Saturday, October 21, 2017
Somewhere in the sun-drenched acres of Orange County, California, it’s a big day for the Freeling family, who live a quiet, normal life on a quiet suburban street in the planned community of Cuesta Verde -- where the grass is always greener on either side. For today a construction crew officially breaks ground on a new family swimming pool in their backyard. But that night things turn a little strange when the youngest daughter, Carol Anne (O’Rourke), awakened by strange noises -- a kind of whispering, is drawn to the TV in her parents bedroom, who fell asleep with it on, which is now showing nothing but static after the channel signed-off the air. And as if mesmerized by the glowing cacophony, Carol Anne begins conversing with … someone -- or some thing in the TV. Then suddenly, a ghostly hand reaches out of the screen for her, followed by a violent tremor that shakes the whole house, waking everyone else up. And once the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces, “They’re here."
But with living near a fault line and all -- funny how none of the neighbors noticed a thing, Steven and Diane Freeling (Nelson, Williams) shrug it off as life in So-Cal and write off their daughter’s proclamation as nothing more than childhood whimsy. But after Steven leaves for work (-- he’s a real estate developer whose company built Cuesta Verde), and their other two children, eldest daughter, Dana (Dunne), and son Robbie (Robins), head out for school, more strange events start to occur around the house: the silverware has pretzled itself; the lights start flickering constantly; and the furniture starts rearranging itself on its own -- and rather dramatically. When asked, Carol Anne confirms it’s the “TV people”. And when Steven returns home, Diane has marked all the hot-spots of activity, which, on top of the furniture, will magically push or pull people across the floor, too.
And while all of this paranormal phenomenon appears to be benign at first -- even whimsical, things quickly escalate to sinister overnight, announced by the approach of a terrible thunderstorm. And the only thing that scares Robbie more than a storm is an old gnarled tree that sits right outside his and Carol Anne’s bedroom window (-- well, that and that freakin’ clown doll that no one in their right mind would buy let alone gift to someone). And when the storm breaks wide open, to his sudden terror, the very same tree breaks through the window; and not only does it seize him with its anthropomorphic branches and yank him outside, the flora appears to be trying to devour the terrified child! His screams bring the rest of the family running, but while they focus their efforts on rescuing Robbie, back in the bedroom, Carol Anne is just as suddenly and violently sucked into some kind of vortex emanating from the bedroom closet -- her screams unheeded due to the chaos outside.
Meanwhile, all physical evidence points to a freak tornado knocking the tree into the house and then sucking Robbie outside, but the traumatized child knows better. Still, everyone is happy to be in one piece -- until someone notices Carol Anne is missing. And after a quick check of the house finds no trace of her, Diane realizes she might have been sucked outside, too, and wound up in the fetid water at the bottom of the unfinished swimming pool. And while the others search it, Robbie suddenly hears Carol Anne’s voice and starts screaming due to its source. He calls for his mom, who thinks he’s found Carol Anne when she hears her, too; but when asked where his little sister is, Robbie keeps screaming and pointing at the TV. And sure enough, a panicked Carol Anne’s voice is emanating through the static on the dead channel. She’s lost. She’s somewhere else. She cannot find her way back. They cannot get to her. And wherever she is, she’s not alone...
Since it’s debut in April, 1951, there has been a contentious debate by film nerds on who really directed the seminal alien invasion classic, The Thing From Another World (1951): Christian Nyby, the credited director, or Howard Hawks, the uncredited executive producer. (The film fell under his Winchester Pictures banner and was released through RKO.) All the Hawks trademarks are there: the rapid fire dialogue that constantly overlaps, untold backstory slowly leaking through, professionals doing a professional job in an isolated location against an overwhelming threat, a strong sense of camaraderie, comedy in the face of stress, and a strong female lead who can keep up with the boys all serve as the root cause of the controversy. And yet Nyby was very familiar with this formula, having served as an editor for Hawks on films like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946); and Hawks had always claimed Nyby saved Red River (1948) for him when he took over the editing from Francis Lyon and Jack Murray, earning himself an Academy Award nomination -- losing to Paul Weatherwax and The Naked City (1948). And as a way of thanking him for those efforts, knowing his editor wanted to give directing a try, Hawks pegged Nyby to direct his proposed sci-fi epic so he could get the proper union credentials.
But over the ensuing years whenever the question arose of who actually directed the damned thing, no one could get a straight answer from cast or crew. "[Nyby] was the director in our eyes, but [Hawks] was the boss,” said William Self, who played the disaster-prone Barnes. He also claimed Hawks was always directing the picture from the sidelines, saying, “Nyby would stage each scene, how to play it. But then he would go over to Howard and ask him for advice, which the actors did not hear.” Co-star Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington) agreed, saying, "Chris always deferred to Hawks [and] maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it." And misinterpret it they did. Actor George Fenneman (Dr. Redding) recalled "Hawks would once in awhile direct, if he had an idea, but it was Nyby's show." But lead actor Ken Tobey (Captain Harrington) always contended "Hawks directed it, all except one scene.” Perhaps Self sums it up best: “Even though I was there every day, I don't think any of us can answer the question. Only Chris and Howard can answer the question."
For the rest of his life Hawks vehemently denied he ever directed any part of the movie, and yet he gave Nyby only $5,460 of the $50,000 salary paid by RKO for directing the picture. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks said of Nyby, "[He] had done an awfully good job as the cutter on Red River and he'd been a big help to us too, so I let him do it. He wanted to be a director and I had a deal with RKO that allowed me to do that." When asked if he was ever on set, Hawks answered, "I was at rehearsals and helped them with the overlapping dialogue -- but I thought Chris did a good job." And for the rest of his life, as well, Nyby would plead with anyone who would listen that he was the true director of The Thing from Another World, telling Cinefantastique in an interview during a cast and crew reunion for the film to mark the release of John Carpenter’s remake in 1982, “Did Hawks direct it? That's one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I've ever heard, and people keep asking. That it was Hawks' style? Of course it was. This is a man I studied and wanted to be like. You would certainly emulate and copy the master you're sitting under, which I did. Anyway, if you're taking painting lessons from Rembrandt you don't take the brush out of the master's hands."
As to who I think really directed the original The Thing? Well, that’s an answer for another review for another day because, speaking of 1982 and hands on producers overwhelming personally appointed directors, that year saw the production of another film which would also spawn decades of film nerd speculation as to who really directed Poltergeist (1982): Tobe Hooper, the credited director, or Steven Spielberg, the credited executive producer.
Now, we’ve already covered how E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) sprung from the ashes of the contentiously aborted alien invasion flick, Night Skies, a couple of reviews back so I won’t bother to rehash all those details here. To sum up, Hooper was on a shortlist of directors for Night Skies, a tale of malevolent aliens harassing some farmers, until it all fell apart. And while Spielberg geared up for the singular and more benevolent E.T., he still felt the idea of a family under siege by some outside force still had legs. (It was often referred to as Straw Dogs with aliens.) But when Universal, the studio financing E.T. after paying off Columbia, made it clear they wouldn’t be too thrilled if Spielberg directed another alien movie for a rival studio -- in fact, there was a clause in his contract with them that said he couldn’t, then, depending on who you asked, both Spielberg and Hooper claimed to have originally come up with the idea of switching the plot from marauding aliens to petulant ghosts. Hooper claimed the idea was inspired by a book on poltergeists he’d found in his studio office at Universal -- an office formerly occupied by Robert Wise, who had directed The Haunting (1963). Spielberg, meanwhile, claimed the story was personal and, like always, all about him. “Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature,” he said. “It's me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death when they were growing up."
Moving the haunted house project forward and looking for a green-light, again, after being jilted on Night Skies but pacified somewhat by the release of the Close Encounters Special Edition (1980), Columbia took a pass when Spielberg offered it to them first. And so, with Universal only interested in E.T., the director took the bare bones of the idea for Poltergeist to an eager MGM. And so now, with two films set for a near simultaneous release in 1982, Spielberg still wasn’t sure which film he wanted to direct -- and from what I’ve read, I’m not sure if he wanted to direct either and would rather have just produced the films, which he had never done before. Thus and so, Spielberg offered Hooper E.T. first, but he turned it down, wanting to tackle the horror movie instead. And so, Spielberg would direct E.T. and Hooper would direct Poltergeist; and the rest would be convoluted history -- once they had a script.
Spielberg was responsible for the first draft of Poltergeist and, at some point, he contacted noted scribe Richard Matheson for a copy of his Twilight Zone episode, Little Girl Lost, in which a young girl rolls under her bed and winds up in another dimension, which is eerily similar to one of the major plot points of the finished film. To help flesh out the script, Spielberg had the brilliant marketing idea to bring in another famed horror author, Stephen King. But after a productive initial meeting with King, his publishers demanded an astronomical salary that MGM refused to pay for, which officially pulled the plug on that notion. And so, Spielberg turned to Michael Grais and Mark Victor, a couple of novice scriptwriters he’d initially hired to pen a remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943) -- another ghost story, which was eventually realized as Always (1989).
As originally scripted, Carol Anne was supposed to be killed in the first act and then come back to haunt the family in the second. Deciding this was too dark a turn, and wanting a PG rating to maximize ticket sales, this was scrubbed for a supernatural kidnapping instead. In fact, almost all of the darker elements were removed from the film, which made it more of a safe Spielbergian type movie -- who was well removed from the same director who sunk his teeth into Duel (1971) and JAWS (1975), as opposed to the studies in terror Hooper had been producing ever since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), like Eaten Alive (1976) and The Funhouse (1981), adding even more speculation as to who really directed the film as the Freelings bring in several paranormal investigators from UC Irvine, led by a Dr. Lesh (Straight), who visit the house to try and communicate with their missing daughter, and who are all very rattled by the incredible intensity and ferocity of the manifestations they find.
Already convinced the haunting is real, a scientific study of the house must still be performed. And over the next couple of days the team manages to capture several phenomenon -- again, both magical and ghastly, on film, and even capture a conversation with Carol Anne on tape as they piece together what happened to her. Meanwhile, Steven’s boss, Lewis Teague (Karen), checks in on his prized salesman, concerned all his sick days are really in service of finding another job. Steven, of course, isn’t, but to make sure he stays put, Teague offers the prized lot and a brand new house in the next phase of Cuesta Verde, which will be built on top of an old cemetery on a hill looking over the established subdivision. And while Steven feels this is rather morbid -- even sacrilegious, Teague reveals the company already did this once before; meaning Steven’s current house is built on top of another old graveyard, which might help explain his current predicament.
Passing this info onto Lesh, she arranges for a “spiritual cleansing” by the psychic medium, Tangia Barrons (Rubinstein), who offers a glimmer of hope for Carol Anne’s safe return. Seems the multiple ghosts currently haunting the house are lingering behind, refusing to crossover into the light. Barrons also senses a powerful malignant presence in the house -- something powerful enough to punch a hole between dimensions, and fears it is using Carol Anne’s life force as a false beacon, keeping the others in check; and so they must get her away from it so they may crossover and find true peace. This they manage to do after a harrowing sequence with Diane tethered on a line and sent into the vortex in the closet, whose exit is in the center of the living room ceiling downstairs. And despite the beast’s best efforts, the mission is a success. And with that, Barrons triumphantly declares the house is clean.
Clean or not, the Freelings are taking no chances and quickly pack up their belongings. But they tarry too long as night falls and Steven gets hung up at the office arguing with Teague over his immediate resignation. Back at the house, in not the wisest of moves, Diane allows Robbie and Carol Anne to sleep in the very same bedroom where all this started. (I mean, seriously. Who in the hell in their right mind would do that?!) And sure enough, “the Beast” isn’t as vanquished as they thought as the portal once more rips open, leaving it to Diane to run through a phantasmagorical obstacle course from hell to rescue her children; one of them currently locked in battle with that damnable clown doll.
Anyhoo, as the house literally detonates around her and caskets and corpses explode out of the ground, it becomes quite obvious that Teague only moved the headstones but left the bodies behind to save costs when they built the houses; and the Freeling’s digging that swimming pool disturbed the spirits of the dead -- and now here we are, as Steven and Dana get home just as Diane vacates the house with the other two children in tow. They all pile into the family station wagon and burn rubber, leaving Teague and their neighbors to watch flabbergasted as their entire house implodes as it gets sucked into the vortex and disappears. Thus, the Freelings flee Cuesta Verde without looking back, eventually checking into a Holiday Inn for the night -- but not before Steven rolls the TV out on the balcony and locks the door between them.
You know, with it’s suburban setting, the shrill and screaming kids, the komedic elements, and Jerry Goldsmith doing his damnedest to emulate John Williams, it's easy to understand why folks tend to forget Hooper, and not Spielberg, was the credited director of Poltergeist after it hit theaters. Both E.T. and Poltergeist were in pre-production at the same time and were also scheduled to shoot almost simultaneously. And all of this controversy might’ve been averted if Carlo Rambaldi had delivered the alien puppet on time. And so, with E.T. facing several delays, Spielberg spent a lot of free time on the Poltergeist set. And like with Hawks and The Thing, the majority of the cast and crew felt Hooper was the director but had no doubt who was really calling the shots. “My enthusiasm for wanting to make Poltergeist would have been difficult for any director I would have hired,” said Spielberg. “It derived from my imagination, from my experience, and it came out of my typewriter."
During the production, co-producer Frank Marshall told the Los Angeles Times "The creative force of the movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on the set every day. But Steven did the design for every storyboard and he was [also] on the set every day.” A month into the shoot The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner sent a reporter to the set, who witnessed Spielberg directing what he later claimed were just a few pick-up shots. Regardless, the paper reported that Hooper was no longer directing the picture. Hooper responded, saying Spielberg’s actions were no different than what any executive producer usually did. Spielberg, in turn, offered a less than stellar defense of his director, saying, "Tobe isn't ... a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of our collaboration."
Most actors in the film were pretty mum on the subject except for Zelda Rubenstein, who wasn’t a big fan of Hooper, claiming Spielberg directed all six days she was on set. She also alleges Hooper allowed “some unacceptable chemical agents into his work" and felt the director was seldom “all there.” Assistant cinematographer John Leonetti agrees with the assessment. “Hooper was so nice and just happy to be there,” he said. “[Spielberg] was the producer, but really, he directed it.” Even Spielberg’s agent, who had a cameo in the film, later reported “Well, I now know what an executive producer does: he sets up the camera, tells the actors what to do, stands back and lets the director yell ‘action’.” And all of this kinda makes one wonder if Hooper was just a straw man all along so Spielberg could ghost-direct the film and do an end run on that fine print in the Universal contract. And would the same fate have befallen Ron Cobb if Night Skies had gone ahead? That’s me shrugging AND winking right now.
And once filming wrapped, Spielberg oversaw all of the post-production for Poltergeist, supervising the visual-effects personally at ILM. He was also responsible for the editing of the film, choosing his regular editor, Michael Khan, to cut this film while Carol Littleton edited E.T. He also handpicked Goldsmith to score the film since Williams was already occupied with E.T. But again, Goldsmith was trying so hard to emulate Williams one can’t really tell the difference. And once the film was ready for release, the MPAA slapped it with an R-Rating but this was later knocked down to a PG on appeal. Still, the film was pretty intense in spots and would go a long way in helping usher in the era of PG-13 rated films.
Poltergeist and E.T opened only a week apart back 1982; Poltergeist on June 4th and E.T. one week later on June 11th, causing both Time and Newsweek to tag that season “The Summer of Spielberg.” The suits at MGM agreed and definitely pushed Poltergeist as a Spielberg film, not a Hooper film. (If you look the promotional materials, Hooper’s treatment is just abominable.) So much so, they kinda got in trouble with the Directors Guild of America when the initial trailer for the film over-emphasized this fact. The guild brought suit against the studio and won the case, earning MGM a hefty fine and several published apologies. But the DGA wasn’t through yet as Spielberg commented on the controversy, “I thought I’d be able to turn Poltergeist over to a director and walk away. I was wrong."
Thus, the DGA opened another investigation “into the question of whether or not Hooper's official credit was being denigrated by statements Spielberg had made, apparently claiming authorship." Thus and so, Spielberg quickly backpedaled on those statements, taking out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter to write an open letter to Hooper to clear the air: “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me... a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.” After, the DGA “found no reason that co-director credit should go to Spielberg”.
From the beginning and over the years since Hooper has been pretty tight-lipped on the whole experience. And what little he does say is usually just a thank you to Spielberg for the opportunity. Spielberg, for his part, kept on apologizing, promising from now on “If I write it myself, I’ll direct it myself. I won’t put someone else through what I put Tobe through.” And true to his word, he hasn’t.
When I first saw Poltergeist in the theater when I was 12 I thought it was pretty great and it scared the piss out of me. But somewhere along the way I kinda soured on the film. Couldn't tell you why, exactly; though I think it might've been the suburban blight and Yuppiegeddon of the thing. But then, not so long ago, I was on a practical F/X kick and gave it another spin and thought it was pretty great. Held up again when I watched it for this review. Cycles, man. Weird. Truth told it’s not really Spielberg or Hooper that explains my love for this film right now. No, that would be Edlund and Muren, or Richard and Dennis, who delivered the goods most mightily in this thing. Three cheers for old-school ILM. Yeah, even with over three decades tacked on, the practical F/X set-pieces in Poltergeist hold up remarkably well with only one, small hiccup. Yeah, the funniest part of this revisit is how badly the face-melting scene, which gave me a bad case of the drizzles back in the day, is the only thing that does not hold up at all.
So, in the end, Spielberg's fingerprints were all over this thing but Hooper's are there, too, fighting to get out, as a battalion of nasty apparitions overrun suburbia. And that climax is just amaze-balls, what with the pool chock full of corpses and the graves erupting out of the ground; it’s a fantastic exercise in the Grand Guignol / EC Comics tradition. And anchoring the whole thing are JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the mom and pop in way over their heads, with an added bonus of Rubenstein as the psychic pitbull who prematurely saves the day. Again, you can sense Hooper and Spielberg's clashing sensibilities through the whole thing but this schism somehow gels into one helluva an entertaining film no matter who directed the damned thing.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 16 down with only 10 more to go! Up next: V kosmose nikto ne slyshit, kak vy krichite, Tovarisch.
Poltergeist (1982) Amblin Entertainment :: SLM Production Group :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg / AP: Kathleen Kennedy / D: Tobe Hooper / W: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor / C: Matthew F. Leonetti / E: Michael Kahn / M: Jerry Goldsmith / S: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Zelda Rubinstein
Friday, October 20, 2017
As a recent widow struggles to pay the bills as a spiritual medium in 1967 Los Angeles, we get the full gist of her standard operating procedures as the latest reading for a father and his highly skeptical daughter goes off the rails a bit, leading to a near cardiac infarction for the man, trying to contact his dead wife, explaining why the clients skipped out on the bill. And while these spiritual readings Alice Zander (Reaser) puts on are phony and completely staged, her intentions are noble as her goal is to help people find closure (for a nominal fee) and allow them to move on with their lives -- unlike her own family, who are all still reeling from the sudden death of her husband, Roger (Weaver), at the hands of a drunk driver, and who are all still struggling to come to grips with this loss.
Thus, helping with this fortune teller act are Alice’s two daughters: fifteen year old Lina (Brasso) and six-year old Doris (Wilson; with the eldest daughter playing the summoned ghost in black (-- who got a little over zealous this last round), while the youngest is secreted inside a cabinet to run several of the mechanisms and gizmos needed to pull off the ruse. And while Lina is old enough to know this is all good-natured bunkum, Doris is slightly confused over this scam, knowing they’re trying to help people but wonders why they don’t use the routine to talk to daddy. Thus and so, feeling things need some spicing up, Lina suggests adding one of those new-fangled Ouija Board games to the act. And facing foreclosure on their home, Alice is desperate enough to try just about anything to bring in more business.
However, according to the handy instructions, there are three rules for using the Ouija Board: one, never play alone; two, never play in a graveyard; and three, always remember to sign off by saying ‘goodbye’ before putting the game away. And while tinkering with the planchette so it can be manipulated by some unseen magnets underneath the table, Alice manages to unwittingly break all three rules (-- yes, all three), which is then compounded further when young Doris clandestinely uses the board to talk with her dad but connects with a spirit named Marcus instead, who leads her to a large sum of cash hidden in a wall of the unfinished basement. And while this found money is a godsend for the family, her little sister’s ever-escalating bizarre and creepy behavior soon has Lina conversing with the principal of her school, Father Tom (Thomas), hoping he can translate some writing she found in her sister’s bedroom; page after page written in what appears to be Polish. And did I mentioned she witnessed Doris writing all of this down? Like I said: weird.
Meantime, after the family uses the board to contact Roger’s spirit, who answers a question through Doris only he would know, Alice believes Doris has the true gift of second sight as she talks openly with the spirits of the dead and manipulates the board without the use of those magnets; and so, she lets her take the lead with the clients. But the audience knows better, knowing full well Doris has been possessed by some malevolent force who is manipulating those around her and causing bodily harm to those she feels threatened by, including a couple of bullies at school and Lina’s new boyfriend, Mikey (Mack). Thus, with Alice transfixed and duped, it’s up to Lina to convince her mother that something’s terribly wrong with Doris and save her before it’s too late for all of them...
You know, I saw Ouija (2014), a film to which Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) is a prequel to. Even saw it at the theater but, even if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the movie or what happened except that it most probably involved a Ouija Board. And so, I looked it up online, hoping a plot synopsis might trigger a few latent memories. And while it really didn’t, I was able to piece together that in present day a seemingly possessed Ouija Board, under the influence of a nasty spirit that always manifests as a little girl with her mouth sewn shut, causes a group of teens to murder themselves most gruesomely until several clues lead the final girl to the home of the first victim -- a house that used to belong to the Zanders, who misused the game in the first place, setting all of this motion. Got it? Good.
Now, the origin of the Ouija Board can be traced back to ancient China and a method of writing called fuji -- or planchette writing, which was a tool used to channel the dead to spell out their messages on a board of letters. This spiritual writing phenomenon really took hold in the United States post-Civil War, when the spiritualist movement really took off as dubious mediums employed various means of “communicating” with the dead to exploit the numerous people hoping to contact relatives lost in the war. Then, a Baltimore businessmen, Elijah Bond, patented the first talking board in February, 1891. But it was an employee of Bond’s, a William Fuld, who came up with the name, Ouija Board, which derived either from an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck” or simply combined the French and German words of “yes."
Then, in 1966, the Fuld estate, who had taken over the manufacturing of the game from Bond in the early 1900s, sold the rights for the Ouija Board to Parker Brothers (-- who were later bought out by Hasbro in 1991), who soon unleashed a handy-dandy home version of the game, causing a bit of stir in the religious community, who long loathed the idea of communing with spirits and the evil that kind of thing wrought on unsuspecting folks, like, say, the fictionalized Zander family, currently paying the price for tampering with the unknown. (You’d think there’d be a warning label on the box.)
And after accumulating some damning evidence, when a concerned Father Tom visits the house, hoping to have a session with Doris and the Ouija Board, this attempt to contact his late wife appears to be a success. But after he takes Alice and Lina aside, he confesses this was all a ruse, explaining the evil spirit possessing and transmogrifying Doris can read minds and he was just feeding it the wrong answers. He then reveals those pages Lina found were written by a Polish jew named Marcus, who was taken captive during World War II and, along with many others, was subjected to some ghastly experiments by a sadistic Nazi scientist looking to unlock some occult secrets through the pain and suffering of his patients.
And to make matters worse, this very same scientist managed to sneak into America after the war ended and renewed his ghastly experiments, capturing a liberated and migrated Marcus, who had recognized him and wanted to identify him to the authorities, only to wind up trapped in a secret room underneath the house, with his tongue cut out and his vocal chords slit, just like all the others trapped there, who were all buried inside the walls of the basement. Hence, the Zanders had played the game in a graveyard all along, and several times, and really stirred these angry spirits up who are now looking for revenge against the living for forsaking them. Here, Alice finally comes around and realizes her tragic mistake. Never fear, says Father Tom; seems he’s contacted the Church and a special exorcist squad is on the way. And so for now, they just need to get everyone out of the house.
Alas, while the others converse in secret, Mikey picks the wrong time for a visit, who unearths the secret lab through the basement wall via Doris’ demonic manipulations before she forces the boy to kill himself in front of the others. And then things really get nuts as the now totally possessed Doris lures them to the secret chamber, murders Father Tom, knocks out Lina, and chains up her mother on an operating table, who had offered herself as a sacrifice in a failed attempt to save her children, and starts fondling some very sharp instruments. Meanwhile, the true spirit of Roger carries Lina to her bedroom and manages to cajole his daughter into remembering an earlier incident she blamed on Doris when she found someone had sewn the mouth of her old doll shut. Doris denied doing this, saying it was their father, who was trying to stop and shut up the overwhelming voices. Here, the quarter finally drops and Lina realizes she must sew Doris’ mouth shut to quiet the spirits and save her mother before her tongue is cut out. But as the old saying goes, easier said than done.
Having no recollection of the first film I have no idea why I wound up in the theater to watch the prequel -- must’ve been the trailer. *shrugs* Anyhoo, whatever the reason, glad I did because I enjoyed the hell out of Ouija: Origin of Evil even though I felt the climax took an abrupt left turn -- I mean, Nazis? Really?! Wow. In fact, it suffers from the same bane of many modern day horror films: the third act plot dump, where a convenient expert shows up to explain your Bagul problem or some convenient and very specific websites give you the lowdown on the Black Mirror Society. At the time of the initial viewing, I kinda let that slide, figuring that somehow dovetailed into the conclusion of the pre-prequel sequel original movie. But further research shows that, no, it really didn’t -- the Nazi stuff, I mean.
See, even though Lina manages to save her mom by sewing up Doris’s mouth, silencing the spirits possessing her, this proves fatal to her little sister. And to make things even worse, the malignant spirits, through Doris, had already implanted the instructions in Lina to murder their mom, and so, a temporarily possessed Lina does this, allowing her mom to join Roger and Doris on the other side, bringing things to a rather bittersweet conclusion.
And as we reach the epilogue, we find Lina has now been committed to an asylum after being arrested for killing her mom, Father Tom, and her failure to disclose the location of Doris, who is presumed dead but has just been sealed up inside the secret lair. (I guess Lina did all of this before the holy cops arrived.) Thus, deemed insane, she will spend the rest of her days isolated in her room with a makeshift Ouija Board, scrawled out in her own blood, which she uses to contact Marcus, who once again manifests himself as her little sister, who, you may remember, was the root cause of all the trouble in Ouija. In fact, an aged Lina (Lin Shaye) shows up in the pre-prequel sequel original movie (-- and the post-credit stinger for this movie), visited in the asylum by that film's protagonist, Laine Morris (Olivia Cooke), claiming to be her niece, who is tricked into finding Doris’ body and freeing her mouth for … reasons as the pre-prequel sequel original movie collapses under the weight of a five car twist-pile-up -- according to the Wikipedia entry I just read.
But let's just forget about Ouija, as it’s already been firmly established that I sure did, and focus on Ouija: Origin of Evil. Apparently, while a critical disaster the first film was commercially successful enough to warrant a sequel. But producer Jason Blum decided he wanted to make something “significantly different” than Ouija and sent out feelers to director Mike Flanagan, who had produced the total mind-f@ck of movie, Absentia (2011), and the more grounded horror of Oculus (2015).
Now Blum and his Blumhouse Productions have provided a mini-renaissance of low-budget horror films and franchises for the masses, producing the likes of Paranormal Activity (2003), Insidious (2010), Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). And while Flanagan claimed to have an “allergy to sequels” Blum talked him into doing a prequel by giving him free rein to do the type of horror film he wanted to make: a period piece that dealt with family dynamics. There was even talk about letting the film just be a stand alone piece but Flanagan felt it was necessary to connect the two but kept the links as subtle as possible.
Inspired by films like The Changeling (1980), The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and The Exorcist (1973), Flanagan was very committed to capturing the feel of the period that went way beyond costuming, set decorations and production design -- which were all pretty great by the way. Nope. The director took it one step further, shooting the film as if it were made in the late 1960s, including antique lenses, scene fades, and a lot of zooms instead of employing a Steadicam. They also purposefully added dust to the negative, subtle warping of the audio track, and blatant watermarks for the nonexistent reel changes. It all works beautifully. Alas, this did not mean the film used practical special-effects of that era as most if not all the gags were pulled off with CGI. However, there are no real gaffes and, again, the possession of Doris was pulled off really, really well.
And while this prequel, too, kinda suffers from a whackadoodle climax it’s firmly anchored by the cast and the commitment to the period setting. I mean, it really helps your horror movie when you get invested in the characters involved; and you definitely like the Zanders, buy into their grief and financial strains, and are rooting for them all to make it, which really gives the downer ending some unexpected punch. Both Elizabeth Reaser and Annalise Basso are great but the true star of the film is Lulu Wilson, who carries her pivotal role and the film with ease. And it really makes one uncomfortable watching her being put through the wringer, her body contorted, her mouth constantly stretched into a terrible rictus -- man, it’s some real and truly creepy shit.
Thus and so, Ouija: Origin of Evil fits right into the Blumhouse wheelhouse of serviceable thrillers, easily equaling the likes of The Belko Experiment (2016) and Split (2016), but not quite reaching the heights and social commentary of Get Out (2017). But for what it was, and what it set out to do, I would say the film not only reached its cinematic goals but exceeded them; a rare occasion where the sequel / prequel proves far superior than the original. And proved so superior, it can easily stand on its own and, unlike the the film that spawned it, will definitely leave a lasting impression.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 15 down with 11 to go! I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. Up next: a haunting in suburbia.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) Allspark Pictures :: Blumhouse Productions :: Dentsu :: Fuji Television Network :: Hasbro :: Platinum Dunes :: Universal Pictures / EP: Victor Ho, Trevor Macy, Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Brill / P: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Stephen Davis, Phillip Dawe, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Brian Goldner / D: Mike Flanagan / W: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Juliet Snowden (Ouija), Stiles White (Ouija) / C: Michael Fimognari / E: Mike Flanagan / M: The Newton Brothers / S: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack