“Insidious: The Last Key”

I’m back! After a nice break, let’s kick off the new year by talking about a January horror movie. We all know how great those are.

Set before the events of the first Insidious, paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) receives a call to investigate an entity that haunts her childhood home. Elise is hesitant, but takes the job to seek closure.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two Insidious films due to James Wan’s fantastic direction. I missed the third installment, but from watching The Last Key, I figured I wasn’t missing much there. The Last Key shows the franchise is on its last legs. isn’t the worst January horror movie, but it’s still not very good.

What made The Last Key’s predecessors memorable was their fresh spin. The first Insidious had refreshingly colorful demons, a lack of jump scares, a focus on childhood trauma, and one chilling conclusion that kept me wide awake. The Last Key succeeds in expanding on the franchise’s themes of trauma and even adds a realistic spin on possession. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same without Wan directing.

Gun-for-hire director Adam Robitel has an understanding of the franchise’s formula and tone, but he lacks vision. Instead of creating a dreadful atmosphere, we get the cliched rustic house with old toys and books lying around. Rather than building tension with editing, we get abrupt jump scares. Let’s not forget him settling for a long-haired, spider-crawling demon over something more original.

The worst sin Robitel commits though is overkilling the film with awkward humor. Elise’s assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell) return. I liked these characters in the previous films due to their witty banter; they spend a majority of their time in The Last Key creepily flirting with Elise’s oblivious nieces. I also found it strange that Elise rarely intervenes.

Writing and directing flaws aside, I slightly enjoyed The Last Key for Shaye’s performance as Elise. It was nice to see Shaye in a meaty role rather than be stooped to a exposition tool (my main issue with the first two films). Still, The Last Key is what I expect out of January: a quick studio cash grab.

Grade: C+


Bill Skarsgård has reshaped Pennywise the Clown’s image in It. Tim Curry’s performance is now a thing of the past. If you watch It, you’ll float, too!

Set in a small town in Maine (like all of King’s stories), It focuses on a group of kids called the Losers Club. There’s the guilt-ridden stutterer Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), sole female member Bev (Sophia Lillis), wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Jewish Stan (Wyatt Oleff), homeschooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer).

They just want to enjoy their summer vacation, but a mysterious clown named Pennywise (Skarsgård) stalks them. They realize Pennywise has been around for years and linked to several children’s disappearances, including Bill’s brother. Can the Losers stop Pennywise and save themselves?

I posted my top five best Stephen King adaptations last month; I need to revise that countdown and include Andy Muschietti’s It on there. Muschietti’s adaptation isn’t just an improvement over the miniseries, but an improvement over the book, as well.

It scraps the novel’s more perverse moments (no child orgy or dog killing here), allowing more focus on the coming-of-age themes. As a result, we get more funny and heartfelt moments from the Losers than expected. Each kid does a terrific job and their chemistry feels natural.

This adaptation also excludes the novel’s second half about the adult Losers, focusing solely on them as kids. I couldn’t be happier with this choice since the kids’ segment is more emotionally satisfying.

Don’t be fooled by my description of It; this is still a no-holds-barred horror film with some terrifying and admirably bold sequences. People will be talking about Pennywise’s introduction scene, but that’s not even the scariest scene. In fact, it’s hard to choose. Skarsgård disappears into Pennywise; there’s nothing funny about his laugh or stare. The makeup work and production design attribute to his menace.

The scariest moments aren’t with Pennywise, but the kids’ hallucinations. Pennywise uses each kid’s phobias to his advantage, causing them to see some gruesome and frightening figures including a demonic woman and a deteriorating man. The effects can appear amateur at times, but on a retro 80’s horror level.

I know my readers are skeptical to watch It and I don’t blame them. If you can handle horror movies and want a rare one with heart and humor, see It this weekend.

Grade: A

“Wish Upon”

I’m excited writing this review! Why? Because “Wish Upon” might be the best bad movie since “The Room.”

Clare (Joey King) is an unpopular high school girl with a dumpster-diving father (Ryan Phillippe) and two quirky friends June and Meredith (Shannon Purser and Sydney Park). When Clare inherits a mysterious Ancient Chinese wish box, she wishes for popularity, money, a new boyfriend, and her enemy to rot. The wishes come true, but why hasn’t Clare connected the deaths of her dog and family members to these granted wishes?


“Wish Upon” is marketed as a serious horror movie, but there isn’t a single scary or tense moment. It’s unintentionally funny, stupid, and appears unfinished. There are blurry aerial shots misplaced throughout the movie, a random exposition scene featuring Jerry O’Connell, and obvious plot holes that left me asking myself, “Was this the final cut?”

The plot holes are persistent throughout. If Clare can’t simply open the box without making a wish, then how is one of her friends able to open it later to translate the message? When Clare wishes to be popular, why are her only two friends not affected by this wish?

We also have some of the most spoiled and insane teenagers in film history. It’s not offensive, but hilarious because there’s no way a kid would snap a photo of their friend’s rotting face and post it on Instagram. There’s no way that kids would constantly take advantage of a friend’s newfound wealth and get away with it. This is a sequence that acts as part Instagram porn, part MTV reality show as we watch friends buy overly priced purses and snap photos of their cupcakes.

After five selfish wishes and seeing the consequences, Clare still thinks it’s a good idea to keep the box and make more wishes. She still thinks her dad being less of an embarrassment is worth the loss of her aunt and love interest’s cousin. I found myself wondering what Clare’s SAT score was.

There’s also a subplot where Clare’s boyfriend becomes a psycho stalker thanks to a backfired wish. It’s meant to be disturbing, but is hilarious thanks to cheesy lines like, “You’re so beautiful when you’re asleep.” This subplot lasts for three minutes and isn’t mentioned again for the rest of the movie.

I couldn’t get over how amazingly bad “Wish Upon” is. Yes, I hated it, but I’m still obligated to buy it for my occasional bad horror movie nights.

Grade: F

“Blair Witch”

Is September the month for “lost in the woods” movies? I just reviewed “The Sea of Trees” yesterday and now I’m reviewing “Blair Witch.” Between the two, this one’s better.

“Blair Witch” takes place twenty years after the events of “The Blair Witch Project.” James discovers found footage on Youtube and believes that his sister Heather (the predecessor’s protagonist) is in the video. He enlists his friends Lisa, Peter, and Ashley, as well as a pair of locals named Lane and Talia to explore Burkittsville. And if you’ve seen the first movie, you know what to expect.

Director Adam Wingard is a talented genre filmmaker. With the gruesomely entertaining “You’re Next” and criminally underrated “The Guest” under his belt, he’s an ideal choice for horror movies. However, “Blair Witch” demonstrates Wingard’s greatest flaw – he relies on his film’s climax as the selling point.

The first two acts of “Blair Witch” feature some innovative camera techniques, including earpiece cameras and some spooky drone shots. But the characters debate the Blair Witch’s existence, they wonder in circles around the woods, the sun never comes up, a scared character cries in front of the camera, and they end up in a house. It’s the same movie as “The Blair Witch Project.”

The final fifteen minutes are terrifying and feature some brilliant uses of lighting and sound, as well as an unsettling twist. It’s just not enough to recommend sitting through two generic acts of storytelling.

Grade: C

“Don’t Breathe”

Don’t breathe. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t steal. Don’t fuck with a blind man.

The movie focuses on a trio of burglars – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). They receive a tip for the perfect job; a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) lives in a rundown neighborhood with few residents and has almost half a million dollars in his house. Sounds easy until they realize he’s not going to let them leave, and he has something sinister in his basement.

“Don’t Breathe” had me sold on its old school premise, a poster reminiscent of 70’s horror movies, and the new twist on the tiresome home invasion genre. It delivers for the most part, but writer/director Fede Alvarez (“Evil Dead” remake) should have quit while he was ahead.


The first act does a great job establishing the setup and the characters. We see that Money is a stereotypical gangster, but he also cares for Rocky enough to sacrifice himself. Alex is hopelessly in love with Rocky, and goes along with the plan to help her. Rocky comes from a dysfunctional family and is determined to steal the Blind Man’s money to leave with her sister.

The second act is masterfully crafted and unbearably tense. Between the minimum dialogue, a David Fincher-style tracking shot,the dog chases, and Lang’s chilling performance as the Blind Man, “Don’t Breathe” is horror movie heaven. Then the final act happens.

The final act features a big plot twist involving the Blind Man’s background and a hostage in his basement. It’s very left field, unrestrained, and disgusting. Luckily, a grotesque turkey baster sequence only lasts a minute, but then we get to the ending.

When Rocky escapes the house, it cuts to black for a moment, which would have been a perfect ending, and made me give the movie a higher grade. But we get an unnecessary epilogue that leaves room open for plot holes and unwanted sequels.

If Alvarez had just focused on the Blind Man’s prisoner without the rape twist, it would have been compelling and disturbing enough to still keep me invested. Rape is a tasteless, cheap horror trope. Alvarez could have easily redeemed himself if he just ended the movie at the fade-to-black, excluding the epilogue.

I’d still recommend “Don’t Breathe” (just barely) for Stephen Lang’s performance, as he’s currently one of the best on-screen villains of the year, in a year with several tame villains. It is well-directed, but not for the faint of heart.

Grade: B-

“The Shallows”

Why do I still cover my eyes like a baby at shark movies? I know when a shark is swimming to surface for lunch, and when the protagonist will see the shark swimming full speed underwater, and yet I’m still afraid of these cliches? That’s the sign of a shark movie done well.

“The Shallows” is “Jaws” meets “127 Hours,” and we’re introduced to Blake Lively’s young surfer, Nancy. She travels to a secret beach in Mexico to go surfing, but her plans are cut short  when she’s attacked by a great white shark and stranded on a rock. She’s left with only her wit and stop watch to survive, and a wounded bird for company while devising an escape plan.

The biggest surprise about “The Shallows” was Blake Lively’s nuanced performance as Nancy. From the moment she’s introduced, we see Nancy isn’t a stupid horror movie protagonist, but rather an intelligent and down-to-earth surfer, mourning her deceased mother. The writers carefully avoided making Nancy a cliche and kudos to them.

Lively’s interactions with the bird and tough words towards the shark keep the film’s entertainment level high, so it isn’t always unpleasant to watch. We see some gory images of her shark bite and other shark attacks, but these are restrained due to the PG-13 rating.

“The Shallows” also features gorgeous cinematography that belongs on the Discovery Channel, and some impressive visuals that give other shark movies a run for their money. I wanted to look away from a scene where we see the shark’s shadow emerge in the waves, but I couldn’t because I was wowed.

The biggest problem with shark movies, whether it’s a good one like “The Shallows” or a bad one like “Sharknado,” cliches are inevitable. We know from camera angles, pacing, and music when the terror will occur, and we know how the hero will prevail.

“The Shallows” is more character-based than horror-based, so I can still recommend this movie to “Jaws” fans.

Grade: B

“The Neon Demon”

You know you’re watching a Nicolas Wending Refn when there’s a lot of pretentious metaphors that are both obvious and heavy handed. You know you’re watching a Nicolas Wending Refn movie when it’s beautiful and loaded with surreal imagery. You know you’re watching a Nicolas Wending Refn movie when it’s so screwed up and polarizing, you feel bad for loving it.”The Neon Demon” is all of the above!

Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, an underage model who befriends makeup artist Ruby (a terrifying Jena Malone) and enters the modeling scene. She quickly befriends Ruby and two other models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) and also rises to the top of the fashion world. But at what cost?

“The Neon Demon” is part social commentary, part neo-noir, and part horror film (particularly psychological and body. While it’s overly fetishist, I walked out overwhelmingly intrigued by this psychotically entertaining movie. It’s arthouse meets grindhouse (like all of Refn’s movies) and it works.

Fanning’s Jesse  begins as the innocent young girl we see in several horror movies who discovers something evil. However, she doesn’t panic when exposed to terror and disturbing situations. She rather endorses it, biting the hand that feeds her. That’s more powerful than the formulaic horror movie.

Fanning delivers a mesmerizing performance as Jesse, and each line and stare is delivered brilliantly. Malone steals the show as Ruby, who acts as Jesse’s friend, then falls in love, and takes creepy stalker to a whole new level.

Speaking of creepy, Keanu Reeves appears as a wonderfully sleazy motel manager and he’s perfect in this role. He either needs to play more creepy characters or be in more Refn movies because he’s great in both.

Cliff Martinez’s music score matched with Refn’s signature neon colors creates fitting 80’s aesthetics, bringing out the model world’s sleaze. It also makes the horrific and disgusting sequences look beautiful (like the “Hannibal” series).

Why did I feel bad for loving this movie? There’s some crazy, disgusting sequences I never want to see again. This involves cannibalism and something kinky with a corpse that made me go, “WTF?” Much like the violence in Refn’s tasteless “Only God Forgives,” these sequences seem like a practice of fetishism. Luckily these are quick sequences and more restrained than “Only God Forgives.”

People are going to hate “The Neon Demon.” I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes movies, but for those who enjoy film analysis, horror films, and gorgeous imagery, this might be up your alley.

Grade: A-