Possession

Shock (1977)

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Shock was initially released as Schock and later as Beyond the Door II and was director Mario Bava (A Bay of Blood)’s last film. The film follows Dora, played by Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red, Opera), who has just moved back into her old house following a mental breakdown and the mysterious death of her first husband. Together with Dora are her new husband Bruno (John Steiner, Tenebre), who is away a lot due to his job, and young son Marco (David Colin, Jr., Beyond the Door).

Upon moving in strange things start to happen to both Dora and Marco as they are visited by the ghost of Carlo (a.k.a. the dead husband/father). It is quite early on in the film that Marco becomes possessed by Carlo and starts to terrorise his mother in very adult ways. Along with Marco’s strange behaviour Dora starts to hallucinate and regain some memories about Carlo and the night he died and her part in it. Before being too harsh on Dora, it must be pointed out that Carlo was far from the model husband, rather he was an abusive drug addict.

The soundtrack to Schock is impressive and utilises several different techniques to build suspense including the ubiquitous violins but also syncopated off-kilter drumbeats. Although the plot of Schock is pretty simple it is extremely well done. There is an attempt at the old ‘is she going insane or is it supernatural’ troupe however I think it is clear from the scenes with Marco that it is of the supernatural persuasion.  It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Schock and The Exorcist – both being films made in the 1970s about child possession, however they are very different. What sets Schock apart from a lot of possession films is that it is a ‘human’ (albeit dead) that is possessing rather than an all-powerful demon or the devil.

Although Bava is well known for his Giallo genre films (hence the tag), I don’t know if I would consider Schock to be an example of that genre, if nothing else the title and plot are not convoluted enough to be classic Giallo. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed the film and would recommend it, particularly if you don’t have much brain power to spend!

Rating: 4/5

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Fun Fact: The alternative title of Beyond the Door II was chosen to link to a previous film by Ovidio G. Assonitis with the spurious link that David Colin Jr. plays a possessed child in both films.

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The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)

the last exorcism

I thought I hadn’t done a double review for a while so here we go.

The Last Exorcism follows Reverend Cotton Marcus played by Patrick Fabian (Bad Ass),a Southern pastor who has become disillusioned with the exorcisms he has made his living performing. With the help of a film crew he does one last case (the exorcism of the title) to reveal the tricks of the trade that he and other exorcists employ. The last case is that of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell, The Day), a quiet, highly religious 14 year old who lives out in the countryside with her father and brother. Her father has kept her isolated at home since the death of his wife. Marcus bamboozles the family with hidden speakers and sleight of hand into thinking Nell is possessed by the demon Abalam who he then succeeds in exorcising from Nell. It would be a very short film if the revelation went as planned but unfortunately for all concerned that is not the case with things going from bad to worse with Nell turning up unexpectedly at the motel room.

I enjoyed The Last Exorcism up until the final twenty minutes or so where it quite frankly gets ridiculous. The idea of an exorcist not believing in demons is unusual, normally they are the ones trying to convince people that demons exist. It is also good that for most of the film it is unclear as to whether Nell is possessed or there is some more earthly reason for her actions. The Last Exorcism is filmed on hand cameras which leads to several shakey and blurry scenes which generally don’t add much to the film, however I can see how this technique fits in with the documentary storyline. There is a subtle use of soundtrack throughout which adds to the tension throughout. Even though I had seen the film before, I was sitting on the edge of my seat for most of it (until the ridiculous end that is) which is a good sign.

The Last Exorcism Part II catches up with Nell Sweetzer. The film opens with her being found in the kitchen of a random couple looking possessed. Unfortunately for the film this opening scene is the scariest of the whole film. Fast forwards several months and Nell is released from hospital into a midway house and starts to get her life on track, finding a job and experiencing her tentative first love. Soon however, signs begin to appear that Abalam has returned for Nell. This time there is no hint of the subtlety that was in the first film with demonic cults, voodoo priests and the apocalypse thrown seemingly at random into the confused plot of the film. One plus point in favour of the second film is that they managed to get the same actress to play Nell, something which doesn’t always happen with sequels (Cruel Intentions springs to mind).

Part II is a completely different ball game to the original film in both feel, execution and calibre. At least it doesn’t fall into the same trap of retelling the same story as the original in the same way (unlike Paranormal Activity series) and it is still connected to the original (unlike The Haunting In Connecticut). In these two respects I would consider Part II to be a successful sequel. It is just a shame that the plot is so weak.

I would recommend people to watch The Last Exorcism but not to bother with the second one.

Part I: 4/5

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Part II: 2/5

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The Exorcist (1973)

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This is my first review of such an iconic film and I am hesitant to write about such a well-known film. (I am doing so now because on my move to Sweden I didn’t pack many films, most of which turned out to be vampire films and I couldn’t justify three vampire reviews in a row to myself!) Most people have heard of The Exorcist and are aware of the now infamous pea-soup and 180⁰ head turning but The Exorcist has a lot more to offer. The film was adapted by William Blatty from his novel of the same name which was inspired by the true event that took place in the 1940s.

The film opens in Iraq following an archaeological dig run by an elderly catholic priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, Minority Report) who discovers a series of unsettling omens including a demonic looking statue. What I particularly like about this sequence is that unlike many modern films the action actually takes place in the language of the country rather than English, although I don’t fully understand how the dig relates to the possession of a twelve year-old girl thousands of miles away. It is not until about fifteen minutes into the film that we meet the unfortunate Regan, a seemingly naïve girl on the cusp of adulthood, played by Linda Blair (Airport 1975) and her mother, Chris played by Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) an actress currently working in Georgetown, Washington DC.

Director William Friedkin (The French Connection) spends just the right amount of time setting the scene and introducing the characters and their back stories, there is enough information to understand people’s motivation but not so much that the film drags. We see the deterioration in Regan as the demon takes hold and the battery of medical tests (that are traumatic in their own right), the doctor’s puzzlement and the clutching of straws that leads Chris to the Catholic Church to ask for an exorcism. Chris turns to Father Karras portrayed by Jason Miller (Rudy) currently in the midst of a crisis of faith who initially refuses to believe that possession even exists. However unnatural events including Regan speaking in several different languages and voices, telekinesis (moving objects with her mind) and finally a scar appearing on her stomach saying “help me” convinces Father Karras to seek permission to perform an exorcism. The eponymous exorcist is Father Merrin (who was introduced at the start of the film in Iraq) and has one of the most recognisable entrances in cinematic history. What unfolds when the exorcism takes place is cinematic history which keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.

One of the best things about The Exorcist is the amount of time and effort spent on the special effects. There are obvious parts where special effects have been used to great effect, such as the head turning but it is the subtle ones that make it a great film. For example, von Sydow was actually in his forties but was made to look thirty year’s older thanks to make-up and you can’t tell. Friedkin went to extreme lengths to create his vision including keeping the room refrigerated to get realistic cold breath during the exorcism and many of the reactions in the film are genuine.

The Exorcist is an iconic film for a reason, although some of the fame derives from associated intrigues, such as the alleged use of subliminal messages to scare the viewer, and nevertheless it is well worth watching in its entirety.

Rating: 5/5

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Fun Fact: As an example of the film’s success The Exorcist was the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and when taking into account inflation is Warner Brother’s highest grossing film.

 

Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

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Both films follow the unfortunate Lambert family who have inherited the ability to project themselves into an astral plane. On this plane, however, we find that they are not alone and instead it is inhabited by spirits of the dead and other more deadly beings all of whom are looking for a way back into this material world. In the first film it is the son, Dalton, played by Ty Simpkins (Iron Man 3) who is the centre of the problem becoming the object of desire of a Darth Maul-esque demon and falls into a coma that cannot be explained medically. Is parents, Renai and Josh played by Rose Bryne (28 Weeks Later, X-Men: First Class) and Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring, Hard Candy) respectively learn from Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey, Black Swan, Hannah and her Sisters) that this isn’t the first time this has happened. Indeed, it happened to Josh as a child which is why there are no photos of him in his youth around.

In both films there are ‘professional’ mediums, Elise (Lin Shaye, There’s something about Mary), Specs (Leigh Whannell, Saw) and Tucker (Angus Sampson, Summer Coda), the latter two providing some comic relief. In the second film after Elise’s death, Specs and Tucker are joined by Carl (Steve Coulter, The Conjuring), Elise’s previous assistant who contacts her through the use of sever dice.

The second film focuses around the father, Josh who after rediscovering his ability brought something back at the end of the first film. It opens in the 1980s with Elise removing Josh’s ability before moving into the present day and Renai being questioned about Elise’s death which occurred at the end of the first film. These flashbacks are a common feature throughout the film in which we learn about the spirit that has been following Josh since he was a boy and is now inhabited him.

The idea of astral projection adds a different facet to the usual possession storyline and I thoroughly enjoyed the first film, there was the right amount of jumps and mystery with the soundtrack serving to enhance the mood without over-powering it as can easily happen in such a film. The second film however, whilst still providing its fair share of jumps and scares, is far more confused trying to weave together a new story about the spirit possessing Josh whilst fleshing out the background hinted at in the first film. This leads to a confused and lack lustre film. In the second film the ghosts make-up seem more naïve, lots of white painted faces and even resorting to people in sheets, which considering the much increased budget from the first one, $5 million compared to $1.5 million for the first, you would have thought would be more impressive. The storyline itself in the second one reverts to clichés, killers with mother issues, which really lets the unusual idea of astral projection from the first film down.

As with many similar films, for example The Conjuring also by director James Wan or the Saw franchise (which Wan directed part III and the upcoming part VII and writer Leigh Whannell wrote parts I, II, III and VIII) Insidious seems destined to be done into the ground with each film becoming increasingly confused and unoriginal, indeed Insidious: Chapter 3 is already in production, I just hope it doesn’t go the same way as the Paranormal Activity or aforementioned Saw franchise and become a parody of itself.

Rating: Insidious 4/5 blood4aInsidious: Chapter 2 2/5blood2a

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

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The Marked Ones is the fifth instalment in the Paranormal Activity series started by the incredibly successful Paranormal Activity in 2009. As with all the previous films The Marked Ones is filmed in a found footage style, from the vantage point of a camcorder belonging to two Latino teenagers Jessie (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz). The film begins at a high school graduation in Oxnard California where Jessie and Hector along with their classmates including Oscar (Carlos Pratts) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). After a night celebrating with their family and friends, their downstairs neighbour Anna, who is commonly held to be a witch, is found brutally murdered by Oscar who swiftly leaps to his death.

Shortly after the traumatic turn of events, Jessie wakes up with a bite mark on his arm and then develops strange powers including throwing two thugs fifty feet into the air and being held aloft after falling off a chair. However cool these things may seem (and they post the videos on YouTube) they soon take a turn for the macabre pretty quickly after discovering an occult altar in a hidden cellar with photos of Jessie and Oscar on it. It transpires that Anna was a member of ‘The Midwives’ coven who perform demonic rites on pregnant women and their unborn sons.

Whilst there are some original aspects in this film, including the use of a ‘Simon’ for a séance, most of the scares were predictable, like the use of night vision, having said that there were scares a plenty and the film built up tension very quickly and effectively. The Marked Ones sets out its Latin identity like a dog marking its territory complete with tequila drinking Spanish speaking grandmother, tortillas and  Day of the Dead iconography, in fact if playing Latino bingo, the only thing missing was the Piñata (which they could have squeezed in in the post-graduation party). The relationship to the previous films is tenuous, only becoming clear right at the end of the film.

The found footage style of the film is well done with the camera rolling for reasons within the film, e.g. filming to put on the internet or filming at a party rather than filming purely for the film as seen in many of these types of movies. The (always present) night vision passage was very well done as the demonic presence distorts the camera screen.

The Marked Ones left me thinking that the Paranormal Activity franchise should have been ended after number three or four rather than fading into mediocrity with the same story wrapped in a tortilla. I would recommend it if you haven’t seen the previous four films as whilst derivative, it still provides a lot of good scares. The Marked Ones does not need the background of the preceding movies, nor does it add anything substantial to the movie canon.