Saturday, October 15, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars Episode #10 (November 14, 1981)

The tenth hour-long episode of Hanna Barbera’s Space Stars (1981) opens with a Space Ghost tale called “Space Cube of Doom.” 

A space lab is attacked while Space Ghost is engaged in a job assisting the Herculoids on Quasar. The heroes discover that the cube-like spaceship is controlled by Ultima, a “space” computer. 

Ultima plans to conquer the galaxy by eliminating human individuality. Ultima reprograms human minds to think like it does, and brainwashes Jan and Jace as its first victims. Space Ghost must free them from this slavery, and trick Ultima into brainwashing himself (itself?)

The second story of the week is “Wordstar,” starring Teen Force. Here, Uglor intercepts a crashed spaceship and finds a chip that grants him total and complete power.

The Herculoids star in “Space Trappers,” a story which sees them captured by an intergalactic circus. This is the same plot, essentially, as the 1942 movie Tarzan’s New York Adventure. We have our Tarzan, Jane and Boy in Zandor, Tara and Dorno, and the Herculoid beasts of Quasar double as the animal friends of the Great Escarpment.

The second Space Ghost episode of the hour is called “The Time Master” and it involves a criminal named Tempus who is using his power to reverse a planet’s time-line, making it a prehistoric world.

The Space Ace episode of the week is called “Galactic Vac is back” and it is a low-point even for this show. Here, the villain “Galactic Vac” flies around the galaxy in a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up objects I hopes of becoming rich. When he is captured by Space Ace and Astro-mutt, Galactic Vac’s punishment is to hold a “galactic garage sale” where he gives back everything his space vacuum sucked up.

The Space Stars Finale episode of the week is “Uglor Conquers the Universe, and it’s pretty much exactly what is sounds like. Uglor uses the energy of a neutron star to come a giant in space. “I am the universe!” he declares. The Teen Force and the Herculoids team up to stop him, using the long-abandoned technology of the City of the Ancients on Quasar to get the job done.

At the end of the episode, one character notes “with great power comes great responsibility.” Where have I heard that before?

Yes, this is a series that steals from the very best (like Stan Lee, and Marvel) and yet is still the pits.

The Space Magic segment this week has Jan and Blip doing a card trick. The Space Fact involves the birth and deaths of stars. Supernovas are discussed, and featured as part of the Space Mystery.

Next week -- at last -- the final episode of Space Stars!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam!: "The Delinquent" (November 23, 1974)

In “The Delinquent,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) volunteers to be a new junior counselor at a summer camp because one boy, Norm (Jackie Earle Haley) is a loner and not well-liked by the other campers.  

For instance, he steals a canoe and flees the camp, until found and brought back.

The Elders tell Billy that “in order to like others, we must first like ourselves,” and so Billy begins a regime of esteem-building with Norm. Unfortunately, Norm finds out what Billy is doing, and this knowledge just makes him more of a loner.

Billy proposes a wilderness survival walk, but on the hike, Billy falls and is injured.  Now Norm must save Billy, and rescue him from a bear, too!  

Being a hero makes Norm feel better about himself and all’s well that ends well.

Filmation’s Shazam presents another morality lesson this week, and the half-hour belongs to young Jackie Earle Haley, who has a long and distinguished career in genre films, from Damnation Alley (1977) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). He plays Norm, the episode's bad kid.

It's odd that the episode is called "The Delinquent," actually, because Norm is a loner, and a little bit recalcitrant, but not a bad kid. 

A delinquent is, after all, defined as a criminal.  Norm doesn't get along with other kids, and feels bad about himself.  I guess stealing a canoe is, technically, a criminal act...but when considering something like that, there's always context, right?  He takes a canoe to go out at a lake during a summer camp.

That's not a big thing, given where he was, and what he took.

And I also don't blame Norm a bit for feeling resentful when he learns that Billy has made him his "project."  That's patronizing, and a little insulting.  

Again, I'll just point out how weird it is to have a superhero show in which the hero spends all of his time counseling and lecturing kids, aged 6-16 about tolerance, acceptance, self-esteem and so forth.

Aren't there some natural disasters that people need to be rescued from? Or an occasional real crime, like bank robbery, to stop?  Or even a super criminal now and then?

Next week: "The Braggart."

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Films of 2013: The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013) is a slick and entertaining horror film buttressed by solid performances, good production values, and quite a few highly-effective jump scares.

The film’s recreation of the 1970s milieu is also effective, and pinpoints genuine terror in a time of our national “crisis of confidence.”  

For some reason, there’s just something about the 1970s -- the era of The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) -- that remains scary to many of us.  

Perhaps it is because the 1970s was the last time we really let ambiguity seep deeply into the national Zeitgeist, before it was “morning in America” again -- and eternally -- even in times of war or other strife.

There’s also some solid suspense wrought in The Conjuring’s first act, particularly in a chilling prologue involving a doll possessed by a demonic entity. This opening sequence plays like a mini-movie (or mini-Twilight Zone episode) in its own right, and gets things started off in good, creepy fashion.

All these values earn the film a positive recommendation from this writer, yet many aspects of The Conjuring don’t work nearly as well as they ought to, and manifest as a kind of carelessness in terms of storytelling.

In short, The Conjuring is an entertaining movie, but not a particularly deep one.

Elements of the film feel very familiar, and on top of that, narratively inconsistent.  The story makes a mincemeat over its central debate (the difference between a ghost and a demon), and even gets a key historical date wrong, all while banking on a “based-on-a-true-story” approach to add to the effectiveness of the horror. Then, the film ends with a paean to superstition, suggesting an ardent belief "in the fairy tale" (of an afterlife) rather than in the auspices of science and reason.

Also, and in some very crucial ways, The Conjuring feels more like a TV pilot  -- an inducement to franchise-i-fication -- than a horror film with the potential and desire to transgress, shatter decorum, or undercut convention.

To put this all another way: The Conjuring is a great roller-coaster ride and you’ll have a good time watching it.  Have no mistake about that.

But it simply isn’t the kind of horror movie that will trouble your slumber, or linger in your memory.  The film is entertaining in a generic “summer blockbuster way,” yet never quite succeeds as a work of transgressive art…which is the highest calling of the horror movie, in my opinion.

The Perron family moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island in the year 1971, and almost immediately begins to encounter strange, supernatural manifestations.  After the death of the dog, Sadie, events spiral out of control.  The girls report imaginary friends, the smell of rancid meat saturates the house, and the family even discovers a dark, hidden cellar. 
Bruised and oppressed by an unseen “ghost,”  matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor) seeks the assistance of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Verma Farmiga).  The couple visits the house and confirms that a demonic entity has “latched on” to the family.  The Warrens plan for an exorcism, but first must gather information so the Catholic Church can approve the procedure.
Research reveals that the Perron’s house was once home to a witch, Bathsheba, who murdered her infant child in an attempt to gain favor with the devil.  Bathsheba hanged herself soon thereafter, but not before cursing any and all trespassers on her land.
Ed and Lorraine worry that Bathsheba is now attempting to possess one of the Perrons, the most psychologically vulnerable of the clan. 
Before long, their fears come to fruition…even as Bathsheba also attempts to latch onto Lorraine, and her daughter…

When The Conjuring stays focused on the Perron family and their haunted farm house, or explores the possibilities of a malevolent ambulatory doll in its prologue (arguably the film’s most effective sequence), The Conjuring absolutely qualifies as an adroit horror machine, a roller-coaster ride with all the requisite bells and whistles.  The film is a big, successful crowd-pleaser.

And shit, what’s wrong with that?  

The film is a machine that works.

But test drive the machine some, and the film’s narrative doesn’t cohere.  For example, consider the film’s menace: a witch called Bathsheba who possesses mothers and makes them kill their children. 

The Conjuring spends a great deal of its early running time describing in detail the important differences between ghosts and demonic entities.  Ghosts haunt places; demonic entities latch onto people, the Warrens explain.  Demonic entities never walked the Earth as humans, but ghosts did.

All these “facts” are ably related by the film’s screenplay, but in terms of Bathsheba, the whole idea is terribly muddled. Bathsheba is a witch who died years ago, and who -- actually -- walked the Earth as a human.  So quite clearly, then, and by the Warrens’ own definition, she’s a ghost, not a demonic entity, right?

Yet the film continually refers to Bathsheba as a demonic entity who latches onto people (not to a place, like a ghost), when in fact she simply can’t be, since she was formerly a human being. 

The Conjuring thus seems terminally confused about the very nature of its monster.  

If Bathsheba’s a dead personality continuing to exist after the end of her life on this mortal coil, she’s a ghost. By Ed’s own definition -- provided in the prologue -- she can’t be a demon.  So our question to the film’s writers must be this: why go to such great lengths to present these definitions of ghosts and demons, then simply to ignore them?  Better not to bring up all these details in the first place if the script can't stick to them.

Secondly, Bathsheba’s range of powers shifts radically depending on the needs of the screenwriters.  At one point, Lorraine Warren turns her glance skyward, and ominous clouds blot out the sun, moving in around the house.  

The inference is that Bathsheba is literally casting a shadow over the land.  Similarly, Bathsheba can appear anywhere, at any time, and literally throw people around the room (gripping them by their hair).  She can press the trigger on a shotgun, and even shoot at people, too.

But yet Bathsheba can’t endure in the physical body of a mother who…wait for it…loves her children. 

The conclusion of The Conjuring literally suggests that Perron’s love of her children is the very thing that repels Bathsheba’s presence. 

This is a lovely sentiment about a mother’s love, to be certain, but not one that survives close scrutiny.  Given such facts, are we then to assume that the ghostly Rory’s mother didn’t love him, since Bathsheba possessed her, and she killed her own son? 

Or does Carolyn Perron just love her son more than Rory’s mother loved him?

Mother’s “love” is kind of an occupational hazard of the job, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t Bathsheba take that into account when possessing Moms?  It's like saying that a ghost who is allergic to garlic decides to possess only people who eat garlic.

The problem here is, frankly, a deeper one.  

The Conjuring simply doesn’t leave any room for ambiguity. It settles on its rules fairly quickly, and then attempts to show how those rules work in practice. Demonic entities are not ghosts, but beings that can latch onto people, and this demon, Bathsheba, exists to make mothers kill their children as she killed her own. The antidote for possession by Bathsheba is, per the climactic scene, a mother’s love. 

It’s all neatly tied up in bows for the audience, but that kind of clear-cut explanation of a supernatural entity’s motivation is the enemy of successful horror, which seeks to foster uncertainty, not bring clarity.

Even in terms of getting historical details right, The Conjuring trips over its feet. It is established that the events at the Perron family farm occur in the year 1971, for example. 

When the possession crisis ends, the Warrens return home, and get a call from a priest to investigate another haunting on Long Island: the Amityville Horror Case.

But history clearly records that the Lutzs didn’t even move into the house at Amityville until 1975.  If the Warrens are investigating the DeFeo case at the same house, well, those murders didn’t occur until 1974.

For a film that tries so hard to squeeze mileage out of a “based on a true story” approach, The Conjuring places fast and loose with the Warrens’ chronology (not to mention the actual fate of Bathsheba, in real life…).

I would agree that I am nitpicking here were it not for the fact that The Conjuring works so assiduously to succeed on its claims of veracity.  The movie even ends with authentic photographs of the Warrens and the Perrons, furthering the apparent connection to historical “fact.”  But the photographs are less persuasive than they appear.  All we see are personalities, never anything supernatural.  Given all the “demonic activity” that the Warrens witness (and record on film...) in The Conjuring, why not end this movie with their authentic footage, with excerpts from some of their "sessions" curing people of possession?  Or, the film could play the audio of the possessed woman that apparently spawned the making of the film

But instead, this true story only throws up a few photos which establish, simply, that the Warrens and the Perrons knew each other, in the 1970s.

The very structure of The Conjuring actually diminishes real psychic fear or terror too.  Ed and Lorraine are presented as demonologists who do this kind of work on a regular basis.  The film opens with one of their previous cases (and again, quite effectively so…).  The movie ends with the promise that we will see their future cases.  In the middle, we see their present “case.”

So, essentially, then, we know that Ed and Lorraine, a priori, are going to survive whatever horrors they face in the film. 

That’s why I made the comparison to a TV pilot in my introduction: The Conjuring feels more like a set-up for a (perhaps very good…) TV series: one in which we follow a pair of investigators on their quest to deal with supernatural entities. 

But most horror movies are built around their monster, not their protagonists, and the could be a problem, going forward, for the franchise.  We know the Warrens are going to "make it," don't we?

The true concern here, however, is that in terms of the horror genre all of this franchise setting-up only serves to diminish the terror of this entry. We’re being prepared, from start to finish, in The Conjuring for a movie series…and that very fact takes away the filmmakers’ ability to surprise audiences, or take risks with structure, format and theme.

A really good, really memorable horror movie must subvert expectations and play with those things -- think Psycho, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even Wolf Creek.  

Or think instead about the sub-textual messaging of The Amityville Horror (1979), a very like-minded haunted house film from 1979 that treads in economic woes (as a source no less than Stephen King commented on...).  The haunted house there, in other words, was a metaphor for something else; something disturbing the society of the Carter recession.  

By contrast, there is no meaningful structural or thematic subtext in The Conjuring.  It is simply – and I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment – a strikingly effective “scare” machine.  The "bumps" and jump scares are orchestrated brilliantly and effectively.

But the supernatural encounters in The Conjuring, while well-vetted in terms of visual presentation (make-up, wire-work, and so forth), are also, alas from the same stew of genre clichés we’ve seen many times in recent years. 

The exorcism angle we’ve seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Devil Inside (2012) to name just three films of the last decade. 

The ghost hunters we’ve met recently in films like Apartment 143 (2012), and the malevolent entity endangering families might as well be the demon from The Possession (2012), the evil inter-dimensional interloper from The Apparition (2012), or the child-killer of Sinister (2012).  

While I enjoy the fact that The Conjuring locates the 1970s as America’s decade of true terror (it was, in a very real sense, given the Oil Embargo of 1973, Watergate, Three Mile Island, and the Vietnam War), the period trappings are simply not enough to make The Conjuring feel original or fresh.

Again, I wish to be plain.  I enjoyed The Conjuring.  It passed the time pleasantly and scarily, and I jumped a few times, but there is not one quality about this film that takes a chance or risk, or that challenges the audience’s perceptions of reality. 

Imagine how we’d look at Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, or other films deemed “classic” today, if they had adopted the same commercial approach.

So The Conjuring will entertain you, but it will not, I suspect, endure as a horror classic in the way that those other films have.  It may be remembered as the start of a durable film series that entertains, but that's it.

Movie Trailer: The Conjuring (2013)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Films of 2014: Annabelle

It’s become fashionable to hate and criticize the blockbuster horror movie Annabelle (2014). By contrast, its source material, The Conjuring (2013) was widely and exaggeratedly-praised. So perhaps some critics felt they had to come down hard on the sequel for the sake of “balance.”

What the reviewers giveth, they also taketh away.

I have no horse in this race, but it appears to me that Annabelle (2014) is one of those horror movies that can’t win, at least in terms of critical response. The movie adopts a slow-burn approach to its horror storytelling, and takes care not to reveal the doll committing violence on-screen. This approach to the material apparently upset several critics, who feel like they were owed a movie in which they could see the creepy doll going around attacking people. 

These critics term Annabelle boring, and are longing, apparently, for Chucky-style carnage.

Had the movie taken that more overt, less nuanced approach, however, I feel the same critics would have likely complained that the movie wasn’t scary, just violent and action-packed.

Horror movies fall into this trap a lot. Critics don’t actually like or appreciate horror as a genre very much, and so will use any argument that they think will stick in order to demean a film of this type.  Annabelle is damned if does, damned if it doesn’t.

My impression of Annabelle is that the director, John Leonetti, worked over-time to keep the mysterious aspects of the doll alive, and quite successfully so, while also generating some significantly scary moments throughout.

One scene involving a hotel basement, a storage cage, and an elevator, is beautifully and effectively staged, for example.  The moment builds to a fever pitch of terror, and really gets the blood running.

As I indicate above, many critics complained that the movie is boring, but “boring” isn’t a legitimate criticism, in my book.  No movie is boring if you meet it half way, or choose to engage with it. Some movies are flat, and I suppose that makes us feel bored. But generally, I feel that, as viewers and reviewers, we are responsible for our own viewing experience, and whether something is boring or not.

For me, Annabelle is an intriguing and well-crafted film because, outside the horror, it attempts to erect a sense of place and time.  The film is set in 1970, in the age of Charles Manson, and many of the details it presents (in terms of The Family, and in terms of daytime TV), help to forge a feeling for that span.  I have some personal memories of the seventies (though from a little later on, around 1975 or so…) that Annabelle successfully awakened for me, and so I feel it is more carefully and intelligently crafted than many reviewers suggest.

Indeed, I’ve seen reviews that call Annabelle one of the worst films of the year. That is, quite simply, a terrible exaggeration, and thus unfair.  The movie is often run-of-the-mill or predictable in nature, but from time to time it really pulls off a spectacularly creepy moment, or does a good job of capturing the vibe of its seventies age.

Honestly, I don’t know what else people expect of studio horror movie at this point.  Chucky has cornered the market on cussing, murderous dolls, and it’s encouraging to see another “killer doll” movie attempt to take things in a somewhat different direction.

So while I wouldn’t claim Annabelle matches the artistic success of The Babadook (2014) or The Battery (2014) or Honeymoon (2014), I see no reason to attack it as terminally-flawed either. Instead, it simply is what it is: an effectively made, mildly generic, entertaining horror movie.

“Mothers are closer to God than any living creature.”

In 1970, a young expectant woman, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her husband, John (Ward Horton), a doctor in training, plan for the arrival of their first baby.  John brings Mia home a gift: a collectible doll she has wanted for a long time.

One night, however, fate takes an ugly turn as deranged cultists break into Mia and John’s house, and attack them. Mia is stabbed, but survives, as does her baby. The female cultist, Annabelle Higgins, dies in close proximity to the doll, and Mia wants it destroyed.  John throws the blood-stained doll in the garbage.

After a mysterious fire at their house, Mia and John move to an apartment building. While they unpack, they discover the cast-off doll in the last box.

Mia decides, this time, to keep it.

That decision has fateful consequences, however, as strange and frightening events begin to occur. Mia comes to fear that a demonic force using the doll as a conduit seeks to steal the soul of her baby, Leah…

“You’ve got to lock the doors. It’s a different world now.”

I would be lying if I claimed I felt no personal connection to some aspects of Annabelle.

Many scenes in the film involve Mia staying at home, on bed rest, watching day-time soaps such as General Hospital. While watching episodes, she intermittently sews clothes on a sewing machine.

I possess very vivid memories of my own mother, in the 1970s, sitting at her sewing machine while watching the very same show.  I even recognized one of the characters on that program – Jessie -- during Annabelle.  It sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t.

In the early seventies, few Americans, at least in my town, could afford to shop and buy new clothes at stores. Instead, Moms sewed clothes for their spouses and children all the time, after buying huge spools of material at the store. The film recalls this time and this economic reality without making a big point of it. 

Similarly, my Mom went to work as a teacher in the late 1970s, but I vividly remember days staying home and having to watch One Life to Live, General Hospital, and Edge of Night. Back then, there was no cable and no streaming.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the afternoons were dominated by sudsy soaps of this type.

Also, I conjured up another forgotten memory during Annabelle. My sister owned a tall blond-haired doll she named Karen. I hated that doll. Karen was roughly as tall as I was, and when I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, I would have to pass my sister’s open doorway and Karen too, silently standing guard nearby.

Even the film’s news footage about Manson and the mad-dog cultist aspect of Annabelle capture a time in the culture that my friend and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne, termed “the wake-up from the hippie dream.”  Annabelle is about that exact epoch in our culture; when an idea of beauty and peace got perverted into something scary; when people started locking their doors…out of fear.

So perhaps I’m pre-disposed to like Annabelle since it captures, for me, something of my personal experience as a kid growing up in the 1970s.

But, importantly, not every movie about the seventies gets the details right, or activates the memory in the way this horror films does.  For instance, I’m tired of all the 1970s movies and TV shows featuring a “key” party for adults who want to cheat on their spouses.

So far as I know, this kind of event never happened to anyone I knew in those days, and yet it has been accepted as fact of middle class life, when it clearly wasn’t. Rather, the key party was part of a narrow experience, and then picked up by the pop culture as somehow signifying life in the 1970s.

Annabelle focuses on little details instead, ones that create the impression of reality. The rat-a-tat-tat of a family sewing machine, for instance, or a newscast about “cults,” and worrying about Charles Manson. These moments seem much more intriguing and world-building than the presence of simple jump scare.  I could go watch Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 with Joel, if that’s what I wanted in my horror: pure mechanics.

I’ve also read complaints that the main characters in Annabelle somehow aren’t fully individualized or interesting enough to carry the movie.  Again, I suspect this kind of criticism comes from the general critic’s lack of understanding of horror.  Characters must be distinguished, it’s true, but also be generic enough so that we can identify with them; we can fill the gaps with our experience and thus put ourselves in their shoes. 

Consider the characters of The Evil Dead (1983), for instance. There’s two sets of boyfriends and 
girlfriends, and an odd girl out.

How much do we really know about their backgrounds?  Almost nothing.

And that’s good, because we can then imprint our own fears and angst upon them.

The characters in Annabelle, a pregnant mother-to-be and a largely absent father-to-be are distinguished enough that the audience cares about them, and that’s what is most important.  They aren’t the most colorful folks ever to headline a movie, but they don’t need to be.  I often have a difficult time watching films set in the 1970s, because modern actors just don’t look right for that era.  They’re too big, or too muscular. The actors in this film actually look right: skinny and not-idealized, though very young.

And the great Alfre Woodard is also here, as Evelyn, a friend of Mia’s. Woodard tells a heart-breaking story in the film, one regarding her daughter, and it feels so true and potent in her hands that it’s hard to argue that all Annabelle cares about is slick entertainment.  Woodard’s sincerity in the part takes the movie to a grander playing field, to one concerning the decisions we make here during our lives, and the reasons behind them.

Some moments in Annabelle are genuinely startling, or suspenseful.  Early on, Mia awakes from a slumber, and gazes through the neighbor’s bedroom window.  The events that unfold next are sudden and shocking, and will make you leap out of your seat.  It’s not so much the jump scare effect that makes the scene work, but the idea of seeing something you are not prepared for, or that is inexplicable.

Likewise, in my introduction, I mentioned the scene set in the basement.  Mia takes an item down to storage in her apartment building, and sees some horrible creature dwelling there, in the dark.  She runs back to the elevator, gets in and presses the button to return to her floor. The elevator door shuts. 

But the elevator goes nowhere. And the doors re-open.

She frantically hits the button again, peering out into the dark, scanning for that…thing.

This chronology repeats three or four times, until it becomes clear that the elevator is going nowhere, and Mia must tread out into the dark, and find another exit. 

The scene plays on the (probably subconscious) fear that we can’t escape a pursuer; that the tools we have built (like an elevator) are useless in the face of something supernatural and malevolent. 

The horror scene continues and builds as Mia runs up a staircase, a demonic creature lurking behind her.  In a flash of lightning, its face is revealed, and you’ll definitely feel a shiver. The moment works just as intended.

At other times, the horror touches are downright poetic. Mia again climbs her apartment stairs at one juncture, and diabolical drawings -- sketched by neighboring kids, or perhaps Annabelle -- land in her path like wind-strewn flower petals.  Each new arrival is more disturbing than the last.

I have some questions about the narrative in Annabelle (including precisely how the doll and the demon are connected), but for the most part, my concerns are immaterial. The film creates a memorable world, and crafts colorful and dynamic scenes of terror. 

Would a better film feature sub-text that relates to us today, living now?

Yeah, it probably would. 

Annabelle isn’t a great horror film. Instead, it’s a better-than-average, serviceable one that gets the job done.  It gives you the creeps, and it doesn’t do it in the most craven, predictable way possible, with an ambulatory doll stalking victims.  Instead, a creepy seventies vibe dominates the picture, and that’s a good thing.

So go into this one with your eyes open and know what you’re watching here: a professionally-shot and meticulously edited Hollywood horror movie. Annabelle passes the time, hits a few high notes, and then it’s over and you forget about it. 

At least the movie makes sense, which is something one can’t necessarily say of The Conjuring.

Actually, I’ll take Annabelle and its slow-burn horror over The Conjuring’s supernatural gymnastics any day.

The Films of 2016: The Darkness

“The Darkness” is what the horror movie genre itself could find itself facing if studios and filmmakers don’t stop playing things so damned safe. 

In short, The Darkness is a film you’ve seen a million times before, except before now it was titled The Possession (2012), or Insidious (2010), or Sinister (2012) or Annabelle (2014), or Paranormal Activity 4 (2012). 

In horror films of this type, affluent white American families with approximately 2.5 children interface with the supernatural, a force which often takes the form of a child’s imaginary friend. At first the imaginary friend is dismissed as such. Until it shows its true colors.

Said rich white family -- usually living in a house you might expect to see as show-pieces on HGTV – eventually manages to overcome its many dysfunctions, band together, and beat back the evil forces.  

At the end, a lesson about family is learned.

Sometimes the horror du jour in these films is ethnic in nature (The Possession, The Darkness), bringing in an unfortunate quality of ethnocentrism to the proceedings. But always we have that one affluent family pulling together in the face of a crisis, and beating back the threats of, well, “Otherness.”

Some of these films have actually been quite good, and I have reviewed them favorably, or mostly favorably.

But the fact remains that if you go to the same well too many times, horror is diminished. 

Why?  Well, as I’ve written before, we are not afraid of the things we know and are familiar with; we’re afraid of ambiguity; of the things we don’t know.

Yet we can pretty much diagram, from the first frame, exactly how The Darkness will play out, and we’d be right in our assumptions.

First, a child is jeopardized by the imaginary friend/ethnic spirit. Second, one parent conducts feverish Internet research to discover the truth when conventional methods can’t help.

Third, one parent won’t get on board/refuses to believe in the supernatural. Fourth: ethnic exorcist is summoned to clean the house of evil spirits. And lastly, the family, in face of the exorcist’s failure, summons up own resources -- love, togetherness, etc., -- to repel the darkness.

The Darkness is so familiar, so routine that is actually one of the most terror-less movies I’ve ever seen.  The movie unfolds at a lugubrious pace, with great portentousness, and yet there are no big shocks, no big twists, no good jump scares, even.

The Darkness is of the horror genre, but not horrific, except in terms of its overall quality.

Sure, it is well-cast and competently shot, but The Darkness settles down over the audience like a shroud of utter mediocrity.

Been there. Done that.

“I think there’s something else in the house.”

The Taylor family visits the Grand Canyon with friends.  While there, the Taylor boy, Michael (David Mazouz) -- who is autistic -- falls into a cave.  Unbeknownst to his family, he pockets several sacred stones of the long-vanished Anasazi tribe; stones that kept fearsome spirits locked in a kind of nether dimension.

Once home, the Taylors grapple with family issues.

Daughter Stephanie is bulimic, and keeps her vomit in jars under her bed.  The matriarch of the family, Bronny (Radha Mitchell), meanwhile, is a recovering alcoholic who has still not forgiven her husband, Peter (Kevin Bacon) for a marital indiscretion. 

Peter, meanwhile, is working long hours, and has been assigned a lovely and worshipful female assistant.

Soon, the evil spirits, which have followed the family home, begin to encroach on Michael and our very reality.  Their hope is to take Michael back to their realm, and open a new age of darkness on Earth.

“He’s getting dangerous. Why can’t you see that?”

It’s always good to see Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell back in horror, bringing their unique and singular talents to the genre.  And indeed, the most intriguing aspect of The Darkness is the relationship between the lead characters, Peter and Bronny.  They exist in a feedback loop of guilt, bad-communication, and self-recriminations.  Their attempts to hold the family together give The Darkness what little emotional impact it possesses. 

Unfortunately, these fine actors are put through paces that are all too routine. They argue with another, question their beliefs, and ultimately defend the family. In the end, the battle with the supernatural is won -- standing in for the relationship battle -- and the whole family celebrates at a picnic together.

Again, you can reference any big horror movie title from 2010 – 2016 and pretty much see the same battle lines drawn.  The bonuses of this format: good actors, nice art design, and a warm, sentimental message about the value of supporting your loved ones. 

But in terms of horror, I don’t really need “A” list actors, or happy messages, or a level of art design that suggests a middle class family should aspire to a dwelling it could never afford.

However, as I often write, regarding found footage films and also slasher films, “formula” itself is not an automatic death sentence in terms of a movie’s quality. 

Indeed, the finest slasher and found footage films are those which find ways to subvert a long-standing or cliched formula. These films toy with expectations. They take a familiar formula or structure as a given, and then twist and stretch it.  So it is entirely possible that a great film in this format -- affluent white family imperiled by the supernatural -- could be vetted successfully.

But The Darkness isn’t that film.

It doesn’t add to or bend the standing formula in anything approaching an interesting way.

Instead, there seems to be a cookie cutter or fill-in-the-blank nature to the treatment of the supernatural here. Instead of getting the Jewish Dybbuk box of The Possession, this movie presents us with the Native American spell stones. 

Both objects are but opportunities for supernatural incursion, but The Darkness fails to exploit the specific material for its obvious value.  Consider how these Native American spirits might feel knowing that the descendants of white oppressors had inherited their peoples’ land.  Might they not see their own campaign of horror as revenge for the horrors visited upon their people?  Indeed, with a little tweaking, The Darkness could be a horror film about karma. About the rightful owners of the land destroying those corrupt individuals who inherited it.

The movie gives absolutely no hint, no indication that even knows a little about American history. 

This is a movie, after all, about Caucasians stealing Native American objects of cultural value (the stones) and then, again, winning the day by destroying those Native American forces. 

My only thought on this?  Horror movies have become so antiseptic and lacking in subtext these days that they don’t take advantage of even the most obvious opportunities to include it.  The Darkness could have worked on a successful metaphorical level, had it chosen to do so.

The Darkness doesn’t handle autism any better than it handles history. Michael is able to return to the stones and not fear the demons because of his emotionless affect.  The movie politely telegraphs this fact for us in early dialogue.  In one of the first scenes, Michael’s sister tells us that he is not afraid of the same things as other kids.  When he hear the prophecy of the demons, we learn that they can be defeated only by one “without fear.” 

So of course, bingo! We have a winner: it’s Michael.

Even the Taylor parents aren’t handled with much depth or consistency. Bronny is so overcome with despair and worry for her family over the supernatural incursion that she begins hitting the bottle again.  So what do Bronny and Peter do after they learn there are possibly demons in the house? 

How about go out for a dinner date with friends?! 

Naturally, they leave the kids in the house…

The film also appears to be the victim of some unfortunate post-production interference or editing As The Darkness opens in the Grand Canyon, we meet another family, the Carters. We encounter the son, the wife and the husband. These characters have significant dialogue, and scenes which indicate they may play a role in the ongoing narrative.

After the first scene, they are never seen again.

Instead, we meet another set of friends during the movie proper: Peter’s boss and his wife….who just so happen also to have had a supernatural experience in their past.

Did I like anything about The Darkness at all?  

Well, buried somewhere here is the idea of the nuclear family’s destruction at its own hand. Everyone in the Taylor family has a vice, foible, condition or diagnosis that is making life miserable.  They live in the perfect house, but are not the perfect family. 

At one point, filthy hand-prints appear on Stephanie’s bed, and on Stephanie herself.  That “incursion” seems a perfect metaphor for the family itself; dirtied and soiled by day-to-day life, and day-to-day hurts.

But even that scene is not really scary.  It is sort of memorable, I suppose, but not even really chilling. And the manifestations of the demons -- as animals such as wolves, snakes, coyotes and crows -- also fail to inspire fear in any effective or consistent manner.

Familiarity breeds contempt, not terror, and The Darkness is so familiar, so rote, so empty that one leaves a viewing feeling nothing but disdain for it.