Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

I was about to write The Conjuring off as just another haunted house flick, but then I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the back story, and it piqued my interest. It's not simply an isolated story about a family moving into a haunted house, but it introduces the real life characters Ed and Lorraine Warren, a demonologist and clairvoyant, who spent their lives helping people deal with hauntings. Intriguingly, they spent a lot of their time debunking people's fears over everyday occurrences (like leaky pipes making noises at night), but also saw enough action to collect a whole room filled with haunted antiques and trinkets, almost like souvenirs of every ghost or demon they came up against.

The Conjuring introduces these characters (played by Patrick Wilson - I imagine not coincidentally, James Wan, who directed Insidious, also starring Patrick Wilson, directs this feature - and Vera Farmiga), then focuses on what has been described as the most disturbing case they ever participated on. That should be enough to get you interested, but in spite of the hype, it develops quite like other stories you've heard before (I'm looking at you, Amityville Horror). A family with five growing girls moves into a country house in Rhode Island and is subsequently tormented by a malevolent paranormal entity. The requisite noises, sightings, smells, and various poltergeist activity occur, prompting the involvement of the Warren team, before this demonic haunting escalates to the level of full-on possession, requiring an exorcism.

As a horror buff, I am quite used to going to the theater (on the rare occasion that I do), and sitting in a practically empty auditorium, while everybody else is watching the latest blockbuster or animated feature. To my surprise, the theater was packed for The Conjuring (and I mean packed - like, I think a few people were actually sitting in the aisles). This was probably because I ended up seeing it on a Saturday night, at the only theater in town, on opening weekend; but nevertheless, I was halfway pleased and halfway frustrated to learn that there were still people (including lots of young people) who are not genre buffs, who still like to go to a horror movie on occasion to get a good scare. I could tell that there was a lot of that sentiment in the theater that night.

Which is great, but also a little frustrating, because there was a lot of giggling at inappropriate moments (I know people have a tendency to laugh when they're nervous, but this was a bit much), and people breaking the tension in those suspenseful moments because you could tell they hadn't developed as thick a skin as you for those anticipatory scares (where you know something's coming, and you just have to wait for it to strike...or not (cue whimpering teenagers :p)). With that said, it's a credit to this movie that it still managed to genuinely scare me in some parts, despite the reigning atmosphere in the theater. It doesn't nearly reach the level of, say, Paranormal Activity - however, I'm glad to see that some of the techniques used in PA are being adapted to more traditional perspective ghost movies (night time leg pulling was particularly prevalent in this movie).

To sum up my opinion on this movie, I think it was a really fun and effectively scary haunted house movie. It builds to an exciting climax, and it certainly has some unique elements that set it apart from every other haunted house movie you've seen. At the same time, those elements are maybe not quite strong enough, and you do kind of come out of the movie thinking, "well, that was great, but it didn't really show me anything I haven't seen before". In the media, the movie is being compared to both Poltergeist and The Exorcist, and while it does create a captivating meld of the two scenarios, as an exorcist movie it simply can't compare (as no exorcist movie I've seen can) to the exhausting battle between good and evil in The Exorcist, and as a ghost movie, it still doesn't quite reach the level of extravagance that made Poltergeist so memorable.

And here's something a little more personal. When I see a ghost/haunted house/possession movie, I'm always excited when the medium or paranormal investigator explains that the entity in question is not a ghost - the spirit of a deceased person - but a demon - something far more sinister, and more powerful, that has never walked the Earth in human form. This is a popular trend in horror (as opposed to, say, paranormal drama), for obvious reasons - as it makes a more exciting (and scary) story. But I'm always inevitably disappointed because when I hear demon, I want to see some kind of evil, otherworldly, inhuman monster, but you almost never get to see it - only its indirect manipulation of physical objects, or if it possesses a human, nothing more than fx to make a human face scary.

I mean, Ed Warren describes himself as a "demonologist". I don't have any formal education or anything, but I've spent some time studying demonology because - even though I don't believe in it, I think it's a fascinating subject. And in a movie about demons and demonologists, I'd love to hear more about demonology, and get to actually see some demons wreaking havoc the way they love to do. I mean, if the only difference between a demon and a ghost is that a demon is more aggressive and less sympathetic, then it's still practically a ghost, just a stronger, meaner one.

And I would also love a deeper exploration of the supernatural rules that govern these spirits and the way they affect the physical world. I think there's typically the trend to rely on Christian (and sometimes other belief systems) mysticism, in this case presuming that there's a God, and that people have souls, and that if a demon possesses you, only the power of Christ can compel it to leave your body, and etc. I'm not saying you can't use that framework, but it shouldn't be a crutch to avoid explaining how all these things work. I know, if you just want to tell a spooky story to creep people out, the why of it all doesn't much matter. But I think that, not only would it be more original, but it would also be far more interesting if you went in to the mechanism behind what's happening, even so far as to dig into that spirit realm where all this turmoil is originating. Insidious actually did that, to some extent, which contributes to the originality of that picture. But I want to see more, and I want to see it as much in the context of straight horror as dark fantasy.

I swear, if I were a screenwriter or a filmmaker...

Anyway... I may not be able to say that The Conjuring is a groundbreaking or truly unforgettable movie, but (in spite of whatever criticisms I might have) it is an effective horror, and it does manage to make itself memorable among the recent slew of movies involved with the theme of hauntings and exorcism. And if you like those kinds of movies, then you should definitely see this one. Alternatively, if you're more of a casual fan, and just want something in a fun scare, it's pretty much guaranteed that your girlfriend will be all over you through this one. ;-)


  1. I'm not going to lie, the first time I saw an ad for The Conjuring, it looked so cliche I thought it was a parody!

    But that crowded theater was no fluke, it's an enormous success. Like, it broke the record for highest selling opening weekend for a horror film. Although apparently the record it broke was set by The Purge like a month ago, so it's hard to say how long this record might last...

    So I guess it must be pretty good. Glad to have an opinion from someone who I can trust on it. And as far as demons go, I agree 110%. So few movies really give the demonic money shot, it's tragic. Be sure to watch John Carpenter's second Masters of Horror episode (for season 2) "Pro-Life" for at least a little bit of demon action.

  2. The Purge? Really? Wow. I wanted to see that movie - it has a fantastic premise, but I've heard that the execution was lacking. (Violence/murder would hardly be my first choice if all crime were legal for a day :p). So rather than go to the theater, I figured I'd wait and watch it at home some time.