‘Ouija’ conjures up little in suspense, horror

The makers of “Ouija” deserve an A for effort on this, the first major feature for writer-director Stiles White and co-writer Juliet Snowden. They tried to take on a subject that can be creepy and chill-inducing but were unable to add any new elements to the story. The result is another ghost yarn that is just a variation of the “Paranormal Activity” series, but minus the found-footage, jerky motion format.

The Ouija board, a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, has been featured in dozens of movies over the years, most notably in “The Exorcist” and more recently had a guest-starring stint in “Paranormal Activity.” The consistent thread in these appearances is that using the Ouija board, like playing with matches, can usually lead to trouble. It seems every  time a call is made to the great beyond via the board, it is not Casper the friendly ghost who answers. It is more often than not a spirit that is upset or riled about something.

“Ouija” begins with two young girls, Laine Morris and Debbie Galardi, playing with an Ouija board and Laine gets spooked when her sister Sarah comes into the room uninvited.

The movie advances several years and now teen-age Debbie (Shelley Hennig), alone in her house, seems to be unnerved about something. She tosses an Ouija board into the fireplace,  wanting to destroy it. Then, when Laine (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”) comes by so they can go to a high school basketball game, Debbie begs off for vague reasons, making Laine suspicious something is up. But Laine goes on to the game.

Back alone in the house, Debbie experiences some strange things and soon is dead, having hung herself.

In the days following the tragedy, Laine, grappling with the guilt that she was unable to prevent Debbie’s suicide, begins to sense something else is going on. Conveniently, Debbie’s parents decide to leave town for a while to recover from their sorrow, asking  Laine to watch the house during their absence. Also, Laine, whose mother is no longer around (either split from the marriage or dead — it is never revealed), is left with her rebellious  sister Sarah (Ana Coto) while her father is on a business trip. This gets the parents out of the way.

Laine discovers the Ouija board at the Galardi house, not aware it supposedly was burned. Giving in to her intuitions that Debbie might be trying to contact her, Laine drafts four other people to join her in a seance at the Galardi house: Sarah, Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) and Isabelle (Bianca Santos).

The Galardi house is the epitome of a place with a bad history — two-story, old and creaky, and despite having numerous lights throughout always seems to be dark. Some unusual events occur during the seance held by the young people, but nothing substantive results from the attempt to contact the dead.

However, over the next few days, four of the young people encounter the same message in various ways — written on a wall with chalk, etched on a desk, appearing on a laptop screen and scrawled on window condensation — leading them to believe it is indeed an attempt by Debbie to contact them.

So the Ouija board is hauled out again, but soon the young people discover there is something more sinister going on. Here is where the screenplay by White and Snowden gets bogged down in yet another haunted house story. Fans of such spooky stories will enjoy the appearance of Lin Shaye from the “Insidious” films, playing a different character but in a similar role as someone who may have an explanation for the creepy incidents. Also, Vivis Columbetti, who played the nanny Martine, a person who sensed evil things brewing before everyone else in “Paranormal Activity 2,” plays the Galardi housekeeper Nona, who counsels Laine on how to battle these nasty spirits.

“Ouija” does build some suspense, but the payoff scares just fall flat. Flickering lights, mysterious shadows, doors opening on their own and the creaks and pounding have become mundane after so many uses in movies of this type.

Cooke, who starred as Jane Harper, the young woman supposedly possessed by a doll in “The Quiet Ones” earlier this year, anchors “Ouija” as Laine, a strong-willed young woman whose attempts to make sense out of a friend’s death unwittingly launches more peril around her. Unfortunately, other than Coto as Sarah, the sister who likes to sneak out at night with an older guy, none of the other characters has much personality. They are props whose role is to be terrified.

“Ouija” falls short of creating any substantial apprehension. When the secrets are finally revealed, they are not particularly startling. In the end, White and Snowden simply revisited the familiar themes of the ghost story movie.

Jacob Goodnight on the killer path again in ‘See No Evil 2’

These are exciting times for horror fans. There is so much talent out there, and with conventions and film festivals, these people are getting opportunities to show their projects while social media help us horror aficionados to connect with kindred spirits and learn about these great new feature-length movies and shorts. Ah, the joys of discovering there are a lot of us who like our movies scary, gory, mind-boggling and disturbing.

Thanks to Screamfest Horror Film Festival held at the TLC Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, “See No Evil 2,” the latest directorial effort from Jen and Sylvia Soska, was given a big-screen presentation in the days before its release on VOD, iTunes and DVD/Blu Ray.

That “See No Evil 2” was not given a theatrical release was distressing to those of us who viewed the Soska twins’ “American Mary” and were eager to see their next venture. So, it was a treat having a screening in a nice big theater in front of viewers who love their horror good and bloody.

“See No Evil 2,” as the title reveals, is a sequel, and as such is bound by the restrictions of such follow-up films. It does not bring anything new to the table. With Glenn “Kane” Jacobs reprising his role as the vicious psychopath Jacob Goodnight, we know what is going to happen. Jacob is going to slaughter some people — just who and how are the mysteries.

The Soskas, whose jaw-dropping “American Mary” in 2012 served notice that these two ladies have enormous talent, received some financial muscle via WWE Studios when given the assignment of “See No Evil 2.” This movie should be considered as something of a warm-up, like a baseball player in the cage for batting practice — honing the skills. The Soskas were able to make “American Mary” look like a movie with major financial backing while working with a small budget. Now given expanded resources, they have put together a film in “See No Evil 2” that takes a predictable story line and molds it into a beautifully choreographed and photographed piece of horror mastery.

The script by Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby picks the story up where the original “See No Evil” left off, in the aftermath of Jacob’s killing spree and his own supposed death. Jacob’s body, along with those of his victims, are deposited in the morgue while only three staffers are present — the minimal graveyard shift. The staffers include Amy (Danielle Harris), Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and the wheel-chair bound Holden (Michael Eklund). It’s Amy’s birthday and although her shift is about to end, she volunteers to stay and help Seth deal with the incoming bodies, canceling post-work celebration plans.

Thus, some of Amy’s friends, and her brother, pay a surprise visit to the morgue for a late-night impromptu party. The arrivals are Tamara (Katharine Isabelle from “American Mary”), her boyfriend Carter (Lee Majdoub), Amy’s brother Will (Greyston Holt) and Kayla (Chelan Simmons), who has designs on Will.

The character development is effective in that while these people may be flawed, they also have good traits, and none deserve to die. Isabelle’s Tamara is the weirdest of the bunch, and her portrayal is a real departure from her turn as Mary Mason in “American Mary.” She is creepy but funny and her party-time proclivities lead to what is likely to be the most talked about scenes in “See No Evil 2,” some antics that are darkly humorous and have the viewer on edge in anticipation.

Jacob, with his right eye poked out, is first seen laying on a slab, seemingly cold meat. When he suddenly disappears from the slab, it’s party over. Time for terror.

The Soskas love horror movies, and this is evident in the atmosphere, tone and style of they set in “See No Evil 2.” They have taken the morgue, the venue for this kill-fest, and turned it into an unwitting accomplice to Jacob, with its deadly maze of corridors, locked doors, stairwells, elevators that are never available at the right time and windows too small to let in the bright, living world. And the Soskas, bless their hearts, opted for steadier camera work instead of the jerky motions of handhelds that can mar otherwise splendidly heart-pounding action sequences.

The Soskas dialed back a bit on the graphic gore, but that does not diminish Jacob’s ferocity. The horrifying killer almost seems at home in the morgue. He also knows his way around the facility better than the employees.

The cast, led by Harris as Amy, the most level-headed of the group amid the bloodbath, does a credible job of infusing life into the characters before they segue into the next stage of the movie, trying to avoid being killed. Jacobs is a formidable physical presence, a man whose massive silhouette against a lighted backdrop can induce chills in even the most hard core horror fan.

“See No Evil 2” is a solid effort, 90 minutes of what one expects from the crazed killer theme. It has a few surprises in it despite the standard blueprint. It’s a safe bet that upon future viewings, things will be spotted in the movie that were not noticed before.

‘Dracula Untold’ revisits the most famous vampire of them all

Vampire stories have become so prevalent in the horror movie genre, right up there with zombies, that it was inevitable the top blood-sucker of them all, Dracula, would be revisited.

Gary Shore, who has directed commercials for popular brands of products, along with the writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, have put together as their first major major feature the movie “Dracula Untold.” Unlike previous Dracula films wherein the vampire has been around and fed off the blood of humans for centuries, “Untold” focuses on how this person became a vampire in the first place.

The notion that author Bram Stoker based Dracula on Vlad III of Transylvania — also know as Vlad the Impaler — has been speculative. There is a passage in chapter three of the “Dracula” novel that makes references to the dark times in which Vlad lived, and later Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing is quoted as believing Dracula came from that era.

Shore, Sazama and Sharpless build upon that speculation and portray Vlad / Dracula as a more sympathetic character than history has.

In the 1400s, the Turks were the conquerors of territories and exploited Transylvania by claiming 1,000 of the country’s boys, enslaving them and training them to become killers for their army. Among those taken by the Turks was Vlad, who would grow up and become the feared and legendary Vlad the Impaler.

As an adult, Vlad (Luke Evans) has returned to the Castle Dracula and is a beloved prince in his homeland Transylvania. There has been a fragile peace with the Turks and it is a time of prosperity.

While out patrolling in the wilderness near the castle, Vlad and some of his soldiers come across a Turkish helmet. Fearing the Turks are sending out spies, they investigate and end up inside a cave on Broken Tooth Mountain. There they tragically encounter some sort of savage being. The shaken Vlad returns home and soon learns from Brother Lucian (Paul Kaye), that what they found in that cave was a man who had made a pact with a demon that of course betrayed him, leaving this man cursed to living in the dank cave for eternity as a vampire.

Shortly thereafter, Transylvania’s Easter festivities are interrupted by messengers for the latest Turk Sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who announce that the ruler is renewing the decree that Translyvania give up 1,000 of its boys to be trained for the Turkish army. This order also includes Vlad’s son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Since Vlad and Mehmed grew up together, the prince believes he can talk his old childhood buddy out of this ruling.

But Mehmed (Cooper at his strutting, villainy best) brushes off any alternative proposal by Vlad, even insisting that Vlad can always have another son, replacing the one he will be giving up.

Vlad barely gets home when a half-dozen Turks arrive to claim Ingeras. In addition, they foolishly taunt Vlad, a fatal mistake.

Knowing that Mehmed will be sending a vast army he and his people will not be able to repel, the desperate Vlad returns to Broken Tooth Mountain in hopes of harnessing some of that power from the cursed vampire residing in the cave.

The  vampire is played by Charles Dance, and he sees this as an opportunity. If he can pass on his vampire curse to Vlad, he will be free to escape the cave and carry out revenge on his betrayer. Vlad must drink some of the vampire’s blood, which will give him enormous power, but only for three days. However, if Vlad succumbs to the what will be a ravenous appetite for blood in those three days, he will become a vampire for eternity.

“Dracula Untold” now presents the challenge of whether Vlad can defeat the Turks in three days and whether he can resist the temptation of drinking blood. Also, Vlad needs to stay out of the sun.

Evans, who was the lethally calculating Driver in the 2012 blood-fest “No One Lives,” presents Vlad as a man who has managed to maintain a perspective on his ultra violent past and now savors the peaceful life with his wife Merina (Sarah Gadon) and son. He is a strong and wise leader of his people. Backed into a corner, he must risk it all to save his people from an unyielding force. Evans has a commanding screen presence and adequately conveys a man tormented by the forces that lead him to making such perilous decisions.

“Dracula Untold” is beautifully shot among a dark and foreboding backdrop. Unfortunately,  the battle scenes are choppy and hard to follow. It is earnest in its presentation, and aside from Vlad, Merina, Ingeras and the Vampre, the supporting characters are basically scenery with little to make them memorable.

The movie’s ending also points to this being a reboot of the Dracula franchise.


‘Annabelle’ triggers a few chills but little else

What you get with “Annabelle” is a potpourri of scary movie elements, including the creepy toy or doll, lights flickering, interruptions in TV or radio transmissions, furniture moving on its own, strange noises, uninvited spiritual visitations, doors closing by themselves, spooky hallways and basements and children or babies in peril.

What you do not get is a lot of originality or truly terrifying moments.

The screenplay by Gary Dauberman details a simple story, one that has been told before. Some object is brought into a household, in this case a doll that is about three feet tall. Shortly after this doll is in place, bad things happen, and even a change in residence does not relieve the victims of terror.

“Annabelle” takes place in the months after the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by members of the Charles Manson “family” in 1969. A young couple, John and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), live in a nice neighborhood in Santa Monica. John is about to begin his medical internship and Mia is late in a pregnancy with their first child.

Mia is an expert at sewing and collects dolls, and one day John presents her with the one doll she has been coveting, the one that will be the biggest in her collection. A couple of horrible events soon follow that lead to discarding of the doll and convincing John and Mia to move. Also, their daughter Lea is born.

With John working at the Huntington hospital in Pasadena, the couple relocate to an apartment building in that city, and even though the doll had been thrown away at the Santa Monica residence, it somehow manages to appear in the Pasadena apartment. Despite that strange occurrence, Mia elects to keep it.

With John putting in long hours at the hospital, Mia is home alone with the baby and per usual in these chillers, strange things begin to happen, escalating from annoyances to terror. Mia, meanwhile, is befriended by Evelyn (Alfre Woodward), the owner of a local bookstore and a woman who has endured tragedy in her life.

As spooky events continue, John and Mia turn to their church and seek help from Father Perez (Tony Amendola). Eventually Evelyn also gets involved with helping Mia.

At this point, the expectations are that John and Mia may be betrayed by people they trust, people with diabolical motivations. This adds an element to the movie, which suffers from lack of effective creepiness. There are a couple of good, jolting scenes, but the overall effect is a mildly chilling movie.

Horton and Wallis are an attractive young couple, and the interplay between Wallis and the always watchable Woodard adds some touching moments to the proceedings.

“Annabelle” may hook some viewers who are drawn into the creepy-doll genre of horror films. Those who like their scares to be more intense will find “Annabelle” to be ho-hum.