Movie Review ~ The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren fight for the soul of a young boy, taking them beyond anything they’d ever seen before and marking the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Who ever could have imagined that a scare masterpiece as impressive as 2013’s The Conjuring could have created two such unlikely super(natural)heroes like Ed and Lorraine Warren?  Nearly a decade later, the God-fearing duo based on the real-life paranormal investigators have appeared in five movies set within The Conjuring Universe, successfully kicking off a cottage industry of scares that could expand as large as their filing cabinet of cases will allow.  Going from the academic demonologists called in by a family living in a house of horrors of the first film to the ghost hunting detectives pursued by demons and the occult in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens could very well be the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the horror landscape.

It’s been five years since the Warrens have had a proper film and some changes have been made during that time.  For starters, James Wan (Insidious) took a step back from the director’s seat, allowing The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves to take over and continue the franchise flagship Wan started. The Conjuring 2 screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) is back but wisely steps away from detailing another haunted house case after the overstuffed sequel from 2016 incorporated Amityville and the Enfield poltergeist — too much of a good thing.  There’s also an interesting decision to ever-so slightly side-step events for the Warrens in The Nun as well as Annabelle Comes Home, which should be called Annabelle Comes A-Conjurin’ since it is all about the Warrens and their youngest child, played there by McKenna Grace and not Sterling Jerins who has the role in all three Conjuring films. 

That brings us to the newest film, set in 1981 which pits the Warrens up against a demon that first appears in the body of a little boy during the rattling prologue and then in Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), his sister’s boyfriend, after the young man foolishly welcomes the entity in as a last ditch effort to save the tormented child.  During this climactic switcheroo, Ed (Patrick Wilson, Midway) suffers a health scare and is sidelined and unresponsive for a stretch.  This allows for enough time to pass that Arne and his girlfriend Diane (Sarah Catherine Hook, Monsterland) can get back to their normal life working for a dog kennel alongside its drunk proprietor. 

As Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Commuter) stands vigil for her ailing husband, Arne begins to exhibit strange visions and feels a presence not just near him but within him.  As this evil gets closer and deeper, the line between what is real to Arne and what is imagined get blurred.  Then, just as Ed is waking but before the Warrens can reach out with a warning, something takes over Arne and he winds up in jail for murder.  On trial and facing capital punishment if convicted, he seeks help from the Warrens to prove his demonic possession defense, the first of its kind.  Feeling responsible not just for the murder but the original botched exorcism that helped the demon find Arne, Ed and Lorraine launch their own investigation into the case to discover how the monster found its way into the initial host to begin with.  What they uncover involves more dead bodies, witch’s curses, human sacrifice, lots of candles, and the kind of sleuthing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo mystery.

Don’t read that last statement as a dig at the screenplay from Johnson-McGoldrick.  The story that Wan provided feels like the sequel that should have come after the first film, one that truly gives the Warrens room to grow a bit more.  Whereas The Conjuring 2 was more about the traditional “bigger” sequel gains (don’t forget about that head-scratching long pause for Wilson to strum a guitar and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’) it didn’t move any pieces forward in as significant a way as they are here.  True, there are far more liberties taken with the story than anyone would care to admit, but the fabricated storyline pairs nicely with the real-life tale of Arne Johnson’s case.

There’s also something sort of fun about watching Wilson and Farmiga, both pushing 50, awkwardly snooping around like these types of academics-first would.  While both could easily pull off a lead in an action film, neither turn the Warrens into warriors once they launch into action.  Ed still gets winded after his illness and walks with a cane and Lorraine always wears the loudest and frilliest of blouses, boxiest of pants, and most modest of skirts.  (Side note: there are a few outfits Farmiga dons that I swear are meant to test the audience’s laugh response…but darn it if Farmiga doesn’t wear the absolute heck out of them!)  Wilson has gotten used to playing second banana in most films and that’s his sweet spot, he’s that person and he excels at it.  To try to grasp for something more would feel like he’s taking more than he needs, and Farmiga definitely doesn’t need his help commanding the screen. Arguably the central focus of all the films in one way or another, Farmiga’s character always runs the risk of coming off as insincere because she’s always so sure of herself and her intuitiveness but it’s only an actress of Farmiga’s caliber that can carry off this type of material and not have it feel goopy.

It’s nice to see carryover characters from previous films and viewers with keen eyes will spot a few familiar trinkets along the way, not to mention deep cut callbacks to preceding movies if you want to take the time to connect those dots.  Often in these mystery-oriented films I tend to find them less interesting the more we find out answers but The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It managed to get more engaging as it went along.  Helping this is Chaves who keeps the film tight and taut by not repeating the scares in similar scenes ad nauseum.  Instead of having large set-pieces that present some looming terror for the Warrens (and the audience) as they move through it (think the water-logged basement in the sequel), Chaves prefers to unleash his scares without much advance warning.  This makes for an exciting watch that’s rarely, if ever, boring, or slow.

I know the film had a post-credit scene that was removed, rumored to set the stage for additional cases to be opened.  Taking this out is a strange move to make considering the number of cases the Warrens were involved with that have yet to be told.  Even if the filmmakers wanted to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It the end of an unofficial (now official?) trilogy, there is still room to leave the door ajar, if not fully open.  While the movie has a satisfying ending, it does feel like something is missing…like a breath was taken but never exhaled. 

Movie Review ~ Color Out of Space

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.