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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.