‘You’ve gotta save yourselves from yourselves…’
Nowhere near as sickeningly frightening as Sinister…
In my adult life not many films have actually made me feel scared. Sure the Paranormal Activity franchise has made me jump, and Saw has made me wince, and so on and so forth but very few films have made me feel anxiously scared right down to the pit of my stomach. Sinister was one of them. It arrived with little fanfare back in 2012 and it absolutely blew me away with its incorporation of everything that was popular in horror movies at the time, to become much more than the sum of its parts. The ridiculously unpredictable and terrifying ending just confirmed Sinister as an instant horror classic. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Sinister 2. Partly I was scared that it would tarnish the legacy of the first film, but mostly I was just plain scared…
Luckily for my sanity, Sinister 2 is not as intensely frightening as its predecessor. Whilst the snuff films that were so chilling in Sinister make a return second time round, they suffer from being too elaborate, too well thought out. The horror of Sinister came first from the violent simplicity of the snuff films and then again from the unforgettable ending. Sinister also benefited from a vague and hardly present antagonist. The fleshing out of Bughuul only serves to make him less powerful as a malevolent force.
Whilst Sinister was unremittingly dark in places, Ethan Hawke and James Ransome provided some comic relief that lightened the tone. The backdrop of domestic abuse in Sinister 2 makes for an unrelentingly grim and therefore difficult watch. Director Ciaran Foy’s slavish desire to make a homage to Children of the Corn also jars when compared to Sinister‘s more trailblazing approach.
One high point however is the acting, with Ransome and Shannyn Sossamon making for a likeable pair of protagonists. Sossamon particularly succeeds in fleshing out a believable character and back story in a relatively short running time.
Sinister 2 is nowhere near as memorable as the film that proceeded it and whilst it is commendable that the film makers tried to take Sinister 2 in a different direction, almost every major shift away from what made the original so good feels like a misstep.
Director Leigh Wannell plays to Insidious’ strengths with scare by numbers sequel…
It’s only been five years since Insidious picked up where Paranormal Activity left off in reviving the ghost story genre. Since then we have enjoyed and endured Sinister, Annabelle, The Conjuring, The Woman in Black and all the lacklustre sequels that have gone with them.
Insidious 2 was perhaps the worst of the bunch but with Insidious 3, first time director and long time mainstay of the horror scene Leigh Wannell has gone back to basics.
The original Insidious was an instant horror classic as it took ghosts out of the witching hour and dropped them in your front room during daylight. It was only when reverting to horror movie type by casting the demons back in shadows in the latter part of the movie that things became a bit daft. Whilst Insidious: Chapter 3 falls into the same trap, it has to be said lessons have been learnt from the disastrous Insidious 2.
The second film in the Insidious franchise took itself far too seriously. If you go down that road in any genre it opens you up to increased scrutiny but particularly in horror. The reason people love franchises like The Evil Dead and the Elm Street movies is because they were under no illusions as to their audience or their artistic merit. Insidious: Chapter 3 casts series mainstay and all round wonderful actress Lin Shaye as a kind of belated scream queen and the film as a whole benefits from her po faced delivery of hilariously awful dialogue.
The result of this slightly more low brow attitude is that when the comic relief inevitably shows up it doesn’t clang as much as it did in Insidious 2. Shaye aside however the rest of the cast are uniformly terrible with Dermot Mulroney particularly cringe inducing as the wise cracking dad. Despite being a pretty experienced actress for her age, protagonist Stefanie Scott is vanilla in human form and the rest of the cast are similarly boring and forgettable. Luckily the main antagonist – ‘the man who cannot breath’ is actually the most memorable of this entire franchise and he contributes to some genuinely frightening moments. As always with these films though the scares are cheap and nothing here will leave a lasting impression.
Insidious will always be overshadowed by the far superior Sinister for me, but at least with Insidious: Chapter 3 the franchise is back on track.
Continuing my look at a maligned but underrated series…
Saw III is probably the strongest of all the sequels with Angus Macfadyen and Bahar Soomekh both excellent as Jeff and Lynn Denlon respectively. The strong performances from both actors plus the continued presence of Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith and Donnie Wahlberg along with the excellent plotting and breathtaking plot twists almost put Saw III on par with Saw.
The third Saw instalment also sees the introduction of Mark Hoffman albeit briefly who would go on to become the main antagonist in the later sequels.
The ending of Saw III in particular is a genuine tour de force with Jeff and Amanda failing their tests resulting in the iconic deaths of both Jigsaw and Lynn Denlon. The Saw franchise would struggle and indeed ultimately fail to match up to Saw III. Failing to sustain this level of quality only added to the harsh reception that the other sequels received.
Saw IV brings with it a lot of things that would become criticisms of the later sequels. Overcomplicated plotting, poor acting and the feeling that the Saw films now exist solely to provide a platform for the increasingly elaborate and brutal traps.
The argument that the Saw sequels are more than just a series of death scenes can be found in the aforementioned criticism itself. From Saw IV onwards the plotting is complicated. This is not to mask the lack of ideas however. When watched back to back it becomes clear that there is an ambition in the writing that is so often missing from horror films. As I touched on earlier the Final Destination franchise ended up being a series of death scenes punctuated with terrible acting and Saw tends to be thrown in with that kind of film but as the sheer scale of the storyline becomes more clear we see that Saw deserves to be treated with much more respect.
Even though only a year separates each Saw sequel, the plot is so hard to follow and so many new characters are introduced that a lot of viewers were left alienated. It is only when watching the films back to back that the story makes sense.
One thing to consider about Saw IV is unlike nearly all other horror franchise’s the main villain is not miraculously returned from the dead. Jigsaws death at the end of Saw III is final and it is a testament to the series that the four films that follow don’t really feel forced despite the loss of the antagonist.
Something else that sets Saw apart from its peers is the decision to have all the leads as adults rather than teens which is almost unprecedented for a horror franchise and also means the general standard of acting is improved.
The story continues with Saw V. Here we have confirmation of Hoffman as the new Jigsaw killer and unfortunately the first big misstep in the series with the decision to bring agent Peter Strahm to the fore. Scott Paterson’s Strahm and Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman are too similar both physically and in acting style and this was one of the factors that encouraged heavy criticism of the Saw franchise for the first time with one critic commenting ‘Saw V is a particularly dull and discombobulated affair, shot and acted with all the flair of a basic-cable procedural’.
Saw 3D aside, Saw V is the weakest of the franchise, although Strahm being crushed between two walls at the climax is the most memorable death scene since the difficult to watch pig vat trap back in Saw III.
Saw VI has the main plot focused around William Easton. The man who denied Jigsaw health insurance upon hearing of his illness. While the Easton story line is interesting and produces some of the best traps of the series (the shotgun carousel scene in particular), the tenuous link between Jigsaw and Easton grates slightly. Who is Jigsaw’s next victim? Someone who took his seat on a train in 1993? A man who once wore the same t-shirt as him at a party?
The sub plot of Hoffman and Jigsaws wife Jill Tuck continues the linear feel of the previous films nicely and the climax of Saw VI is unforgettable. There is an annoying tendency in the horror community to beatify foreign language or underground horror films as somehow more violent and gruesome as their Western and more mainstream cousins. The Saw films were viewed as something as a joke at this point. Upon revisiting the franchise though it is clear that the Saw VI was still pushing the boundaries in terms of visual horror and violence. There is nothing in much revered shock horrors like Inside or Martyrs that makes them more sickening than Saw VI and the conclusion is grim and difficult to watch rather than gimmicky or ridiculous.
It is such a shame then that the lasting impression most people have of the Saw franchise is Saw 3D. The final instalment feels like the dying breath of one of Jigsaw’s victims such is its lack of punch or even cheap shock value. The Hoffman/Jill Tuck storyline feels stretched out. Wheeling out Cary Elwes Dr. Gordon for the finale feels strained and daft and Saw 3D is in no way a fitting end to what is a brilliant franchise. The fact that people are already correctly starting to realize that re-emergence of 3D was not only a bad thing but also a fad that will once again fade as it did in the 80’s, only adds to the sense of disappointment when looking back at Saw 3D.
When considering the criticism of the Saw’s IV, V and VI it is important to put things into a bit of context. When compared to the later films in Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Hellraiser or Friday 13th franchise’s the Saw sequels can hold their head up high safe in the knowledge that in terms of consistency and ambition they deserve their place among horrors upper echelons.
Following my reappraisal of the Foo Fighters discography, I decided to look back at something completely different this time…
Saw was correctly praised as one of the most original and harrowing horror films of recent years when it hit in 2004. The series as a whole however has seen its legacy lose stock with every poorly received release, culminating in the critically panned final chapter Saw 3D. In the context of horror franchise’s though, should highly revered works like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween be considered classics whilst Saw is banished to the same torture porn and overly commercial dustbin occupied by Final Destination and Hostel.
In the words of Raoul Duke ‘it is time for an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene’.
One thing that isn’t in doubt is that the original Saw is widely considered a classic. This comes in despite of Danny Glover doing his utmost to undermine the whole thing with his over the top portrayal of crazed detective David Tapp, who one can only imagine is definitely too old for this shit.
Glover aside, the rest of the cast is particularly strong for a horror film. Cary Elwes impresses in an unfamiliar role as Dr. Gordon and series co creator Leigh Whannell’s Adam is charismatic and likeable, even if Whannell’s acting is a little rough around the edges.
Series favourite Shawnee Smith also makes her first appearance as Amanda in the infamous reverse bear trap scene which is one of the most memorable of the entire franchise.
This scene is a cause of consternation. Not because of the violence, but because there is a plot hole so huge that it threatens to undermine everything that follows.
In the sequels the Jigsaw killer John Kramer repeatedly delivers the mantra that he has never killed anyone and that he detests murderers. The whole point of the series is that Jigsaw is trying to offer his victims a chance of redemption, an opportunity to see the world in a new light.
During the reverse bear trap scene Amanda is tasked with cutting open a heavily sedated but conscious man who lies prone on the floor, to retrieve the key that unlocks the reverse bear trap. Amanda succeeds in this gruesome task and so walks free and learns to appreciate her life (and also becomes Jigsaws right hand man.)
The problem lies with the man who has the key inside him. What is his game? Where is his chance for redemption? This man is seen as little more than cannon fodder by Kramer. An afterthought even. Kramer treats the poor soul with the same contempt that he himself has suffered since being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. This smacks of hypocrisy on Kramer’s part and downright negligence on the part of the film makers.
The reverse bear trap scene aside though there is no denying that the inaugural Saw film was a shot in the arm for the horror genre that had been moribund since Blair Witch Project, and also a pop culture phenomenon.
Saw II, released a year later, saw a change in tone from the original but carried on with a linear story and was the introduction of the ‘house of horrors’ style set up that would come to frame the rest of the franchise.
Donnie Wahlberg becomes the protagonist and holds Saw II together in many ways as a lot of the acting is your standard horror film fare with the characters badly written and forgettable.
Alongside Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith’s Amanda comes to the fore and this is the first film in the franchise where we get a good look at Tobin Bell as Jigsaw.
Bell, Smith and Wahlberg ensure that Saw II is a worthy sequel. The gloomy, psychological horror from the original is replaced by a more nasty and brutal feel – almost like an episode of the Crystal Maze as imagined by Edgar Allen Poe, with the emphasis strongly swinging away from the characters and towards the elaborate traps.
Saw II would set the blueprint for all five films that would follow it. Either a group of strangers wake up in a strange place and have to perform a series of barbaric tasks in order to escape or one person encounters a series of traps populated by people from their own life. This always ends with a big, Sixth Sense style reveal at the climax and the common theme that links all seven films together is sacrifice.
Nine strangers wake up in a house together and try not to outwardly groan at the grim predictably of their situation.
One of the most bizarre casts assembled in recent years (Dennis Hopper, Peter Capaldi, Kelly Brook(!)) conspire to make something you could just about classify as a ‘movie’. As I have stated before horror as a genre is the most guilty of taking an original idea (Slasher, Found Footage, Haunted House) and running it into the ground until it is ruined. House of 9 takes the bold step of taking an idea already ran into the ground (‘psychological’ gimmicky horror – thanks Saw) and adding absolutely nothing to it.
Dennis Hopper gets though it by speaking in about 6 wildly varying accents throughout the film, Peter Capaldi looks faintly embarrassed throughout and Kelly Brook looks genuinely confused and lost by the whole thing.
Despite all of this I found House of 9 mildly interesting. Watching this film is akin to watching two giraffes have sex, you are never bored but there is no artistic merit to it.
A man in financial difficulties has the opportunity to win a huge cash prize by completing a series of ever escalating bizarre and gruesome tasks.
As ever with modern Western horror the main problem here is lack of originality. This concept is obviously born of Saw just like recent bedfellow Would You Rather. Another problem is how to stretch what is basically a single idea into a feature length movie. German director Daniel Stamm ( The Last Exorcism) does ok with the latter problem by having the film run at a skinny 88 minutes and wringing every lost drop from what is a pretty flimsy premise. I enjoyed Mark Webber in the lead role quite a lot, he elevates 13 Sins above B-Movie territory but Ron Perlman just seems bored and faintly embarrassed throughout. This is an ok movie if you don’t want to have to think too hard but as a result of this it is pretty forgettable.
Not Another Home Invasion Movie
A family is terrorized in their home by masked assailants (yawn).
You may have enjoyed this movie when it was called The Last House On The Left in 1972, or The Strangers in 2008 or when they made a kids version called Home Alone. You may also have seen people wearing pretty much the same animal masks in Saw. I could go on.
There is barely a shred of originality in You’re Next. It is not particularly terrible but it definitely isn’t good. It is a nothing film, the definition of average. You don’t always need fresh ideas to make a solid movie, but you do need characters the audience cares about, good writing and decent acting. You’re Next has none of this. It does however, have the nadir of modern horror films (since The Sixth Sense) in the *spoile… oh who cares* ‘shock’ twist ending. Boooooring.