The Wailing (2016)

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Director: Hong-Jin Na

Stars: Do Won Kwak, Jung-min Hwang, Hwan-hee Kim

A wailing delight

Anyone who follows South Korea’s horror film output will be unsurprised to hear that Hong-Jin Na’s (of The Chaser fame) latest film is yet another K-horror classic. If there’s one country you can count on for producing innovative, gripping and unpredictable horror films then it’s South Korea. We’ve had countless high quality horror from them including: Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, Bedevilled and even the recent Train to Busan. The Wailing can now be added to that lovely long list.

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It’s labelled as a ‘horror’ movie but really The Wailing is an exciting mix of comedy, thriller, mystery and supernatural horror. For the first time in quite some while, I had no idea where this 150 minute journey was going to take me. It begins as a Memories of Murder style crime drama. We’re introduced to our lovable bumbling hero, played by an enthralling Do-wan Kwak, who is a policeman investigating a string of strange incidents in his small town. Mass murder seems to being some local folk’s mind and they’re also turning into red-eyed, mindless zombies for no apparent reason. Does it have anything to do with a mysterious Japanese recluse who has recently resided in the nearby forest? Or perhaps the talk of ghosts and goat-eating loons play a part in this mystery?

From the get go, The Wailing effortlessly draws you into its enigmatic story. What surprised me was how funny the film was, particularly the first half. Honestly, The Wailing has to be one of the funniest films of 2016, I was howling with laughter every five minutes. It never takes itself too seriously and always finds the comic side to its bizarre situations so nothing ever seems overly silly. A lot of what makes the dry humour so effective is down to Do-wan Kwak’s comic timing. His performance is so endearing and he makes his character so likeable that you can’t help but get sucked into the story. The film also cleverly takes its time to explore his home life as well as work, so we’re fully involved in every aspect of our protagonist.

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Once the film hits around the halfway point though, it ceases all comedic aspects and segues into much darker territory. The change is seamless within the story though and only adds to the edge-of-your-seat unpredictability. It’s difficult to talk about the film without giving away any plot twists (of which there are many) and I don’t want to do that. Just be assured that you’ll be surprised and thoroughly absorbed by our main character’s journey. In the hands of a less skilful director and screenwriter then the twists would come across as implausibly silly and tonally distracting, but Hong-Jin Na makes every turn seem fresh and exciting.

The Wailing only gets more gripping as the film progresses. When the horror gets close to home, the film becomes a dizzying tale of a desperate father rather than a police drama. A big shout-out has to be said for Hwan-hee Kim who plays Kwak’s young daughter. Her performance is nothing short of mesmerising. A lot of the time I forgot that I was watching a film with actors and started to really believe about what was happening on screen, which is no easy task when you’re dealing with themes involving the supernatural. Perhaps the film is a little longer than it needed to be, but not once did I find myself feeling bored or uninvolved.

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The Wailing is a real showcase for Korean cinema. It has such an ambition and originality which is sadly lacking in most Hollywood productions. No doubt they’ll get their hands on remake rights, but it’ll never be as authentic as this one. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film and had absolutely no idea how it was going to end. The Wailing builds itself up to such an unpredictable and intense finale that it’s bound to become a deserved cult classic. I also liked how the film is so ambiguous and unforgiving in its lack of exposition that you can’t help but think about it long after the credits have rolled. Don’t read any reviews, don’t watch the trailer, just watch it and then watch it again. The Wailing is a brilliant highlight in a year that has been full of them.

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The Conjuring 2 (2016)

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Director: James Wan

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O Connor, Madison Wolfe

Cor, blimey guvner! A sequel actually worth your sixpence piece

I remember being pretty disappointed when The Conjuring first came out. The Internet was building it up to be one of the scariest films ever made and I was getting really excited to be properly scared. I don’t usually get scared in films, but James Wan’s very own Insidious did manage to conjure up (pardon the pun) some genuinely terrifying imagery so I had every right to expect the same from The Conjuring but the film didn’t scare me at all. It wasn’t until I re-watched it recently that I realised that whilst it isn’t a scary film to me, I can appreciate it for being a very well-made horror film. If you take the hype away from it, there’s a lot to love.

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So when The Conjuring 2 reviews came out and were citing similar hype, I tried to put aside the claims of it being even better than the first film and went in with an open mind, almost expecting it to be a disappointment, but it wasn’t. The Conjuring 2 is one of those very rare sequels (even rarer in the horror genre) which manages to better the first. It still has its problems and I still don’t think it’s scary or that it outdoes Insidious, but it is a fine example of haunted house horror which can stand proudly on its own.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s simply more of the same when the film starts as it’s almost identical to the first film. A seemingly unrelated case opens the film and the title flashes up on the screen along with some jargon about the film being true and this case is yet again the scariest The Warrens’ have ever encountered blah blah blah. It’s basic scare tactics that might work for horror virgins but us aficionados will just be rolling our eyes. To be fair, the opening scene is actually very well directed and gives you some idea of the film’s overall quality.

We’re soon plunged into 1970’s England and we’re given constant reminders of this which is something that irritated me. Maybe it’s because I’m English myself but the stereotypes were often quite overwhelming, although amusing. Every car in the driveway is a Mini Cooper, The Queen often pops up on the telly and everyone has a seriously strong cockney accent. I know that it’s set in London but even so it sounds like most of the actors have moulded their accents on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. I also found Frances O Connor a little wooden and unconvincing at times as well as a few of the kids.

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Overall the acting is terrific though. I was particularly impressed with Madison Wolfe as Margaret, the main girl, who gave off Linda Blair vibes at times. The role asks a lot of such a young actress but she tackles it head on and it’s pretty extraordinary to watch. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are also as excellent as ever as our favourite paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. I really liked how the film focused so much on their relationship so that it became the emotional core of the film. Similarly, Wan takes his time to carefully build the characters in England so that we become invested in them and actually care about what’s going to happen to them. It’s such a rarity these days to find a horror film with characters you feel involved with and this is the main aspect which makes The Conjuring 2 so strong and compelling.

The other great thing about the film is its atmosphere. James Wan clearly has a deep love for the horror genre and The Conjuring 2 is a labour of this love. The whole film is deliciously gothic and over-the-top, it’s a horror fan’s dream come true. There are a lot of spooky scenes crammed into the film and whilst they didn’t particularly scare me, you can’t help but appreciate the stylishness and effectiveness of them. James Wan really is a master behind the camera and knows how to create genuine tension. Like the first film, a lot of scenes are filmed skilfully in one fluid take and it often becomes very intense, especially combined with the striking loud score and sound design.

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Even the typical horror clichés like possession and creaky doors are done in such an effective way that you don’t care that you’ve seen it a hundred times before. With a running time of over two hours, I was still left feeling eager for more. The Conjuring 2 creates a gorgeous world of horror and allows you to sink within it. It will leave horror fans consistently grinning from ear to ear. The demon/ghost designs in this one are also much more creative than the first film. The nun character (played by the same lady who acted as the iconic bum in Mulholland Dr) was memorably creepy and a bizarre character known as the crooked man is weirdly delightful, although some might find him a jarringly out of place.

If you’re a fan of the horror genre then I can’t really see any reason for disliking The Conjuring 2, and if you’re not a horror fan then what are you bloody doing watching a horror film? Recent films like The Witch, It Follows and The Babadook may be better but that doesn’t make The Conjuring 2 obsolete. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of supernatural horror which delivers atmosphere and suspense in spades. Some of it does feel a little contrived towards the end but the finale’s so excitingly pulse-pounding and intense that you’re unlikely to care. It makes sure that the audience actually care about the people on screen so it’s never dull for one moment. A third film will definitely be on the cards and if it carries on being as solid as this one then we might be looking at the best supernatural horror franchise since… Well, ever.

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It Follows (2014)

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Director: David Robert Mitchell

Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi

A horror masterclass

I’m a pretty hardened horror movie watcher. Very little gets under my skin these days, for example I can quite comfortably sit and watch The Exorcist on my own, in the middle of the night and not feel a teeny weeny bit frightened. Whilst all the kids were losing their heads over The Conjuring, I sat there completely stone-faced, although that could be something to do with the crap cinema I saw it at in Loughborough which had a screen the size of a microwave and subtitles for the hard of hearing. The last film to properly scare me was Sleepaway Camp, but that’s only because of THAT ending… Perhaps I’m not as hardened as I make out though. There have been a few recent horror films which have given me some genuine chills: Kill List, Sinister and The Babadook have all unsettled me greatly. It Follows can also be added to that list.

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I watched It Follows alone last night and once it had finished I ran off to bed with chills tingling along my back, hopped straight into bed and threw the covers over my head like a 14 year-old girl. It’s something I’ve not done for a while, but It Follows really got under my skin! It’s been at the top of my watch list for a while after the buzz it created at all the festivals last year. Once it hit a wider release, all of the critics were raving at how brilliant it was and how it was the scariest film to come out in a decade. It Follows quickly fell into what I call the hype machine. The trouble with this machine is that you often let your expectations rocket to impossible heights which ends up in massive disappointment.

I allowed the hype to die down (and for the blu-ray to become cheaper!) and gave it a watch with lower expectations, and it worked! It’s easy to see how many were disappointed when people were calling it the new Halloween and a new horror classic. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but in an age full of horrendously conventional horror films with bad acting, super-fast editing and unoriginal ideas; It Follows stands head and shoulders above the rest as the superior animal. It grabbed my attention right from the opening shot which is done all in one long take. There’s no shaky camera and no cutting away every two seconds, it’s just one long shot of a girl running away in a panic. It feels grounded, real and completely refreshing. The incredibly cool retro synth score doesn’t do it any trouble either! David Robert Mitchell is clearly someone who knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The opening also culminates in a jarringly haunting image which feels like something from a nightmare. It Follows means business from the start.

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We then follow our hero, Jay who’s a blameless young adult going about her normal boring life until she decides to do a bit of innocent dogging. It results in her being cursed like a girl from Japan, but instead of a long black-haired figure following her, it’s an invisible demon who takes many guises and will follow her relentlessly until she passes it on. It’s an incredibly simple premise to pad out into a 100 minute feature film, but it absolutely works. Every single scene is filled with a strong atmosphere of complete dread because you never know when the demon is going to return, or what form it’s going to take. Even scenes where Jay and her friends are sat talking are suspenseful because you can feel a presence. Someone is always watching and it makes for a nightmarish experience.

When the stalking demon appears, that’s when stuff gets real. The film reaches its most terrifying peak when Jay and her friends stay up all night at her house to watch out for spooky happenings. I don’t want to spoil it for those who are yet to see the film, but suffice to say that it has a couple of seriously nightmarish images that will stay with me for quite a long time. It’s masterfully executed to squeeze out the maximum scares possible. It’s scary in the same way Kairo (Pulse) was. Rather than generating quick jump scares, the imagery slowly creeps under your skin and sends sharp chills all the way up your spine. It’s truly a spine-tingling experience, or at least it was for me!

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Throughout the whole film you’re basically waiting for the demon to make another appearance and because you don’t know when that’s going to be the film was never boring for me. The film does lean towards the arthouse side, so those not familiar with arty, slow stuff might find it a little tedious. It’s not the kind of film you can dip in and out of with your phone and just watch when ‘something happens’. It Follows requires your full attention for it to really work.

It’s not quite perfect though. I have to admit that although the group of characters were likable, I did find them flat. They don’t really say a lot and at one point I was thinking that they could possibly be the most boring group of people you could ever hang out with! Also, I found Maika Monroe, who plays main girl, Jay distractingly attractive. I know it’s my fault for being a hormonal young man but at times when I should’ve been completely focused on the film, I was distracted by how drop-dead gorgeous she is! She also flashed a lot of flesh which didn’t help the situation. She’s in a swimming costume for the thrilling finale for gawd’s sake!

In all seriousness though, It Follows is a modern horror master-class. It’s flawlessly executed and feels refreshing and original. It’s also genuinely terrifying for once! I won’t use the old cliché by saying ‘it’s the scariest film in years’ because lots of scary films pop up every year if you look hard enough. I’d say it’s the best horror film to come out since The Babadook.

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The Babadook (2014)

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Director: Jennifer Kent

Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, if you’re after great horror, you’re in luck!

“The best horror movie in years” tends to be the key phrase to use when describing a genuinely good horror film. However, I think modern horror tends to get a bad reputation due to the amount rubbish produced. We’ve had endless Paranormal Activity films which seem to make big money and the appalling Human Centipede movies seem to make big noise, but these films aren’t especially ‘good’. Unfortunately though, they tend to overshadow the fantastic horror films we have been getting recently such as: You’re Next, The Sacrament and Cheap Thrills to name a few. The Babadook can now pop itself onto that list. In fact, I’d say that it’s easily the best and scariest supernatural horror film since the underrated Sinister.

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The Babadook still seems to get quite a lot of criticism for some reason though. To be fair, the trailers do make it look like some sort of run-of-the-mill jumpy ghost story, so perhaps audiences were disappointed when they got a film full of rich characterisation, domestic drama and psychological depth. I wasn’t. The Babadook certainly isn’t your typical supernatural horror film though. We’re not even given a glimpse of the Babadook himself until about 50 minutes into the film, but this doesn’t matter because the central themes and characters are so strong.

There seems to be some debate as to whether this is a supernatural or psychological horror film. Some think that it leaves it up for the viewer to decide, but I thought that director Jennifer Kent was making it quite obvious that this was a film about a woman going mad. It’s very much in the same vein of The Shining and Repulsion as our hero slowly descends into a total schizophrenic onslaught of terror. As a result, we’re given a much deeper and character-driven film about grief, motherhood and madness.

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The heart of the film is the relationship between a mother and son. Both actors are pretty extraordinary, especially the mother played by Elsie Davis who gives an incredibly strong and shattering performance. Many have described the boy as the most annoying child to ever appear in a film, which is a pretty bold statement and one which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with! The decision to make the boy as painfully annoying as chewing a wasp is an extremely conscious one though as we’re put directly into the shoes of the mother. Amelia finds her son extremely hard to love as she subconsciously blames him for the death of her husband. By the end of the film we end up feeling as crazy as Amelia!

The first hour is actually a very sad one as we see Amelia become slowly isolated from people as her life becomes increasingly more hectic. No one seems to understand her grief and no one wants to know her because of Samuel (the impossibly annoying son). Therefore her descent into madness is a wonderfully realistic one. It’s also quite frightening. I’m not one to get scared in horror films, I can watch The Exorcist on my own and feel no fright what so ever, however there were some scenes in The Babadook which made my hair stand on end. The last half hour basically just tries its best to scare the trouser off you and it succeeds! Jennifer Kent is extremely masterful in creating tension and scares. I can’t think of one jump scare in the entire film which is so unusual and commendable. Instead, we’re left terrified from nightmarish imagery and sounds. I dare anyone note to get chilled to the core when the Babadook is hovering over the bed chanting ‘baba-dook-dook-DOOOK!’

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The Babadook is so much more than just a ‘scary’ film though. It carries so much depth if you’re willing to read into it more. It has a genuinely interesting and engaging character at the centre of it and is willing to throw the audience right into the middle of her mental breakdown. It’s also really well-made, especially considering the teeny weeny budget. The production design is pretty outstanding and the infamous Mister Babadook book itself is beautifully made. This is a film which horror fans should welcome to their bosom. It’s genuinely scary, masterfully directed and has a super screenplay to match. What more could you want? It’s also a great advert for contraception if your partner is starting to get broody.

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