[Review] THE FOREVER PURGE (2021)

@craiggors

All empires end, even The Purge. As one of the most financially reliable horror franchises of the last decade, writer James DeMonaco’s The Purge series has spawned five films and a two-season television show that have dominated political horror discussions among genre enthusiasts. The topical themes of the films–race, class, a divided America plagued by prejudice and violence–make this the most overtly political franchise in horror, but the series has often been accused of being too heavy-handed in its critique of American patriotism. The Forever Purge, the supposed final entry in the saga, is not a subtle film by any means, but its pointed observations on the state of our nation still ring frighteningly true.

Eight years after the Purge was stopped at the end of The Purge: Election Year (2016), the New Founding Fathers have resumed office and immediately reinstated Purge Night, their annual “holiday” wherein all crime, including murder, is legal for twelve hours. The reinstitution of the Purge comes in the wake of a national crisis surrounding immigration, as depicted in the opening sequence where married couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta) pay a coyote to smuggle them across the border from Mexico to Texas. Ten months later, on the eve of the first new Purge, Juan and his friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda) are working as ranch hands for the wealthy Caleb Tucker (Will Patton) and his son Dylan (Josh Lucas). There is tension between Dylan and Juan, as the former is wary of Mexican laborers, a prejudice not shared by his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) or his cowgirl sister Harper (Leven Rambin). Nevertheless, everyone involved despises the Purge and is able to survive the night unharmed. But the Purge is not over. After the siren signaling the end of the Purge, an armed group of “Ever After Purgers” attack the ranch, sending our core characters fleeing, only for them to realize that nowhere is safe. The Forever Purge has begun and anyone deemed to be “un-American” isn’t safe.

What’s more American than bondage, amirite?

What follows in writer DeMonaco and director Everardo Valerio Gout’s film is an interesting twist on the basic plotline of all the prior films. Whereas our heroes in the prior Purge movies had to survive the night, now they must survive after the night. 7 a.m. cannot save them. It’s an intriguing flip and one that the series has been building to for some time: what happens when enough people take the Purge too far? A background subplot makes it clear that The New Founding Fathers have lit a fire that not even they can control, calling to mind the January 6 insurrectionists indirectly empowered to attempt their coup thanks to hateful rhetoric spewed from official political channels. It’s all the more prescient when one considers this movie was filmed before the events at the Capitol.

Like its predecessors, The Forever Purge is not a nuanced film by any means, and it paints in broad strokes for both narrative and character. Juan and Dylan are archetypes that must not only overcome the external threat of the Forever Purge to survive, but their own internal biases towards one another in order to work together. While there are touches of who these characters are as people, there’s never enough to justify our investment in them as the viewer. Instead, we are left uninterested in their relationship and its symbolic undertones and instead focused on Adela, easily the most interesting character with the most intriguing background. de la Reguera steals every scene she’s in, a charismatic and talented performer acting as the emotional anchor of the film, but not given nearly enough to do on screen.

Do you think we can Ubereats tonight?

That said, there’s still a lot to like about The Forever Purge. Cinematographer Luis David Sansans shoots and frames the Texas countryside beautifully, almost making the film feel like a traditional Western. There’s also a great long-take that follows the characters as they move through the war torn streets of El Paso seeking shelter before their final push to flee to Mexico, a clever if on-the-nose inversion of current global affairs. As always, there are some hella creepy masks, though for the most part the true terror of this film is the bland, mask-less Ever After Purgers and the very idea that this horrific night has now escaped beyond its bounds.

Honestly, I’m impressed that a franchise can produce a film this serviceable for its fifth entry, and if this truly is the end of the Purge story as we know it, I think it’s a fine conclusion. The film closes on a note that doesn’t shy away from how dire things have gotten for the United States, but that also doesn’t completely doom the country entirely. Hope remains. The battle to keep hate at bay and challenge systemic wrongs is neither easy nor clear at times. As Chiago (Gregory Zaragoza), the indigenous coyote guiding our heroes to safety in Mexico, says, this fight is forever.

The Forever Purge

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

@craiggors

There’s no doubt that James Wan’s 2013 haunted house/possession chiller The Conjuring is one of the most important horror films in the last decade, and certainly a key moment in the history of the genre as a whole. Its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, is a masterclass in how to follow-up a lauded frightfest with an equally terrifying outing. While the other films in the so-called Conjuring Universe have their own charms and quirks, none have quite matched the brilliance of their namesake films. As such, there was a lot for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first film in the main franchise without Wan at the reins, to live up to; and while it’s a serviceable enough film, Wan’s absence is noticeable and rather than a horror hat trick, we’re left with a bit of a turkey.

Based on the real life murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Devil once again reunites us with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they exorcise a vicious demon from eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) in the summer of 1981. During the chaos of the rite, Ed notices the demon switch hosts to David’s sister’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), but before he can warn anyone he has a heart attack. By the time he wakes in the hospital, Arne has murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins). The Warrens, feeling responsible, take on the monumental task of attempting to prove to the court that demonic possession is real and that Arne was not responsible for the killing. Their quest for evidence will lead them back into a dangerous world of witches, curses, and twisted supernatural entities.

There was a lot of speculation during production that the film would feature heavy courtroom scenes interlaced with horror, much like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), but screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves largely eschew the legal angle in favor of the “psychic medium aiding cops” trope as Ed and Lorraine use their gifts and expertise to uncover that there is a curse at work here, a curse placed by a witch that must be found and stopped before it can be completed. It’s all very Satanic Panic, which would have exploded onto the public consciousness a year prior, so in that sense it feels historically appropriate, and witchcraft/deals with the devil were a plot point in the original film so its not entirely uncharted territory for the Conjuring Universe, but does lend to this film feeling very different from its predecessors in more ways than one.

As in the first two films, Devil opens with the Warrens in the midst of a case, the exorcism of David Glatzel. Unlike those cases from the earlier movies, however (Annabelle and the Amityville Horror), the Glatzel case is the throughline of the film, as its characters (human and demonic) stick with us throughout the story, the curse transferring from David to Arne and setting in motion the main plot of the film. There’s some really effective, frightening moments during the opening, but it almost feels like the film throwing its best stuff out first to hook the audience, as the rest of the scares are somewhat tame compared to what we see in the first ten minutes. Beginning the story at the climax of Glatzel possession also renders the audience unable to know the characters outside of their demon-harangued lives. What were they like before this dark thing descended onto their lives? Were they quick to accept that something otherworld was tormenting them? We don’t know, because the characters are already so attuned to the mechanics of possession, so when it emerges that Arne is now host to the malevolent spirit, the fear of his loved ones is too familiar. They’ve been there, they know what to expect. We don’t see dawning terror overtake them, and as such, its hard to relate and or fear with them.

This lack of emotional investment is meant to be picked up by the Warrens, who become the central focus for the first time in the franchise. While Ed and Lorraine were always the charm and heart of the first two Conjuring films, their story was second to the respective haunting/possession. In this third film, they are the driving force, with Arne’s story meant to provide jump scares here and there to break up the Warrens’ investigation. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga once more bring their A game and it’s thanks to their stellar chemistry that the film stays afloat amidst its weaker story moments. O’Connor (The Spanish Princess, Handsome Devil) is also great, conveying the immense psychological burden Arne carries as he wrestles with the dark force inside of him, and Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) once more shines as an adorable little boy beset by paranormal predators.

As for those evil forces, they’re largely forgettable, and don’t deliver that thick sense of dread so memorable from the first two Conjuring films. The Devil Made Me Do It has no clapping game or Valak painting to hang its hat on as its “Iconic Scare.” The waterbed scene so heavily featured in promotional materials is decent, but the overexposure eliminates any sense of suspense or surprise. The continuous story also means there’s no secondary demonic figure lurking about, a la Annabelle or the Crooked Man. The human nature of the villain isn’t a bad route to take, as a Satanic witch is always inherently scary, but she’s not all that difficult to take down in the end, nor does she leave much of an impression. You’re more likely to remember the plethora of homages to past horror films that Chaves inserts far too often, The Exorcist and The Shining being the most noticeable. It’s fine to borrow imagery and pay tribute, but if what sticks in your audiences mind the most from your film are nods to other, better movies…that’s a problem.

Chaves was faced with a difficult task, and should be applauded for stepping into Wan’s shoes to follow-up two of the most well-received horror films in recent years. He’s a fine director, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t bad by any means. There are solid performances, some great shots, and a decent score from series veteran Joseph Bishara. Put in context with the other spin-offs in the Conjuring Universe, it’s a respectable middle of the pack entry, but it’s nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat nightmare machines that Wan directed. Terrible? No. Average? Frustratingly so. It’s certainly not a death-knell for the franchise, but you do have to wonder if it’s worth further films if this is what they’ll look like. I guess when the devil makes you do something, it should be no surprise if it ends up damned.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021)

@craiggors

Last year, the world went quiet. A strange menace we had to learn about as we fought it took hold of the globe and forced us all to question what was truly worth living for. It’s fitting then that one of the first movies to screen exclusively in newly reopened theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, which explore both the origins and aftermath of the events in the original film. It’s a film that was one of the first to be delayed last year and hits all the more harder now that we have some context as to what it means when a foreign entity forces you to retreat to your home and stay there in order to survive.

Written and directed by John Krasinski, who also helmed and starred in the first installment, Part II opens on the day that the sound-sensitive creatures were first unleashed upon the world, presumably from a flaming mass of space debris that collides with Earth. After we see the initial moments of the invasion, the film jumps ahead to pick up immediately after the end of the first film. With Lee (Krasinski) dead and their home destroyed, the remaining Abbotts flee their broken homestead in the hopes of finding shelter with other survivors. Mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is grief-stricken and exhausted, fearful for her newborn baby’s survival as well as her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and traumatized son Marcus (Noah Jupe). When they stumble upon family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), someone they knew in the “before times,” the Abbotts learn that there may be a haven for what remains of humanity nearby, but with the monsters still ravaging anything that makes even the slightest noise, it will be almost impossible to get there…

Into the uknownnnnn

With A Quiet Place (2018), Krasinski proved himself a master of tension, and he reminds just how good he is at threading that needle in the film’s prologue, a deliciously nail-biting sequence that sees Lee going about town in what we know will be the last few normal moments of his, and the world’s, existence. Krasinski knows just what to do in order to make the audience almost sick with anticipation and then masterfully, when the invasion finally begins, shifts into a different kind of tension as all hell breaks loose and society as we know it crumbles. It’s tight, focused, directing and an excellent exercise in how to induce terror, establish pace, and set tone within the first few minutes of a film. It’s all the more palpable given how quickly we saw the real world shut down in the wake of real world emergency last spring.

That thrilling yet awful sense of dread continues throughout the film, proving both Krasinski’s growth as a director and knowledge of the genre. For a big studio film, there’s a number of unexpected scares that will catch even the most hardened horror fans out, myself included. Damn, there’s nothing like that feeling when you realize you can still be surprised, still jump in your seat, and still involuntarily suck in your breath out of fear. This is edge-of-your-seat film-making at its finest.

Daddy Murphy over here

Blunt once again delivers a performance of grace and strength in the face of unimaginable tragedy, this time with a subdued sense of desperation at how dire the circumstances have gotten. Murphy is a fantastic addition, playing vulnerable and defeated in deft equal measure. He’s particularly good in his scenes with Simmonds, who is once again the standout performer for her captivating portrayal of Regan. She is the heart of the film, much as she was in the first entry, and that essential emotional core never gets lost amidst the carnage and drama. If A Quiet Place was essentially about grief and wounds that refuse to heal, Part II is about facing that trauma head on and learning to move on and live with hurt in a world that will never be the same again.

Perhaps the one foible I had with the film was that this movement, both physical and psychological, feels a bit forced at times. The story forces the characters into consistent trouble in a way that feels heavy-handed at times. I’m also not a fan of when characters are split up in order to increase tension, though I understand this is often necessary in order to move a narrative into its conclusion. At least when the characters do split here, everyone’s motivation makes sense, even if the choices they make don’t always add up. This is probably the most predictable part of the film overall, though in retrospect there’s not much new added to this world that we couldn’t have already assumed from the first film. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a Part III in a few years, especially given the somewhat banal ending.

I don’t think that’s a log…or a fish…

So while it doesn’t break explosive new ground in the genre or reinvent the wheel, A Quiet Place Part II does everything it’s supposed to do, and it does it right. It’s an excellent reminder of just how fun it is to be scared in a big, dark room with strangers and the joy of communal movie-going. If you haven’t been back to a theater yet and want something that will keep you engaged and alert throughout, look no further than this film. Just make sure you keep all those screams locked in your throat…you never know what might hear you…

A Quiet Place Part II

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021)

@craiggors

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.

Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…

Heat stroke, obviously

Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.

It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.

Honestly the money has more personality than like six of these characters

Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.

As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.

Break me open, Daddy

No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.

All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.

Army of the Dead

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (2021)

@craiggors

Where do you go with the ninth entry in a franchise? Change directions? Stay the course? Perhaps a little of both? It’s a question that’s plagued the Saw franchise before, when the series took a hiatus after the dismal reception of Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and again after the lukewarm Jigsaw (2017). The series has never been shy about evolving its storyline and taking the narrative down new paths, but Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the biggest departure yet, while also borrowing the most from the original 2004 film that started it all.

Twelve years after turning in a crooked cop, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a pariah at his precinct. Hounded for being a rat, a snitch, and a traitor, Zeke has hardened into a lone-ranger-type trying to get out from under the shadow of his hero dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the former police chief. When he’s paired up with eager rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke expects to wear him down with the drudgeries of being a homicide detective. But then the mutilated body of a Jigsaw copycat victim is discovered–a fellow detective–and it becomes a race against time to stop a psychopath using John Kramer’s legacy to target cops and wipe out corruption in law enforcement.

Oraetta, is that you?

Directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, & IV) and written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw), Spiral starts strong then gets tangled up in its own web during the third act. As per tradition, the film opens with a gruesome, bloody kill in one of the most squirm-in-your-seat traps of the franchise. It’s a great setpiece, but it’s not quite classic Jigsaw. Then again, it’s made clear from this prologue that we’re not dealing with Jigsaw as we know him anymore. Despite executing games from beyond the grave for four or five films, John Kramer is well and truly gone in this film and what we’re dealing with now is a certified copycat. Unfortunately, this means that the gravelly, chill-inducing voice of Tobin Bell is gone as well, replaced with a warped, high-pitched warble that’s anything but intimidating. Also nowhere to be found? Billy, the iconic rosy-cheeked puppet. In his place is a pig puppet that, while creepy, isn’t nearly as unique as little Bill on his trike.

These changes take some getting used to, but they’re not detrimental to the film as a whole. The pig puppet becomes a symbol of the film’s primary theme: corrupt cops. Law enforcement has always been central to the through-line of the Saw series, but Spiral truly puts “the force” under the microscope, and the blade, for the first time. Dirty cops get their comeuppance in this film, a wish fulfillment for so many in our society fed up with the abuse of police power and subsequent lack of consequences. It’s not a subtle critique by any means, but nuance isn’t exactly what we sign up for with these movies anyway, right?

Congratulations trainer! Jigsaw has awarded you the PIGGY BADGE!

Narratively, Spiral eschews the standard formula of a main game A plot alongside an investigative B plot and instead has the traps play out in “real time” as cops disappear and are tested one by one, the killer taunting Zeke all the while. It’s an odd choice, giving the film the feel of a standard police procedural as opposed to the gritty, grimy cat-and-mouse chase of the original film, which it’s clear the filmmakers were trying to emulate here. Zeke and William also don’t do a lot of actual investigating. It’s mostly waiting around for the next detective to disappear and creepy package to show up at the station leading to the next murder site. When the traps do appear, they deliver on gore, as a good Saw trap should, but not as much on tension. They don’t quite feel like “games” even if they are some of the more memorable torture scenes in the franchise (one in particular will have you curling your fingers in phantom pain).

Happily, Rock is a standout and carries the film through its foibles. He expertly flips between biting, comedic monologues and weary, rage-fueled outbursts. His best scenes are with Jackson, who is severely underused, unfortunately, and there’s a great dynamic there between the respected hero chief and his estrange son, forever an outsider for doing the right thing. Both men believe in justice, both men know the system is failing, but tension arises over their perspectives on how to fix that failing and wipe away the grime, symbolized by the film’s nauseous yellow and green hues, a return to the color schemes and dirty, sweaty looks of the original films.

Surprise, motherfucker

Spiral certainly gets points for attempting to resurrect the mystery components of Saw and for cracking open an entirely new storyline, but it plays it safe just as it should go big, and any Saw fan worth their salt can spot the twist from a mile away. Taking into account the missing iconography and uneven pacing, the film fails to make an impression. Were it not “from the Book of Saw” it may have been a better film, but as is stands it’s just missing too much to be a solid Saw film. There’s some hard and fast rules to this franchise, and if Jigsaw’s taught us anything, it’s that the rules should never be broken.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror