Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Last Exorcism Part II (US 2013: Dir Ed Gass-Donnelly)

We’ve all got used to movie franchises working in planned trilogies or quadrilogies, where viewers are aware that they will have to watch three or four films in order to experience the whole story. In the first film the audience is typically introduced to all the main characters, then the second is usually a bridging story which acts more as a vehicle to get the audience to the exciting denouement rather than a film in its own right. This is a relatively modern phenomenon, driven in part by the cynicism of big movie companies and also by the appetite and ability of modern viewing audiences to cope with long, relatively complex story arcs. Some of these middle films are more successful than others, but what they all benefit from is a great degree of calculated planning so that the story is eked out with just enough content to keep viewers from being bored, and likely to come back for the next, more thrilling episode.

The Last Exorcism Part II however is an example of a linking movie that develops a story never intended to continue beyond the first instalment. The original The Last Exorcism (2010) was a passable if uneven film which I actually liked better on second viewing at home rather than my first experience at the cinema. It contained a now fashionable ambiguous ending which didn’t seem to hint at a sequel. However a sequel is what we have, and one which includes an ending that clearly decides it now wants to be a franchise.

TLE II has all the hallmarks of the typical link movie. It continues at the point where the first movie left off; not much happens – Nell Sweetzer, the possessed girl from The Last Exorcism, is gradually reintroduced to teenage society only to face, er, re-possession; and is altogether a bit of a slow burner with a reasonably rousing last reel. In fact it feels just like a link movie - treading water before we get to the good stuff, but you have to pay more money to see that. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, but for me its biggest problem is the central character of Nell, played by Ashley Bell. In the first film Bell’s portrayal of the troubled Nell was one of its strongest elements. You could see why she had been chosen for the role, with her piercing dark eyes, her ability to look like an old soul in a young body, and her impressive bodily contortions, reminding viewers of a similar role played by Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). Bell’s vulnerability was a good contrast to the brash exuberance of the first movie’s fake exorcist Cotton Marcus, and her gradual possession was effective and carefully handled - amazing in a film produced by Eli Roth. In TLE II Bell takes centre stage, but her character is too wishy washy to make any impact – she also fails to convince as a seventeen year old (Bell was actually 27 at the time of making the movie). The first two thirds of the film are so lacking in pace that the viewer is left drumming their fingers waiting for Nell to transform from the vapid girl-next-door to kick ass demon, but unfortunately when she does the scenes are clumsily staged and lacking in horror.

TLE II abandons the ‘shaky cam’ approach of the first film (and who exactly was operating the camera in much of The Last Exorcism?) for a more languid style, but with too many forced ‘jump’ moments. In fairness the film looks good and the relatively new on the scene Ed Gass-Donnelly directs confidently (Variety Magazine tipped him as one of 2011’s ’10 Directors to watch’ but TLE II is his only full length movie since 2010). But looking back on this film, one has to question why it was made? It isn't a three picture franchise, it feels like a director chancing his arm and hoping to be asked back to the party for another go, except the movie is such a slog viewers are unlikely to come back for TLE III. Modern filmmaking, huh? 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Paranormal Diaries: Clophill (UK 2013: Dir Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates)

A surprise sellout at 2013 Frightfest, Paranormal Diaries: Clophill - which has to be the worst title of any film released last year and which if it's all right with you I'll precis to PD:C from here on in - is a significant departure from Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates's previous two films. The sellout was probably attributed to the quality of their last film, Zombie Diaries 2 (2011), which was such an improvement on their first outing The Zombie Diaries (2006) that it felt like the product of different filmmakers: possibly punters expected more of the same.

But Bartlett and Gates have chosen to take a bit of a left turn with PD:C. They have retained the 'found footage' approach but have structured their latest as a mockumentary, combining elements of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Most Haunted TV show (minus annoying camp psychic). Bartlett and Gates play themselves, and Clophill, an actual village in Bedfordshire, is used as the real life location for the filming. The setup has a team of ghost hunters and filmmakers exploring a ruined church in Clophill, which has a history of strange occurrences, ghostly visitations and black magic rituals, and hoping to capture some of the supernatural activity on camera.

The film builds interestingly at the start with different 'experts' telling the story of the ruined church and reported goings on. However, once on site, PD:C becomes extremely ploddy with endless footage of walking round and round the church, and using night vision shots that build up no suspense, and give no real feel of anything being properly investigated. At 88 or so minutes this film is just way too long for the subject matter. The lack of tension is also partly to do with the location - while the church itself retains an element of dilapidated spookiness, it's in a not particularly deserted part of Bedfordshire and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the imperilled ghost hunters could hot foot it 500 yards or so to the A6 if they felt a bit lost. There's a silly sub story involving a family with a small child, which is presumably an attempt to give some variety to the documentary scenes, but just feels tacked on.

Where PD:C does differ from the TV programmes from which it takes its inspiration is in actually delivering a ghostly 'money shot' as well as some more corporeal sightings. But by then I didn't care one iota. Bartlett and Gates do know how to put a film together, but PD: C is a complete misfire - they'll have to try much harder next time.