More Ghostly Frights!
By Kristin Battestella
Be it continental classic, retro pastiche, or period made modern, here's a trio of phantasms, spirits, and hauntings that can be enjoyed any time of year.
The Conjuring 2 – Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as the Amityville investigating Ed and Lorraine Warren before crossing the pond to battle the Enfield Poltergeist in this 2016 sequel. Ouija, ticking clocks, errant toys, and strange noises in the UK parallel stateside séances, doppelgangers, violent trances, and out of body visions. At times however the Amityville shoehorning and “London Calling” scoring the trip to England feels cliché. The accents are also odd with Australian Frances O'Connor (Bedazzled) and Irish Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors) putting on a faux pip pip cheerio – all these “me bloody brilliant” exclaims are clearly written by Americans. Fortunately, the 1977 period is felt via cars, classic ring ring phones, and a shabby house with ugly walls save for those attention to detail Starsky & Hutch posters. There's a giant remote clicker, too, and scary TV action like adjusting the antenna! The first half alternates between the Enfield scares and talk show hot water Warrens – bonus old reels and black and white screens let the frightening mood build with possessing voices and innate sound shocks rather than hollow jump scares. Not that there aren't recoiling moments, however, thanks to long camera shots allowing the viewer to creep over the shoulder of the victim. The younger cast looks genuinely terrified over flying furniture, phantom bite marks, evil nuns, and freaky paintings. Naturally, there's potential for fakery, but we're too caught up in the ghostly Q&A and faith building crosses, carols, and Christmas trees. Obviously, this is styled more for fear than The Enfield Haunting, but its interesting to see two such dramatizations. Both are good for different reasons despite neither being super accurate. Unfortunately, the practical effects here look like bad animation, and the Warrens facing their own demons (hee, pun) leaves mixed signals on what actually needs vanquishing. Is this about the nun, the old man, or the crooked man? Plumbing dangers, teleporting, levitating, knives, and lightning strikes add to the busyness, but tender family moments alleviate the scares amid the big final confrontation – letting the people rather than anything crass deliver the horror. And there's Bee Gees music! It's an out of context “I Started a Joke” but sixties pathos not disco glory. Yessss!
The Ghost – Skulls, storms, candles, deathbed cripples and melancholy music to match immediately set the Gothic mood and Scotland 1910 period stylings of this colorful 1963 Italian haunt starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). The dubbing is off kilter – the occasional dubbed Scottish accent is especially bemusing – and the innate video quality isn't the best. However, syringes, séances, poisons, and risky medical research mixed with black magic possibilities add to the up to no good atmosphere and twilight surreal. Illicit meetings, gin, revolvers, straight razors – the scheming lovers are getting desperate and antsy waiting for those in the way to die. Steele is divine in white furs and lace to start before switching to black mourning veils for the reading of the will. It's tough not to hear her voice, but some sensuous melodrama accents the suspenseful tone, tolling bells, howling dogs, and foreboding Psalm 23. Is the missing key to the safe in the dead and buried's coat pocket? Eerie sounds, shadows, and wheelchairs moving on their own escalate to ghostly callings and spooky music box playing while the hysterics, a suspect housekeeper, and creepy apparitions intensify the macabre treasure hunt even when there is only one person onscreen. Contemporary viewers may find the ninety-five minutes slow, and this is rough around the edges – a derivative scandal and haunting that should have been tighter. Too many late but wait there's more twists border on preposterous, yet the increasingly trippy specters do make for a few surprises. The audience dislikes the phantom, but turnabout upon the adulterers is fair play with chilling irony, mysticism, double crossings, crypts, and coffins. We know a set up is coming, but it's tense good fun in getting there thanks to some ambient captions such as “Sound of someone knocking,” “Creaking Door,” “Sound of Footsteps,” and “Clap of Thunder.” Oh yeah.
Witchboard – A Ouija board and one bad yuppie party leads to the release of a malevolent spirit in this 1987 scarefest. Granted, it doesn't say much when Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of Yik-Yak) does the best acting here as both her rival male suitors are lame and full of their own bromance, manpain, and perhaps a whiff of latent innuendo. There's unintentional comedy, too, with heaps of eighties fun including wild hair, punk styles, one earring, and waterbeds. I mean, you don't see rainbow colored mohawks every day! Old technology such as microfilm, payphones, and cool Cobra cars are pleasing as well despite a lingering hokey, dated Valley lingo, laughably bad special effects, and contrived leaps to advance the plot. Fortunately, eerie hospitals, cemeteries, and foggy dreams add atmosphere while askew wide lenses and overhead whooshes provide a poltergeist perspective. Creepy Ouija movements, solo reading sessions, and freaky séances build suspense alongside pregnancy twists, zany psychics, and violent ghostly attacks. Who knew just spelling out with the planchette was so intense! Lovely architecture and retro styles feel eighties does forties, and there's a reason for this throwback tone. The spirits also remain mostly unseen – except when the evil is ax happy that is. Because ghosts can wield axes, FYI. There is brief nudity and language, but this simple story does a lot without resorting to bimbo extremes or cheap fouls. Dockside mishaps and shower perils top of a goofy but fitting finale, and though of its time, this remains fun and entertaining.