A ghostly sequel, Seagal gets revenge, more footage is found, and Cody returns to Cloverfield.
THE CONJURING 2 (2016)
James Wan's 2013 haunted house film The Conjuring turned out to be a very special movie to me, for personal reasons. I've been looking forward to seeing a sequel ever since I saw the first movie, and I didn't even care what ghost story a follow-up might be telling, I just wanted to see more of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, as I would rank them highly among the best screen couples of all time. Their interactions are so sweet and adorable, and sometimes intense when they're dealing with dangerous spirits, and they love each other so deeply, it's just great to watch. Wilson and Farmiga have wonderful chemistry together.
The case Wan and returning screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (with an assist from David Leslie Johnson) have decided to pull from the Warren archives and put on the screen is the story of the Enfield poltergeist, which occurred in that London borough in the late 1970s.
But, like the first movie started with the case of possessed doll Annabelle (who got her own spin-off film), the movie starts with a sequence showing the Warrens working another very popular case, the case of the Amityville Horror. While conducting a séance at the Amityville house, Lorraine has a vision so troubling that it leaves her wanting to get out of the paranormal investigation business.
Ed agrees not to work any cases for a while... but when it's brought to their attention that a single mother and her four young children are being terrorized in their Enfield home by the spirit of a hateful old man, the Warrens can't just sit back and let them go through this horror. They have to do whatever they can to help.
If I have a complaint about The Conjuring 2, it's that the paranormal activity sequences can sometimes seem overblown in comparison to those in the previous movie. In fact, they even feature some monstrous apparitions that would have felt right at home in Wan's more outlandish supernatural franchise, Insidious. One of the apparitions introduced here, a demonic nun who absolutely terrifies Lorraine, will be getting its own spin-off film just like Annabelle did, although the idea that the nun is going to be featured in another movie doesn't make much sense, since it's said that the demon took the form of a nun just to mock Lorraine's faith. I guess it will be mocking another person's faith in its own movie. But then again, the Annabelle movie didn't exactly fit in perfectly with what was said about the doll in The Conjuring, so who knows what The Nun will be up to?
Despite it having some of that typical "bigger is better" sequel mindset, I did find The Conjuring 2 be a very solid, satisfying, and worthy sequel. Wan, the screenwriters, and the actors did a good job developing the characters of most of the spirit-beleaguered family, and Franka Potente and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation's Simon McBurney have good supporting roles as investigators working the case with the Warrens. While McBurney's character has a touching reason to want to prove the existence of ghosts, Potente's is a skeptic out to disprove the whole thing as a hoax. Even though I would be a skeptic myself in that situation, such a character comes off as a bit of a pain in a butt in a movie where these hauntings are being presented as undeniable fact.
She also comes off as someone who wears anachronistic nail polish. My Remake Comparison collaborator Priscilla pointed out that the polish she's wearing shouldn't have existed in the '70s, and I have to trust her on this.
So Ed and Lorraine Warren have returned, and I wasn't disappointed at all. The couple remains as great as ever, and I loved that they brought back half of my favorite exchange of dialogue between the two from the first movie. Lorraine repeats a line to Ed that he said to her in the '13 film, "I can't lose you." Ed's response here isn't nearly as great as Lorraine's, which was, "You won't. Let's finish this together."
MARKED FOR DEATH (1990)
Warner Bros. was action hero Steven Seagal's home studio for many years, but he ventured into 20th Century Fox for his third starring vehicle, following Above the Law and Hard to Kill. Marked for Death begins right in the middle of a foot chase sequence that ends with Seagal attempting to beat information out of the man he was chasing... a man played by a then-unknown Danny Trejo. He's soon to learn that messing with Trejo is a mistake.
In this film, Seagal is playing DEA agent John Hatcher, who's working a case in Colombia. Aware of what he did to Trejo, the criminals he's trying to bust attempt to kill him with bullets and blades, but Hatcher is able to get a machete away from one of them to defend himself with, slashing throats, cutting off hands, and foreshadowing the rematch he and Trejo will have in Machete (also a Fox release) a couple decades later.
Hatcher's partner isn't as lucky or skilled and ends up dead. Feeling guilt over this failure and all the things he's had to do in the line of duty, Hatcher goes to Chicago to hang out with his family. But he doesn't find peace there. Instead, he finds that Chicago is being overrun by the Jamaican Posse, a gang of drug runners led by Basil Wallace as a guy called Screwface, who drops lines like "Everybody want go Heaven, nobody want dead" and is said to have two heads and four eyes. He doesn't, this isn't a creature feature, although it does feature elements that you'd usually expect to see in a horror movie, like voodoo rituals and bloody chicken sacrifices.
Saving a life during a public hit being carried out by the Posse gets Hatcher marked for death, just like the title promised. Of course, the Posse's attempts to kill Hatcher are not successful, but his family does get caught in the crossfire, and his young niece is hospitalized with a gunshot wound.
Marked for Death was directed by Dwight H. Little, who had directed Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers two years before this. Little brought Halloween 4 star Danielle Harris along with him for this film, casting her as Hatcher's niece. It's a rather thankless role, a substantial step down from what she was given to do in Halloween 4 (and 5). She had a better part in an action movie the following year, the Tony Scott/Shane Black film The Last Boy Scout.
Hatcher didn't want to be involved with this drug stuff anymore, but by injuring his niece Screwface has gotten himself marked for death, and Hatcher heads back into action, beating and killing his way through Screwface's associates, snapping bones in the trademark Seagal manner, and delivering a religious message along the way: when a villain tells Hatcher that he's "a made man", Hatcher blows his brains out and says, "God made men."
Aiding Hatcher in his "kill Screwface" endeavor are the great Keith David as an old pal of Hatcher's and Tom Wright, the "Thanks for the ride, lady!" hitchhiker from Creepshow 2, as a cop from Jamaica. While it's cool to have them around, I was left wishing David had gotten some more action to himself.
Our heroic trio tracks Screwface down in Jamaica, but they get all of their weapons and ammo ready before leaving Chicago and take the stuff on the international flight with them. They return to Chicago with a severed head to show off to the Jamaican Posse. Customs rules do not apply to these fellows.
When I was a kid, Marked for Death was my favorite Seagal movie to date when it was released on VHS (I didn't see it in the theatre), because the voodoo element and the fact that Screwface was built up as an unstoppable evil force appealed to my love of horror and darker stories. Watching it now, I find it to be an enjoyable action movie, but the entertainment factor isn't quite as high for me in 2016 as it was in 1991. One thing that does remain as awesome as ever, though, is the climactic fight with Screwface. That is one hell of a satisfying way to end a personal vendetta action movie.
A found footage anthology was something I was wary of from the beginning, and while I wasn't exceptionally positive about the results the first time around, V/H/S was received well enough to bring about a sequel, with segments directed by mostly an all new group of filmmakers, just one year later. With anthologies there's always a chance that the stories in one can be better than those in another installment, so I gave V/H/S/2 a shot.
The sequel's wraparound segment is called Tape 49 and was directed by Simon Barrett, who wrote the wraparound (Tape 56) and the The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger segment of the previous film. Tape 49 is a story that requires not just the use of a handheld camera but also some spy cams in order to be told properly. It centers on a couple of private investigators checking into the disappearance of a college student. The student's place is much like the house that's broken into at the beginning of the first movie, there's a room full of TVs and VHS tapes. The investigators start going through the tapes, which contain the stories we're going to see play out.
Written by Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, who directed part 1's wraparound, the first segment is Phase I Clinical Trials and one of those where it makes no sense that this footage ended up being transferred to VHS. It's shot through a camera inside a bionic eye a young man (played by Wingard) is implanted with after losing an eye in an accident.
Unfortunately, this new tech comes with a strange side effect - it's a gateway to the spirit world. With his implant, the young man can see ghosts, and a girl he meets who had a cochlear implant can hear them. And the more they interact with the ghosts, the stronger and more dangerous these spirits become.
While I found the basic concept of this segment more interesting than the execution, I was wowed by the filming location. This guy with the bionic eye has one awesome pool area out in the back of his place, with an incredible view. I could relax and live in harmony with the ghosts (by ignoring them) if that were my place.
Next up is A Ride in the Park, directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez, who helped kick off the found footage craze by co-directing The Blair Witch Project (although Paranormal Activity is more directly responsible for the trend that these V/H/S movies took part in). This segment is shot through a camera mounted to the helmet of a guy who is bicycling through the park when he comes across some flesh-eating zombies stumbling through the woods. He gets bitten, and soon we're seeing things from the P.O.V. of one of the walking dead.
Of course, if there were a zombie outbreak going on you'd think the private investigators watching this tape would already be aware of it, and they would likely be more concerned about that than in catching cheating spouses and searching for a missing college student, but I guess that's something you need to let slide.
A Ride in the Park was really a test run for Sánchez and Hale, made to see if filming techniques they had in mind for their found footage Bigfoot movie Exists would work. It's a decent story, showing things from the eyes (sort of) of a zombie was a cool idea.
The third segment, called Safe Haven, comes from Timo Tjahjanto and The Raid director Gareth Evans, and it is an epic. Running for 30 minutes, it feels like it could be a film in itself. This is the story that makes the greatest impact for me, when I think of V/H/S/2, I really think of it as "the Safe Haven movie".
The characters are a documentary crew shooting a piece on a cult in Indonesia that lives in a compound called Paradise Gates. Whatever higher power they believe in, they're just waiting to leave the temporary world we see around us and enter a paradisiacal other dimension. There is drama going on among the members of the crew, but the biggest problem is that they happen to have the terrible luck of touring the compound on the exact day the cult has been waiting for. Soon they're witness to mass suicide, are confronted by zombies, and chased by a hideous demon.
There is some obvious influence from real life cult tragedies in here, including one that also influenced V/H/S director Ti West to make a film called The Sacrament, which was released the same year as V/H/S/2. West did not go the creature feature route, however, and that's an element of Safe Haven that really burns itself in my brain. It's a very intense, creepy story, and it's worth seeing this movie for this segment alone.
After the downer of Safe Haven, we need something to bring our spirits back up, and that comes in the form of Slumber Party Alien Abduction, from Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener (who also contributed to The ABCs of Death, as did Wingard and Barrett). The characters are a bunch of unsupervised foul-mouthed youths who are getting up to shenanigans and making videos at a lakehouse when the place gets invaded by murderous aliens.
The kids even attached a camera to their dog, and when the aliens arrive all of the action is shot through this camera, a fun approach to a segment that is enjoyable and amusing.
With each segment having been played, it's time to wrap up Tape 49, which actually does make some attempt to explain what's going on with these mysterious VHS collections of terrible events. It's largely glossed over, but a video journal left behind by the missing college student makes some mention of the tapes having an effect on your mind when you watch them in a certain order, and the analog tapes containing some kind of energy that other formats don't. We see the effect that watching these tapes has on the private investigators, and it's not pretty.
V/H/S/2 has one less segment than its predecessor, so the film is 20 minutes shorter, which is a check in the "pro" column for me. But in that shorter amount of time, the sequel also provides a lot more entertainment than part 1 did, with better stories that thankfully don't waste our time showing every day dullness and, best of all, don't force us to spend time with the sort of repugnant characters the first movie was packed with. This is definitely one of those anthology franchises where a sequel is substantially better than what came before it, just like The ABCs of Death 2.
Stacie Ponder of the Final Girl blog didn't like V/H/S and didn't like V/H/S/2 when she checked it out during her SHOCKtober event, but I would say that part 2 is worth giving a chance even if you hated part 1. You might get something more out of it.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)
Most people didn't hear about 10 Cloverfield Lane until mid-January 2016, when the announcement hit out of nowhere - along with the trailer and poster - that this "blood relative" to the 2008 film Cloverfield was going to be in theatres less than two months later, on March 11th. I had heard about this project before, though. Back in September of 2014, when I was writing news and reviews for TheMovieNetwork.com, I shared the news that Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. had been cast in a Bad Robot production that was then going by the title The Cellar. (At a different point in development, it also had the working title of Valencia.) The plot sounded intriguing and I've long been a fan of both Winstead and Goodman, so I had been looking forward to this movie for a year and a half before it was ever revealed that it was in the Cloverfield family.
It didn't start out as a Cloverfield project, and whether or not it should have that title is debatable. It's not a kaiju movie, you won't see any of the creatures from Cloverfield in it, the filmmakers just felt that it "shared DNA" with the earlier movie. It only seems to be connected in the way stories in an anthology would be, it's not a sequel.
Winstead stars as Michelle, whose decision to bail on her engagement and drive off into the night coincides with the U.S. getting hit by catastrophic blackouts. Michelle's impulsive trip ends prematurely with a car accident that knocks her unconscious. When she comes to, she's in a large underground bunker, in the care of Goodman as a survivalist named Howard.
Howard claims that he's helping Michelle, keeping her in the bunker to protect her from an outside world that has become too dangerous to venture out into anytime in the next couple years. There was some kind of vague "big attack". As you can imagine, Michelle has trouble believing this. If you woke up the unwilling long term guest in an underground bunker, you'd probably think your host was a psycho, too. The lack of information doesn't help matters, nor does the fact that Howard conducts himself like a total weirdo who can't bring himself to give a straight answer to any question he's asked about any subject.
Also present in the bunker is Gallagher Jr. as Howard's good-natured pal Emmett, who helped him build the bunker and backs him up on the idea that the outside is dangerous, having witnessed part of the attack. A flash of light of Biblical proportions.
And so we watch these three interaction with each other, trying to pass the time while Michelle continues to question and doubt Howard, trying to figure out what's true, what isn't. The film centers on these three exclusively, so it has to be carried by the performances of the leads, and luckily they landed some great actors to bring these characters to life. I'm not as familiar with Gallagher Jr. as the others, but he holds his own quite well.
Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, the script is pretty solid, with decent characters and captivating mysteries. Michelle, Howard, and Emmett have a lot of downtime in the bunker, but the writers and director Dan Trachtenberg, who did a commendable job making his feature directorial debut with this movie, always keep things moving forward at a good pace, throwing something new at the viewer whenever there's a lull.
They probably brought in a good number of extra viewers just by tacking the Cloverfield title onto this, but I can imagine some of those viewers walking away disappointed, as this isn't packed with action and thrills in the way that monster movie was. It's a much more subdued film, the thrills largely of the psychological sort. I would advise putting Cloverfield out of your mind entirely when watching it, as it deserves to be rated on its own merits. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent watching it, at least up until the climax, which I felt went a bit off the rails.