Although South African audiences don’t traditionally support horror films, there’s rarely a shortage of them at cinemas or on home release. Over the past few months, three female-fronted genre releases (two of them featuring the lesser-spotted older woman protagonist) have become available for download, streaming and traditional DVD purchase.
Out of The Nun, Winchester and Insidious: The Last Key, which is worth your time? The answer may not be what you expect.
The greatest strength of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 is that the main characters of these two haunted house/demonic possession tales – real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – are so likeable. In-between the seen-it-all-before demon taunts and earth-shaking exorcisms, they’re given the time and space to feel like a real, loving couple. They’re warm-hearted people committed to doing the right thing, in authentic-looking throwback settings.
So, of course, last year’s spin-off prequel The Nun completely ignores those strengths. Instead, it trots out a painfully repetitive series of clichés for 96 minutes as it delves into the origins of Valak, the nun-cosplaying demon that dominated The Conjuring 2 – and instantly became a contemporary horror icon.
The Nun actually looks and feels cheap – where the audience is supposed to be terrified by someone striding up and down cloister corridors in a habit, with a balaclava pulled over their features. This happens at least four times. But, hey, The Nun is the most financially successful of the movies in the Conjuring universe and it made box office records in South Africa.
There is literally one good idea in the film, which is that constant sacrosanct prayer is used for centuries to keep a demon at bay. Meanwhile, leads Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s younger sister) and Demián Bichir strive valiantly in their sketched roles, although it’s strange that in the midst of the film’s spine-snapping narrative contortions the filmmakers didn’t try to establish a link between Sister Irene here and Lorraine Warren given their resemblance to one another.
Despite the hype, The Nun is absolute trash – the epitome of lazy filmmaking as it coasts on its central concept. If you’re a Conjuring franchise fan, you’re likely to be possessed yourself by rage at the waste… and just how far the series has fallen into disgrace with this entry.
For some reason Winchester has been singled out by the Razzie Awards as being one of the worst movies of 2018. It’s a bit of a malicious pile-on because while there’s nothing new here, and the movie squanders potential all around – from its real-life haunted house inspiration to the casting of Helen Mirren – it’s still watchable.
The biggest problem is that a fascinating true story about the eccentric behaviour of Sarah Winchester (widow of the Winchester gun company’s founder) has been smothered in a PG-13 horror movie that is entirely unfrightening and feels like it was made for TV.
Also, we spend less time with Sarah and more with Jason Clarke’s laudanum-addicted doctor, sent by the Winchester board to assess Sarah’s mental state. Turning Mirren into a supporting player is a mistake as the screen electrifies every time she appears, 100% committed to conveying Sarah’s warped rationalisation of her actions. Clarke, meanwhile, is an unengaging lead.
Winchester looks good, but it’s mostly horror-lite and limp. Given its oddly constrained scope, the overall sense is that it would have worked better if it steered away from horror genre tropes and focused on being a character-driven drama that keeps the viewer guessing about perception vs. reality.
You won’t feel cheated by this one but you’re better off rewatching The Haunting of Hill House or The Woman in Black instead.
(For the record, you can read Craig’s review, and the opinion of Critical Hit readers here).
Insidious: The Last Key
Prequel Insidious: The Last Key is the fourth, and supposedly concluding chapter, in the Insidious series – another franchise kicked off by contemporary horror master James Wan. As the fourth movie, and the second chronologically, in the astral-projection-centred series, The Last Key is completely exclusionary to newcomers. If you haven’t watched at least the original film, this latest entry won’t make any sense to you as it’s leaden with references to its predecessors.
This said, of the trio of horror films profiled in this post, Insidious: The Last Key is by far the scariest. The opening sequence is especially strong. Unfortunately, this is the movie’s highpoint as The Last Key is middling overall, riddled with plot holes and unanswered questions as it milks the franchise’s central concept to dust.
Still, performances are strong in this tale, which delves into the traumatic childhood of Lin Shaye’s paranormal investigator Elsie Rainier. The film also doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely thanks to the presence of Elsie’s oddball sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). The design of The Last Key’s demon antagonist is also chilling.
Adding a little extra value for money, as a DVD release Insidious: The Last Key is packed with special features including several deleted and alternate scenes.
Last Updated: February 25, 2019