Witch Project (1999), but technical flourishes help to elevate those sequences. For example, the use of sound is brilliant. During a basement scene, the sound is point-of-view from Ed who has headphones on and the way that's utilized is clever. Lighting is also well utilized here. In another scene in the basement, Wan has only one single bulb as his source. With a low angle, literally camera on the ground, the single bulb creates lines of focus and shadows that really emphasize the claustrophobia that I'm sure Wan wanted to create.
Yet, my favorite shot of the whole piece would have to be the shot of Ed and Lorraine's daughter by herself alone at the top of the stairs. The camera pushes in with a wide-angle lens. It then pushes out as the little girl walks down the stairs. Lightning reveals some interesting things on the frame's edge and then the stairs become shrouded in darkness. It was tense. The moment had me on the edge of my seat but it was beautiful. It was like something out of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980).
I can safely say that this is the best horror film of the year. Without having watched many horror films, I can still safely say that this is one of the best horror films of the past five years.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.