Monthly Archives: August 2013

What can we learn from “The Conjuring”?

THE CONJURING (2013)

Director James Wan, Writers Chad and Carey Hayes

Stars Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lily Taylor

 

NOTE: I’VE TRIED NOT TO INCLUDE ANY SPOILERS, BUT READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE.

The biggest hit of 2013 so far must be “The Conjuring”. Delivered on a budget of just $20 million, it has raked in over $120 million so far and is still in theatres.  It charts ahead of much bigger movies such as “Olympus Has Fallen”, “The Hangover Part 2”, “The Wolverine” and of course the infamous “Lone Ranger” movie. So why is it such a smash hit?

I went to see it, expecting it to be over-hyped, and was very pleasantly surprised. Not only is “The Conjuring” a well-made and well-acted movie, it is extremeley scary. This is no exaggeration. “The Conjuring” is definitely the best movie of 2013 so far.

The movie comes on the heels of Director James Wan’s 2010 opus “Insidious”, although you could be forgiven for thinking that 2012’s lookalike “Sinister” was related.

Looking back at “Insidious”, we had another strong performance from character actor/lead man Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl in “Watchmen”). But what was interesting about “Insidious” was the way the movie tried to push the envelope with the horror genre. There were a couple of standout eerie moments. However the picture lapsed into an action/fantasy movie toward the third act, which lessened the effect of the scares.

The plot is simple enough: two psychic detectives (Wilson and Farmiga) take on a haunting in an old house where Taylor and her family (her working joe husband and five young daughters) have just moved in and are experiencing some frightening ghostly goings-on. The uncover a sinister force driving the hauntings, which continue to grow in violence and, what’s worse, seem to react to the couple’s presence in the house.

To an extent, “The Conjuring” is a refinement of Wan’s previous movie. However  this movie opens with a bang (literally) instead of a slow burn. In fact, the movie delivers almost everything up front. From the creepy titles (an oft-ignored aspect of filmmaking) we are plunged into terror. The opening sequence which features a demonic doll is one of the scariest I’ve ever seen. Who knew that dolls could become creepy again after the debacle of “Child’s Play”?

As if that wasn’t enough, Wan and his creative team go on to deliver an expertly crafted series of scares. Each one just as terrifying as the last. The roller-coaster ride (or should that be ghost train?)  is helped by excellent performances, not just from Wilson, but from horror veteran Lilly Taylor, who really outdoes herself in this movie, as well as the ever-off-kilter Vera Farmiga as the other half of the ghostbusting duo.

But what really impresses about “The Conjuring” is the quality of the scares. Each one goes shows us something that has never been seen before. Yes, the ideas themselves have been copied from other stories (the evil doll, the ghostly bangings, demonic possession). There are also notable nods of the head to older classics, such as when Taylor’s husband wakes up to find the TV showing only static, an obvious reference to “Poltergeist”.

But “The Conjuring” goes further. this is not just an evil doll. This is a mightily pissed-off evil doll that sounds like a 300lb giant hammering on the door. The “ghost”, when it does appear, is exceptional. Especially in two memorable scenes, one involving a sleepwalker and a wardrobe, the other involving something as mundane as hanging up washing on a clothesline.

To say that “The Conjuring” copies other movies is like saying “Forbidden Planet” is ajust a copy of “The Tempest”. This is a bravura piece of horror filmmaking that is sure to establish Wan for years to come as a horror great.

The lesson? Go farther.

A good example of another ghost story which pushes the envelope is 2001’s Japanese movie “Pulse” (forget the remake) which goes from eerie hauntings involving the Internet to an apocalyptic third act.

It is true that the movie runs out of steam to an extent in the third act, where it changes pace and tone becoming more of an action movie spliced in with a demonic possession movie. As a result, the scares diminish. The character development is pretty sketchy also, but is just enough to add some depth to a very plot-driven movie. “The Conjuring” is definitely at its best for the other two thirds. But what a two thirds they are!

Audiences love to be surprised, and I was. The scares are not your everyday jump-out-and-scream variety. nor is there the reprehensible “torture-porn” of recent “hits”. Instead, “The Conjuring” is a creepy and frightening horror movie.

Go see it!

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Horror Without Victims review

Here is a very nice review of “Horror Without Victims”, an anthology which contains my short story “Clouds”. It’s only the second time I’ve been published in a British anthology. The first time was with my story “Charlie” in the British Fantasy Society’s anthology “Terror Tales”, alongside Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

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The reviewer calls it “psycho-geographic horror”, and although I didn’t plan it out that way, I’d have to agree!

If you haven’t got a copy yet, I’d recommend it (because my story is in it, of course – but also because it contains 24 other excellent, frightening, funny and awe-inspiring stories, all on the theme of horror without the gore).

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Quickie movie review – Manhunter

Another dip into my DVD collection this week. While researching the thriller genre I struggled to find a list of the top thrillers of all time. Maybe I’ll do that in another post. Hmm. Meanwhile, here is my review of the much-overlooked prequel to “Silence of the Lambs”.

“Manhunter” was not a commercial success on release. But in fact it is better than its bigger and somewhat dumber sequel, although Anthony Hopkins certainly portrayed Hannibal Lektor with much aplomb. So without further ado I present to you…

MANHUNTER, 1986

Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in "Manhunter", 1986.

Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in “Manhunter”, 1986.

Will Graham is a former FBI Agent with a difference. He is able to put himself in the mind of a serial killer. His talent has almost cost him his sanity. But when the “Tooth Fairy” starts wiping out whole families, Graham is called out of retirement to help catch the murdering monster. His first task, however, is to re-establish his serial killer mindset. And to do that, he needs the help of  one Hannibal Lektor…

Manhunter is a gorgeous film. Michael Mann, fresh from the TV series Miami Vice, used every trick in the book to make the film reminiscent of 1940s Noirs. There are some beautiful shots, such as Graham’s house overlooking the ocean – shot entirely in blue. Mann, whose earlier film effort “The Keep” also had some excellent photography, provides us with more memorable images here: tigers, the Tooth Fairy’s stocking mask, and of course the death of one rather unpleasant reporter who becomes one of the killer’s victims.

The acting is also pretty nifty. William Peterson plays Will Graham with heart – although he is sometimes a little too downbeat for his own good. But he carries the “leading man” part off nicely. A shame his talents would never be utlilized to such a degree again. Character actor stalwart Brian Cox steps into the biter-mask of Hannibal Lektor this time. Cox is chilling, especially in a bravura scene where he manages to use a telephone from inside a high security cell. The slicked-back hair is something that would remain part of the character in “Silence of the Lambs”.  The late Dennis Farina plays Graham’s FBI buddy to good effect, while Tom Noonan (who appeared recently in “The House of the Devil”) is scary and believable as the damaged, murdering monser. In fact, Noonan’s portayal is much more sympathetic than Ralph Fiennes’ would be in the by-the-numbers remake, “Red Dragon” (2002).

Indeed, by comparing “Manhunter” with “Red Dragon”, we can see how superior “Manhunter” is. There is poetry to this movie. It takes place in a kind of hyper-realism. The strange lighting, the memorable music, all serve to make this a masterpiece of thriller cinema. “Manhunter” is also more generous with its emotions. We see with both unease and pity the heartbreaking attempts of the Tooth Fairy to connect with another human being. But it is an act doomed to failure. Although the filmmakers bring us within a hair’s breadth of sympathy for the killer, it seems that some sins cannot be expurgated.

The action builds from unease to a tense climax that has plenty of surprises. “Manhunter” is psychologically realistic, without the overblown theatrics of “Silence of the Lambs” or “Hannibal”. More than any other film based on the Thomas Harris books, “Manhunter” takes us deep into the world of the serial killer, and shows us that it is a twisted, frightening place. And it does it with style.

Quickie movie review time…

Today, I thought I would share a review of a film you may not have seen. There aren’t many people making great movies. But one man who’s made more than his fare share (and had more than his fair share of commercial failures) is David Lynch.

So without further ado here is my review of LOST HIGHWAY.

LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

A jazz saxophonist is (wrongly?) convicted of murdering his wife. He is imprisoned. He wakes up in the morning as a different person, a young mechanic. The authorities are baffled and release him. He becomes involved in an affair with another woman, the wife of a gangster who looks just like the first man’s wife…

"We've met before, haven't we?" Robert Blake as the Mystery Man.

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Robert Blake as the Mystery Man.

What does it mean? Don’t look for straightforward answers. Although it looks like a Hollywood movie, ‘Lost Highway’ is anything but. This is cinema deconstructed. What is a story? What is art? Surface meanings are stripped away and what we are left with is…

Director David Lynch and his co-writer Barry Gifford again create a frustrating, mesmerizing, entertaining, visceral, daring Chinese puzzle of a movie. But the twist here is that the puzzle has no solution. More introverted than epic, it had critics and audiences confused upon its release. Searches for story will disappoint. This is a movie that knows it is a movie and toys with the viewer like a cat with a mouse.

“Lost Highway” also plays with genre, most notably the kind of noir 40s movies that eventaully spawned Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo”. But “Lost Highway” goes beyond them. The writers are not afraid to let go of plot, drawing attention to the artificiality of a narrative that both illuminates and conceals. This is a movie that pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. Is it intended or not? Does it matter? Like the rest of the film, this only raises questions without answers.

Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty are the two faces of the same man (or is he?). Patricia Arquette is dazzling as Renee/Alice. But arguably Robert Loggia steals the show with impeccable comic timing as a ridiculously vicious gangster. While Robert Blake gives his last performance as the memorably creepy mystery man with no eyebrows – a typically Lynchian obscure archetype.

I’m not usually a fan of postmodernism, but when it’s done this well I can’t help but like it. With sublime music and excellent performances, this is surely one of Lynch’s most provocative films to date. Well worth seeing.

Streamlining your story

Movies are not books. Maybe you noticed this already.

In books, you have around 300 pages (or more, if your editor likes working long hours) to tell your story.

In a screenplay, you have 100 pages. That’s it. Not 120 pages, not even 116 pages. The average movie script is between 90-110 pages long. If it’s a low-budget script, I’m told you should aim for closer to 90. But no less. Less than 90 pages screams amateur.

Funny old world, isn’t it?

I personally have found that the best ideas to turn into screenplays are therefore the simplest ones. The ones you can riff off and create scenes from without much effort.

Imagine the story is like a single plant shoot. Your scenes are like the leaves coming off of this shoot. But if your shoot becomes twisty and crooked, your plant won’t grow straight. It might turn into an ugly plant. Of course it might also get eaten by bugs. But that’s another story…

So. The simplest stories work best.

For example:

“Liar Liar”. An attorney is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours.

“Jurassic Park”. What if we could clone dinosaurs?

That’s not to say you can’t have endless variations in scenes and subplots based on and expanding your story. “Annie Hall” is a great example of a very complex and varied script full of exquisite scenes that are based around quite a simple premise.

But when I overcomplicate my story spine, that’s when I get into trouble. And it can be frustrating trying to rewrite draft after draft until you iron out the kinks. If you ever do.

So when thinking about your screenplay idea, it pays to keep it simple.