Skip to main content

Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today.

The Conjuring
(2013)

I was left disappointed by James Wan’s (nearly – he fast and furtiously got Insidious 2 out there a couple of months later) latest scare-fest. While I admire the director’s choice to tread a path of good old-fashioned frights rather than wallowing in grizzly dismemberments and arterial spray, one can still only go so far when distinctive content is beholden to formulaic scripting. Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes have in their possession ideal horror fodder in the shape of a tale ripped from the annals of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but they do almost nothing interesting with it. Wan has made an effectively creepy movie based on a possession theme and unseen forces lurking in dark corners of haunted houses, but he’s already done one of those with Insidious.


The Conjuring is a better movie than Insidious, chiefly because it has more compelling protagonists. The spooky games are almost interchangeable (Wan’s reliance on an accompaniment of over-enthusiastic strings was evident in Insidious; here it isn’t so much doffing its hat to horror movie history as plain clichéd), and the possession material is over-familiar. Some particularly schematic twists are thrown into the last third that aren’t so much calculated as shameless. This is also a more problematic movie than Insidious, for what it leaves unexplored.


Unsurprisingly, given its avowal of Christian theology, The Conjuring was marketed towards faith-based audiences as well as the usual horror crowd. Which would be fine, if it wanted to say something about the polarised mechanism of good and evil, angels and demons, it posits. What we get is angled more towards Hammer’s simplistic extremes than the post-William Peter Blatty philosophical debate of The Exorcist. As such, it feels like an opportunity has been missed. These are devout demon-busters, and the real Lorraine Warren has testified to the accuracy of the picture (one has to be a little cynical about this, unless her encounters really played out like the movies; after all, The Conjuring couldn’t be a better shock advertisement for the veracity of her belief system), yet, leaving aside for a moment the existence or otherwise of demonic possession, Wan and the Hayes have zero interest in examining the couple’s ideas. “God brought us together for a reason. This is it,” says Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine at one point, and that’s about the extent of it. The accompanying publicity material feeds into the makers’ Christianity-focused theme. If it’s not God, it must be the devil. But you’re left wondering why God-fearing folk, let alone responsible parents, would allow their young daughter access to a room full of possessed artefacts. Other than because it’s a Hollywood movie, that is.


The Hayes twins are to be commended for recognising the hook for a project that had been knocking around for more than a decade was to bring the Warrens to the centre. Otherwise, no wonder studios were passing on yet another indistinct possession/haunting storyline. With the duo leading the attention shifts to what sets this case apart to those experienced with the matters unknown; when the family were the focus, its just a sub-Poltergeist, sub-Amityville affair (of course, the Warrens inspired that latter movie too). Several articles have been written suggesting The Conjuring taps a vein of misogyny through setting up the antagonist as former witch now house and body-haunter. Worse still, it’s a slap in the face to the unjustly accused at the Salem trials. This is a ludicrous argument, given the broad canvas of possible subjects of evil in the anals of horror. Indeed, any crimes of The Conjuring with regard to the depiction of women seem quite innocuous in the context of the genre’s history The Salem connection makes a grand leap; that the Salem “witches” were innocent, therefore in horror movies all witches should be treated as innocent. But it is, perhaps, surprising – and underlines the movie’s Christian undercurrent – that no qualification is made for the “evil witch” in a post-Wiccan environment. The word has undergone rehabilitation in recent decades, and one only has to watch an episode of Buffy to know that care is generally taken to differentiate between the good (white witch) and the dark path.


Where the Hayes boys misfire isn’t really with the standard trop of the evil witch and the haunted family, it’s in the lack of insight into the Warrens themselves. They’ve affirmed that they wrote the script as believers, so I guess an unbiased approach would be too much to ask. Blatty managed spirited theological debate in Exorcist III: Legion, and didn’t short-change the scares either. The Conjuring has its protagonists give regular lectures at universities and use cutting-edge techniques with respect to recording devices and analysis of supernatural presences.


So this is really a no-frills scary movie masquerading as one with a bit more substance. It boasts the importance of a “true story” and leads Patrick Wilson (as Ed) and Farmiga deliver intelligent, low-key performances (with magnificent wardrobes and hair) that encourage you to forget the clunky dialogue. But this is a cheat. The couple’s beliefs amount to a couple of sentences, and there’s no interest in viewing their assumptions, methods or background (no doubt that dark encounter Lorraine has will be included in a sequel at some point) with a critical eye. None of this is essential to a skilfully made fear-fest but, like I say, it is settling for fast food when there was an opportunity to take in a first class restaurant.


There’s little that won’t be familiar to the least seasoned horror veteran; untoward goings on in darkened cellars, things on top of wardrobes, wall hangings suddenly smashing to the floor, pets meeting inappropriate ends. However, when Lorraine recounts her initial entrance into the Perron house and we see it from her point-of-view (“I’ve been seeing the dark entity that haunts your house and your land”) we’re treated to one of the movie’s few genuinely stirring moments; it is narratively imaginative rather than nuts-and-bolts shock tactics. Another effective touch comes with the bureaucracy of a church reluctant to grant an immediate exorcism, and even less keen to be involved with an unbaptised family.


Generally, though, Wan is more interested in tried-and-tested scares than nods towards narrative surprises or notions of authenticity. His establishing shots of the house are wonderfully atmospheric, approaching it with a nice ominous slow zoom. And he relishes the promise of the scare. Telling the audience there’s something there and leaving it dangling as the dread spirals. So there’s the Perron daughter who can see something in the corner of the room while her sister cannot (“Oh my God. It’s standing right behind you!”) Then there’s the possessed doll, which forms a rather dissatisfying subplot (it makes for a great prologue and scene-setter, but it should have been left there). And the instruction with a music box that “When the music stops you see him standing in the mirror behind you”.


As such, the director can’t resist over-egging the pudding. Instead of one force, there’s a menagerie of victims poised to show up and scare someone, anyone, silly. The crucial film footage delivered to a priest as evidence just happens to involve a wild ride derby of hair pulling across a kitchen floor (impressively staged, nevertheless, but also not a little silly). When Ed decides to administer the exorcism, the results are a model lack of restraint, with the bound subject et chair flying ceiling-wards and a rather laboured (and curiously tension-diffusing) attempt to ratchet up the ante by cutting away to one of the entity’s would be victims. I can’t help feeling this would have been more satisfying if a less flashy, more sober approach had been taken; does each new exorcism have to outdo the last movie exorcism in terms of dazzle? We know Wan can make a movie like this, but can he make one with a brain too?


Perhaps The Conjuring’s greatest asset is its cast; ironic that the best spell it can cast is in the form of flesh and blood performers. Besides Wilson and Farmiga, Lili Taylor is as good as always as a mother put through the mill, and Ron Livingston, not so high profile of late, convincingly essays a down-to-earth and baffled parent. Knowing Wan can assemble great casts and that he is technically proficient is one thing, though. Perhaps he knows he needs to play a different tune… which is why he’s gone to work with Vin Diesel next.  It’s probably a forlorn hope that the Conjuring sequel will veer a little more towards Warren biopic territory. While Lorraine is still giving her seal of approval, and Christian audiences keep showing up, why change the recipe?


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.