Friday, 25 May 2018

Superhero fatigue? Marvel has the cure... and it's horrific.

By the time you're reading this post, Marvel's Infinity War is likely one of the most successful movies ever made, and its run in the cinema is far from over. Whilst it faces some tough box-office opposition in the form of Jurassic World: the Fallen Kingdom, the predecessor of which outperformed the first Avengers movie in 2012, it is likely to sit at the 2nd or 3rd most successful films of all time by summer's end. But with the movie being touted very much as the first part of a two-part culmination of the ten years of Marvel movies, one has to ask, after the second part brings that ten years to a definitive close and with many of the lead actors departing, can a new chapter of Marvel movies capture audiences in the same way as the original chapter did? If not, Marvel has a horrifying secret weapon up its sleeve, a perfect antidote to the oft-predicted 'Super-hero fatigue'...

A wealth of horror-based characters to appeal to a more mature audience. 

Whilst the success of Black Panther earlier this year and the tantalising possibility of Marvel studios obtaining the rights to the Fox licenced Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises as a result of the Disney/Fox merger, seem to bode well for the future of Marvel's superhero fare, surely there has to be a saturation point, some stage at which audiences become somewhat tired of superheroes.

As much as I love the Marvel films thus far, with a couple of exceptions, I can't deny that these films have a formula. Few of the films diverge from the light humour, quipping antagonist,  third-act cartoon action and crowd-pleasing moments, perhaps other than Thor: Ragnarok which saw director Taika Waititi attempting to break into almost pure comedy at times. Marvel should take a lesson from that film, which I found to be, not to be the best Marvel film but perhaps the most refreshing, and experiment with a different genre. But rather than pushing into straight comedy, I suggest another route...


Marvel has plenty of horror-themed heroes and villains. Cinema-goers are likely familiar with Blade and Ghost Rider, but less familiar with characters like Moon-Knight, Man-thing, Daimon Hellstrom, Brother Voodoo and Werewolf by Night. These and others have loosely formed into teams before such as the Legion of Monsters and more recently The Midnight Sons. If you suspect that these names or concepts are too goofy for Marvel to make them work, consider that this is a company that has made Rocket Racoon a more bankable character than Superman!

Heck, Marvel even has its own version of Dracula who has harassed various heroes including the X-Men since his introduction in the seminal 70's horror comic 'Tomb of Dracula'.

Do what Universal did!

Ask yourself what the first shared cinema universe was, it wasn't Marvel. Nor was it that brief glimpse of an Alien head in the Predator throne room in the climax of Predator 2. Or the Kaiju of Japanese monster movies. It was the Universal monsters who met who met up in films such as 'Frankenstein meets the Wolfman' (1943), 'House of Frankenstein' (1944) and 'House of Dracula' (1945). Sure they also shared this Universe with Abbott and Costello, but by that point interest in these crossovers had wained.

Another question. What is currently the second most popular 'shared universe' is cinema?

Here's a clue.. its distributed by Warner Bros.

If you said the DC comics universe you could probably make an argument for that, but the commercial failure of 'Justice League' which should have been their tentpole movie likely does not bode well for that line of films. Nor does the fact that the films have been divisive with audiences but generally panned by critics. What else does that leave us?

A franchise that you possibly didn't even realise was a shared universe 'The Conjuring Universe'.

As much is it pains me to say, the universe that features hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren as its Superman and Wonder Woman is probably the second most popular series of interconnected films currently in development. The four films thus far have garnered $1.2 billion dollars on relatively small budgets making them extremely profitable for Warners and New Line Cinema.

Previous horror crossovers have enjoyed moderate success too. For example, 'Freddy vs Jason' (2003) earned New Line $113 million, making it the most successful Friday 13th film and the second most successful 'Elm Street' film. It likely would have done much better had it been released when it was originally teased when Freddy grabbed Jason's empty mask at the end of 'Jason goes to hell' (1993) ten years earlier.

Don't do what Universal did! 

One thing that may cause Marvel to reconsider pulling the trigger on a horror universe is Universal's failure to launch their 'Dark Universe' last year with the Tom Cruise vehicle 'The Mummy'. This shouldn't be too much of a deterrent though as Universal made some terrible mistakes in the marketing of 'the Mummy'.

Universal confidently started hyping the film as the start of their 'Dark Universe' and the first of a ten-film series before audiences had even seen it. This was a rookie move that doomed the franchise early. Marvel didn't do that with 'Iron Man' (2008) they just dropped hints that this was the way in which they were heading with Nick Fury's appearance in the now standard post-credits sequence. This meant audiences could enjoy the film for what it was, a fun-action adventure without the pressure of investing in future films. Marvel played it smart and waited to see how audiences would react to the idea.

Likewise, the original 'The Conjuring', a perfectly enjoyable horror let the movie speak for itself if New Line knew they'd be creating various spin-offs they played their cards close to their chest. Even DC, at Warner's, who have made some pretty critical errors didn't telegraph their intentions early. This may well have saved their necks as the movie the studio intended to the first of their 'shared universe' was the disastrous Ryan Reynolds starring Green Lantern. If that had been heralded as the first of a shared universe it would have likely killed the franchise then and there.

Also, Universal specifically designed 'the Mummy' to be a Marvel-like adventure. It even had the city wrecking third act. This just confused audiences and failed to mark out any differences between them and Marvel and they suffered for it.

The third mistake... Universal started their universe with a property that audience was already familiar with. The Brendan Fraiser starring 'Mummy' series only ended in 2008 and audiences likely remembered its slapstick, lighthearted approach and were perplexed by the tonally inconsistent Alex Kurtzman effort that sat before them.

Universal would have been well-advised to start with a less well-recognised property, 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' or 'the Invisible-man' perhaps and worked hints to other characters in gently instead of ramming their planned slate of films down audience's throats with Russell Crowe appearing in a narrative-halting scene as Doctor Jekyll mid-movie.

And it's a relatively unknown property that I think Marvel should start their horror universe with.

Marvel's Hidden horrors...

I wouldn't suggest starting with those characters I named above. Ghost Rider maybe too familiar at this stage and Man-Thing a step too odd for a first experimental foray into horror.  I'd suggest a character who was first introduced as a Spider-man villain, Morbius, the Living Vampire. Morbius has the potential to be an archetype that both the horror and super-hero genres thrive on, a tragic character with a self-inflicted curse, fighting a darker nature and a striking, creepy as hell appearance.
In his comics iteration, Morbius is a brilliant scientist inflicted with a terrible blood-disease, whose attempts to cure himself turn him into a 'pseudo-vampire' with an unquenchable blood-lust. It's that blood-lust that causes him to murder his lab assistant and numerous others. If he doesn't consume blood, he transforms into a more feral, more monstrous form which he can't control. This leads him to consume the blood only of criminals and the guilty, a pledge that has brought him into conflict with Marvel's heroes and villains alike.

Including Blade.

Blade, horror and superheroes: a proven success.

It may be hard to imagine, but there likely wouldn't be a Marvel cinematic universe without Blade simply because, before the release of the 1998 Wesley Snipes-starring New Line original, comic book movies simply weren't considered financially viable by studios. As laughable as it now sounds with a comic-book movie in cinemas poised to take in excess of $2bn. Only Batman and Superman had successful film franchises at the time and both were on the wane, to say the least. A Tim Burton-helmed, Nick Cage-starring Superman reboot had failed to get off the ground and 1997's 'Batman and Robin' all but killing that property. No one really wanted to touch superheroes.

Blade, a film starring a Marvel character barely heard of since the 1970's, changed that. Even though its financial success didn't set the world on fire, it showed that superhero movies were worth the risk. Even more obscure characters could be profitable. This spurred Fox on to develop their first 'X-Men' movie released in 2000 and Columbia to start work on a Spider-man project which had struggled to get off the ground for decades.

After Blade, the horror/superhero mantle was seized by a non-Marvel property, Hellboy, played by Ron Pearlman and helmed by Guilmero del Torro, who also directed the Blade sequel. The franchise which spawned two films and enjoyed moderate success is set to be relaunched this year with a strong horror angle.

At this point, isn't it worth a try?

Look, I love Marvel films and superhero films in general, and I want to see the studio to produce them for a long time, but the key to prolonged success is variety. One formula isn't going to sustain Marvel for another ten years, no matter what properties they re-acquire. There's only so many times we can see the original Iron-Man rehashed in a slightly different context as we arguably did with 'Doctor Strange' (2016). As a final example of why this is a good idea, consider 'Deadpool' (2016) and 'Logan' (2017). Whilst I haven't really been a fan of Fox's Marvel-related output, these movies reflected genuine attempts to do something different with the Superhero genre. They proved that audiences would accept other genres infiltrating and influencing their superhero films. One could argue that neither film went quite far enough in trend breaking with their respective third acts slipping into familiar tropes like 'hero fights a darker version of themselves' which has plagued the genre since 'Iron-Man'. The genuinely affecting 'Logan' especially plays more like a western in theme than a superhero film and it's much better for it.

Blade shows us, they'll accept a horror blend too.

Marvel, bring on the Monsters! 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

A look back at "I Was Raped By A Demon": Ed and Lorraine Warren on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show (1992)

I'm pretty certain that almost everyone reading this post is familiar with the "Haunting In Connecticut" case investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren back in the early 1990s. The incident was documented in the 1992 book "In A Dark Place" (left) by horror author Ray Garton, who has spent his time since the novel's publication declaring that it was a complete fabrication. Garton tells of Ed demanding that he make the book as scary as possible, even if it meant completely inventing elements of supposed haunting. Garton states:“Elements of Carmen Snedeker’s story clashed with elements of Al Snedeker’s story, and it seemed everyone was having a problem keeping their stories straight. Frankly, I didn’t notice until I had nearly finished all my interviews and began going over my notes, then I started having trouble matching up the details. Ed told me 'make it up and make it scary'”

I highly recommend listening to Garton's interview with MonsterTalk here, it's a doozy. You're also very likely to be familiar with the 2009 film based on the case.  You may even be acquainted with the 2002 documentary produced by the Discovery Channel, also named  A Haunting In Connecticut. But what you may be less familiar with is Carmen and Al Snedeker's appearance with Ed and Lorraine Warren on 1990s daytime television show Sally Jesse Raphael. The show truly has to be seen to be believed. 

The title alone "I Was Raped By A Demon" should tell you the level of discussion on display here. A major part of the show's focus was the idea that both Carmen and Al were sexually abused, and even sodomised by demons. Ironically, Garton tells us in the above-linked interview, that Carmen hated that feature of his novel and petitioned hard for its removal. Yet here she is the same year, with her husband happily climbing on to a bed to demonstrate and recount in some detail how she was abused. Money talks and bullshit walks I guess.

The show begins with Sally giving a rundown of Carmen and Al's story (or Garton's depending on your position I guess) with stock doom-laden music and creepy images. If this gives you the impression that Carmen and Al's account will be accepted wholesale, you're mistaken, The Audience is loaded with local residents who strongly dispute the Snedeker's tale and boy are they going to tell them so! Remember, this is a 90s daytime talk show on US network TV, two factors dominate these shows. Sex and conflict.

In addition to Carmen and Al, the family is represented by son Michael and niece Kelly who lived with them at the time. Kelly, in particular, looks less than thrilled to be present, and there's very good reason for this. I'd actually say she is collateral damage in this whole tale. Carmen's son Stephen, the main focus of both the book and the film, who was said to be suffering from Hodgkins Lymphoma at the time of the haunting. This is hardly a surprise, firstly "Stephen" is actually Phillip, there is no Stephen Snedeker. Also, whilst researching his book Garton says he  was only allowed to speak to Phillip once on the telephone. During the conversation, Phillip revealed he was the first in the house to see ghosts and that these sightings ceased when he began treatment for schizophrenia. Garton claims that the phone was quickly snatched from Phillip by Carmen who immediately ended the call. He was not part of any publicity for the book, film and documentary after this. To my knowledge, to the day of his death in 2012, Phillip had never talked publically about what occurred at that time. Unfortunately, there's a more serious reason for this and his exclusion from the show than his simple failure to toe the line with regards to the haunting.

During the show, Kelly is asked to recount her experiences being sexually abused in the house. Unlike Carmen's claims of being sodomised as she washed dishes and ran down the road, which are delivered rather sterilely, Kelly is clearly uncomfortable and upset as Carmen talks about cold hands under her bedclothes and pulling at her bra, on Kelly's behalf. The reason for this may well be because Kelly WAS sexually abused in the Snedeker household.

Unlike with the demonic assaults that Carman and Al claim to have suffered, there's corroborative evidence for Kelly's ordeal. This abuse wasn't perpetrated by a ghost or any demon though. Phillip (left), the Snedeker's eldest son, was removed from the Snedeker home at some point during the "haunting" by the police. He was accused of sexually abusing Carmen and Al's two nieces, including Kelly, and confessed to the abuse and also attempting to rape his 12-year-old cousin. He was placed in juvenile detention where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When questioned about her son leaving the house, Carmen claims he was hospitalised, she also claims she had him diagnosed by a psychiatrist. This is patently untrue. 
Knowledge of all this makes Carmen's urging that Kelly "tell her story" on the show, and her then stopping Kelly to tell her version of events for her, even more disgusting. Carmen seems nervous when other members of the family talk, and this is most notable when Kelly speaks. In my opinion, she's concerned that Kelly may slip about Phillip's role in her abuse.

I wonder if Carmen actually managed to persuade this young woman that it wasn't her son that abused her, but the black mass that she describes. During the show, and a subsequent investigation by Joe Nickell (more on him in a moment), further details of Phillip's activities emerged, including drug use and criminal behaviour including breaking into neighbour's homes.

Carmen's demeanour during the whole interview is off somewhat, she seems angry and defensive from the offset and as a sceptical audience member points out, both her's and Al's stories seems highly rehearsed, for example, Carmen frequently refers to her son Phillip as "the eldest boy" careful not to name him. She's also very quick to interrupt other family member's accounts to elaborate or correct them. Throughout the interview, she clutches rosary beads. She handles the audience questions with abject and outright hostility. When questioned if she sought medical attention after being raped by a demon, Carmen snaps "No. Why would we?" Why indeed? Carmen also contradicts herself at several points, For example, she insists she sent Phillip to a psychiatrist because she didn't believe his story, yet she too claims to have not only seen spirits by this stage but to have raped by them!

Legitimate concerns with the Snedeker account are raised by residents of the area, including the present residents of their home. Carmen laughably pounces on the current residents, insisting they too had an exorcism, which they deny. She then has them confirm that there are hardwood floors in the building, which they do as if this somehow confirms the Snedeker's story. Carmen tells the couple to dig into the walls 12" to discover "exorcism metals" and "other stuff" which will prove their story is true. The most common complaints brought to the Snedeker's are that stories of problems with the home, including the "demonic presence" and claims they were unaware of the home's history as a funeral parlour, only arose when the Snedeker's fell behind with their rent. Also, the quite ridiculous idea that despite being frequently raped and sodomised by demons, Carmen and Al remained in the house for almost two full years!

One neighbour, rather brilliantly, has kept a log connecting the events that the Snedekers reported to the papers and local events occurring in the neighbourhood.

It's now time for Ed and Lorraine Warren to appear. This is when Ed makes one of the most disgusting claims I've ever heard made concerning the paranormal, the reason for this haunting was that bodies had been subjected to necrophilia whilst the house was a funeral home. The funeral director who had operated in the home was a well-known and much-respected member of the local community. Many of the local resident's loved ones had passed through that home at one time. Ed cared nothing for this or the potential upset and harm that could've arisen from this completely false and disgusting allegation. When people ask me why I loathe Hollywood's portrayal of Ed and Lorraine so much, I frequently point to this show. Ed is an absolute bully of a man, completely without class. There's none of the quick wit or charm displayed in Patrick Wilson portrayal of him on display here. He shouts down critics of the Snedeker's story, even going as far as accusing them of being "paid off" be the owner of the house, and claiming money and fame as their motivation for attending the show. One sharp young lad responds to this by asking Ed if he is there in the studio for free, which fails to silence him for even a moment, he continues to bellow. 

You often judge people by your own standards, is it any wonder Ed prioritises money as a motive before any kind of reverence to the truth?

Ed claims that a priest conducted an exorcism at the home, as if that is any real validation of the events have actually occurred, but refuses to name him other than calling him "Father A". When a neighbour asks him to provide more information he angrily shouts "Why should I? Father A is the name I give you." as he angrily gestures at the young man in question. Perhaps so your account can be somewhat corroborated Ed?

 Ed's response to almost all this criticism is "were you in the house?" He laughingly attempts to invalidate the questions and opinions of anyone who wasn't in the house, and therefore isn't complicit in the hoax!

Ed also makes the claim at this point that they have "the proof" of the occurrences in the home. That's a question which Ray Garton also asked Ed during his research for "In A Dark Place". Ed told Garton that there were videotapes of "evidence", but they had rather inconveniently been destroyed. Presumably, why we see not a jot of evidence on the Sally show. 
Don't worry though, Ed has brought along an eye-witness to the occurrences in the house. Unfortunately, he fails to mention that this "eye-witness" whom he refers to as "that gentleman" is well-known to him, it's his apprentice and nephew, John Zaffis.
Zaffis has since made a killing, and career, on the Connecticut case. He has authored a book with Chip Coffey regarding the story and has worked with Carmen Snedeker, now Reed, in retelling her experiences in book form. Zaffis is often, also credited with being the lead investigator on the case, but it's clear from his appearance here that he has no real sway in the case. Ed refers to him only to offer back up and corroboration and he is never made a part of the main dialogue.
An audience member comes to the Snedeker's aid asking why they would fabricate this story when there are other ways of making money, a ridiculous argument, imagine that being deployed as a defence in a bank robbery case: "Your honour, why would my client rob a bank. There are other ways of making money!" The truth is, the Snedekers were following the advice of Ed Warren, who admits moments earlier he urged them to write a book. Ed and Lorraine were always envious of the success enjoyed by George Lutz and the Amytiville case, they'd attempted to cash in on that case and when that failed, had attempted to emulate it repeatedly. This was their latest and most successful effort. I believe the Snedeker's started this nonsense as an attempt to blackmail their landlord into dropping the arrears in rent they owed. When they involved the Warrens, the blue touch paper was lit. Secondly, Carmen had tried to make money other ways, as the book was being written she was, according to Ray Garton, running an illegal interstate lottery scam, which she was, understandably, keen he not mention in the text.

Now we come to the final five minutes of the show, or as I like to call this point: And now a word from our skeptic. TV shows rarely give skeptical voices much air time, and Joe Nickell's contribution here is also burdened by the fact that Ed Warren constantly shouts over him. Ed clearly does not want Nickell to be heard, and even urging from the show's host cannot curtail his angry shouting. The exchange is actually immortalised in the Conjuring 2, with Nickell (left) replaced with a pudgy balding "scientist". Of course, Ed comes off the better in that fictional exchange, but Nickell takes him to the cleaners in the real version, correctly decrying Warrens as a loud-mouth. 

Nickell also has to deal with the hectoring of Carmen Snedeker, who seems to believe that denouncing Nickell as an atheist is a blow to his credibility. "This man doesn't even believe in God. What would he know?" she cries, somehow winning the argument that exists in her own head.
Whilst being hectored, Nickell makes excellent points about the case, highlighting it's inconsistencies and it's similarities to the Amityville Horror amongst other cases and it's scheduling for release around Halloween.  Of course, one thing Joe misses possibly due to time constraints or even the fact that this wasn't common knowledge at the time, that killer blow to the credibility of this tale is the fact that the book's author is absent from this promotional appearance, for reasons we are now all too aware.

I see this 48 minutes of schlock television as somewhat important in view of the current reference in which the Warrens are held. Ed comes off as a brutish bully, unable to express any ideas without aggression, In fact, he frequently gestures right in Lorraine's face as she sits and blankly stares ahead. Lorraine simply doesn't speak. She actually seems apart from the debate raging around her, so much so that I have to wonder if she was medicated at the time of the show. The show also leaves little doubt as to how we should view the Snedeker's claims. Local residents simply demolish their story. Many elements of the show were seized upon by Nickell in a subsequent investigation into the case which is essential reading for skeptics and believers alike.