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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…