The Conjuring

July 24, 2013

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I rarely find horror movies scary, and though that’s a really terrible way of opening a review of a horror film, it’s relevant to what follows.  When I find one scary, it is usually down to the ideas that are expressed (and, obviously, in the way they are expressed).  As someone who does not believe in the Christian God, the notion of a purely Christianity-centric “demons vs. God” scenario carries absolutely no weight with my subconscious.  As such, I can appreciate The Exorcist but can’t really connect with the many who deem it to be terrifying.  Outside of that granddaddy of horror, the only exorcism-based film I didn’t find completely tedious was Requiem, a German film from 2006 that is a lot more of an investigation into a person’s psychological condition than a straight-up crosses-to-flesh horror.  So with the massive caveat that I didn’t find The Conjuring scary, I did find it very enjoyable due solely to the craftsmanship on display.  It is something of an old-school haunted house film incredibly well executed.

I’ve managed to miss everything director James Wan has done since the first Saw film – including the very well-regarded Insidious – so I was taken aback at how confident The Conjuringi was from it’s earliest scene (which also had to advantage of being capped by one of the best opening titles of the year – perfectly evocative of both the era and the mood).  The early scenes of your typical family bliss/light troubles moving into a house are very informative of the geography of the space.  Wan understands the need to establish such things early, or else the scares to come won’t seem rooted enough to take hold.  Not that you can’t see it coming back for probably the creepiest segment of the film, but the “Hide and Clap” game does double duty in regards to the upstairs spaces.  Wan and the script by Chad and Carey Hayes establish the heroes of the piece as the (in)famous paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) early on, which gives an added drive after the early sequences of the Perron family experiencing the supernatural activity.  Switching to perspective of the Warrens not only helps with some relatively smoothly handled exposition, but presents us with a “what the hell do we do” horror to counter the “what the hell is going on” reaction of the Perrons.  Wilson and Farmiga give a solid grounding to the proceedings, even if the film is very quick to establish them as credible and honest people (there’s a brief scene where they explain to a family that the noises in their house are rationally explained, thus banishing all thoughts of hucksterism).

This is hugely functional for the film and what it wants to do, but is also emblematic of its greatest problem – a word I use quite loosely here.  There’s a story to be told about the Warrens and their real life adventures and probable charlatanism, but to explore that would damage the thrills.  The Conjuring just asks us to accept that these two people are correct, and in a larger sense, that the Christian God and the Catholic Church and Satan’s minions (be they witches or demons) are real.  As someone who can’t easily accept these things, I couldn’t get drawn in to the world or its reality quite so easily.  For those who can, this should hum along beautifully.  In the end, this film doesn’t ask us to think about anything, and for me, the scares could never really materialize as a result.  As I said, ideas are what frighten me, not just trying to be empathetic to a haunting situation.  Without some kind of thematic undercurrent or emotional resonance other than “wow they’re a sweet family we need to save them” (as Lorraine is fond of reminding us), I’m not going to be drawn into their predicament.

Still, I can appreciate the skill with which that predicament is presented.  There are some the creepiest, most effective jump scares around here.  It’s also honest with its universe, eschewing the lazy ending that so many modern horror films do that usually wreck everything that came before.  It’s a self-contained world and it escalates just as it should.  Absolutely no major leaps need be taken once you accept the original premise that is established very early.  This plays about as fair as any recent horror film has, and for that we should be grateful.  It’s pacing is spot on, as it is almost relentless (but crucially “almost”) without being overwhelming, building to a hurried, nightmare pitch without ever seeming overbaked.  It earns its scares through its editing and its cinematography (just enough darkness to be effective without falling into a fantasyland) and the intelligence of its set pieces.  It’s a well-tuned scream machine, but it is still a machine – lacking a heart and a brain.

-M

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One Response to “The Conjuring”

  1. CMrok93 Says:

    Not a big fan of the horror genre, but I had a good time with this one no matter how many times I could see stuff coming. Nice review M.


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