Last week, we saw the release of “The Curse of La Llorona“, the latest film in The Conjuring Universe. In large part thanks to the success of the low-fi, restrained, artfully done “The Conjuring” in 2013, the horror genre has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, with lots of indie art house successes (“The Witch“, “Under the Shadow”, “Hereditary“, and this year’s “The Wind”) making a dent in the culture and critics’ lists. As a big fan of ghost stories in any form – from campground stories told by the light of the fire to episodes of “The Twilight Zone” to movies viewed at a slumber party where you can scream along with friends – I thought it would be fun to take a look at what this decade has had to offer on the front of silvery specters and shivery spirits. Join me on this haunted journey through the haunted houses, hotels, and tech of the 2010s.
At first, the premise sounds a little silly: A group of friends on a Skype call discover a mysterious entity on the call with them, one that will not leave and which seems to be causing them to kill themselves one by one. But “Unfriended”’s revolutionary format is what really makes it: The entire thing takes place on one computer desktop, so you can see every little part of its owner’s life – what songs they’re listening to, what websites they like to read, and what dirty little secrets they’re hiding in hidden folders. It’s a great match of form to function since the script deals with cyberbullying and how the digital age makes private things VERY public. True, that premise also ends up making every single character unlikeable, but watched late at night with the lights off, on a computer screen, it exerts a creepy pull unlike anything else.
9. “A Ghost Story”
It’s rare that we get ghost stories told from the ghost’s point of view, and rarer still that they end up as beautiful as David Lowery’s meditation on death and what waits for us after. Yes, “A Ghost Story” is all a bit pretentious, what with all the dorm-room philosophizing and square framing and that single-take scene of Rooney Mara just eating a pie, but there are some moments of tremendous beauty scattered throughout that make this a must-see, even if the whole doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts.
Andy Muschetti’s expansion of his short film benefits from the expanded story, largely through the magnetic performance of Jessica Chastain, as the new foster mother to two young girls found living in a feral state in a cabin in the woods. As a woman unsure if this whole settling down and becoming a mother thing is something she even wants, who slowly warms to the idea as she actually spends time with the girls, Chastain brings so much more to her performance than this movie deserves. “Mama” is drenched in latter-day horror movie tropes, but Muschetti stages everything with verve, making it all feel not exactly new, but refreshed enough to stand out.
7. “Crimson Peak”
Gothic horror is a delicious thing when done right, and Guillermo del Toro gets it so very, very right in “Crimson Peak”, beginning with the titular location. A marvel of production design, Allerdale Hall is slowly sinking into the red clay mine it sits atop, and that, coupled with the disrepair the house has fallen into, causes the house to seem to be alive at times. Of course, the fact that it’s haunted also helps with that. While that premise may not be used quite enough for my liking, it’s hard to deny that del Toro has designed a great throwback to the great gothic romances and ghost stories of yore, with a perfectly cast trio of leads (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as ever-so-slightly incestuous siblings, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent young aspiring writer who marries in to the family) to guide us through. As delicious as a ghost story can get.
6. “The Woman In Black”
I’m not sure that anyone was particularly clamoring for Hammer Horror to come back, but few studios knew how to do Gothic atmosphere better, and “The Woman in Black” is positively soaked in it. Daniel Radcliffe gives a mature, restrained performance as a lawyer sent to retrieve papers from the mysterious and remote Eel Marsh House in advance of its sale. While there, he hears strange sounds and encounters villagers angry at his presence. Naturally, there is a local legend surrounding the house and its last occupant, who now haunts the village as the spectral figure of the title. All respect to Radcliffe, but the real star here is the production design, which makes even harmless old children’s toys seem like the most menacing objects. This is an old-fashioned ghost story done oh so very right.
Probably the loudest movie on this list, “Insidious” plays now like a dry run for James Wan’s later “The Conjuring”, with fluid camera movement, grounding family relationships, and scares coming from unexpected places. It completely lacks the subtlety and patience of the later film, sometimes to its detriment, but the film has complete conviction in its nutty premise – that a young boy has astrally projected out of his body into a spirit realm called The Further and ghosts, demons, and other spirits are trying to take over his comatose body. That it also built a franchise on the back of veteran character actress Lin Shaye is cause for celebration (even if each sequel has been a typical case of diminishing returns).
4. “The Conjuring 2”
Yes, Ed and Lorraine Warren are not the most trustworthy sources, and the case of the Enfield Poltergeist has had plenty of evidence debunking it over the years. That absolutely does not matter when a film about them is this well-made and this good at producing shivery terror. “The Conjuring 2” is a sequel which suffers a bit from being a bit overstuffed, but it makes up for it with scares that aren’t just frightening, but memorable. There’s a reason that damn nun got her own movie after this. Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga step up their game from the first, and once again director James Wan creates a palpable sense of time and place, which makes the increasingly unlikely scenario feel grounded and real. The religious undertones of the first are played up here, making this one of those all-too-rare horror films that really truly wrestles with faith. The rare sequel that stands up to the original.
3. “The Innkeepers”
A haunted hotel is a great setting for a good ghost story. And two years before “The Conjuring” made the old-school, 70s-throwback style cool, Ti West did something similar with this low-fi shocker. Focused more on character development than jump scares, “The Innkeepers” follows two young workers at the Yankee Pedlar Inn (a real hotel in my home state of Connecticut with lots of haunting stories) on the Inn’s last weekend of operation. Luke runs a website dedicated to exploring the paranormal, and both he and Claire are trying to document a haunting at the Inn. They finally get their chance, and the escalating tension and sense of dread West accumulates as things come to a head is impressive. While it may not be scary enough for some, this has a level of sophistication in the filmmaking that a lot of other horror flicks just don’t have.
2. “Personal Shopper”
Maureen is haunted. Not just by the loss of her twin brother, but by life itself. As a personal shopper for a celebrity model, her job is practically to be a ghost: Get clothes, deliver clothes, return clothes, depart without being seen if possible. And since she also has the heart condition that killed her brother, she feels like she already has one foot in the grave anyway. So she takes to holding séances to try to commune with her brother’s spirit, to find some proof of the afterlife. Olivier Assayas’s film is about living a haunted life – a life that just might happen to have a ghost or two in it. Kristen Stewart is an ideal lead, all but disappearing into the role and digging deep into Maureen’s grief. But it’s Assayas’s show, and the ghostly text messaging sequences here are some of the best thriller scenes in recent memory. Couple that with a quiet knockout of an ending, and you have a film that is truly unclassifiable when it comes to genre. But regardless of its genre, “Personal Shopper” is a great film.
1. “The Conjuring”
What hurts the most about “The Conjuring” is how real it feels. The Perrons and the Warrens all feel like real people, which of course they were. Whether or not this story “really” happened, the film feels so grounded in reality that you believe all the horrible things happening to these people, and feel genuinely scared for them as the terror and danger mount. From the first frame to last, “The Conjuring” feels like an artifact of the ‘70s unearthed and given a bit of polish for release in the 2010s. Everything is crafted with care so that it feels genuinely lived in – the Perron house feels like a mostly comfortable fixer-upper, the family’s clothing, toys, and furniture feels appropriately second-hand, and the love between them is palpable. But when the ghosts appear, all bets are off and thank God for Vera Farmiga, who so ably communicates the tragedy of both the Perron family and the ghosts haunting them. Wan’s use of misdirection as a source of scares, as opposed to the standard sudden-movement-and-sting-of-music makes for a more organic-feeling horror movie, one that continually pulls the rug out from under you, leaving you feeling as rudderless as the Perrons surely felt.
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