Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. This weekend, Annabelle has come out in theaters and made a ruckus over what was actually to me one of the more forgettable factors about a movie I actually found myself really enjoying when I liked it. But I have a mystery to solve tonight and it’s not why the fuck do people actually think a horror spin-off movie so fast-tracked that it was developed in the same weekend the original film came out and released little over a year after – suggesting that it’s a rushed cash-grab with little time given for quality – might be good. But instead, it’s how a movie that belongs to a genre that has by now been a laughingstock even amongst horror fans has become one of the best horror movies of the decade.
Let’s get this the fuck out of the way, first off. I wasn’t scared by The Conjuring. I was creeped out, intrigued, and maybe was watching my back on the long walk from the theater to my apartment, but I was never at a point where I said “Holy shit, I feel threatened or violated by this for a movie.” Of course, the theater I was in had a lot of people screaming, so I don’t want to outright say The Conjuring is not a scary movie, but all truth tossed in, it plays it pretty safe for a haunted house movie and especially recreates every beat and cliche you have seen in every damn modern haunted house ghost story, you have seen since the 00s. And we all know those movies are pretty much in the wrong place, horribly boring the snot out of you for the most part with completely terrible premises, ‘based on a true story’, the whole nine yards on that shit.
Where The Conjuring stands out is that it is still a fantastic film. Like, it’s seriously a really interesting piece of work.
How it gets away with this carbon copy of the haunted house template and yet completely evades the sinking of that ship as a genre, in the end, I will be unable to answer confidently. What I can do is guess and that’s what I’m going to be doing this whole review, looking at the movie piece-by-piece, trying to figure out how this combination of tropes turned out so right.
The movie is pretty much a showboat piece for Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), a husband-and-wife team (Lorraine insists that she is a medium) who made a name for themselves in real-life as paranormal investigators, best known for their involvement in “The Amityville Horror”. So yeah, based on that, you know exactly how full of shit they probably are in real life. But dismissing that fact for the movie, which is kind of a rule for watching anything – that suspension of disbelief – the Warrens get called in on a case by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, respectively) with their family of five children and dog. The Perrons have just moved into a last bastion of hope of a house, only to discover very quickly that, between sleepwalkings and imaginary friends, stuff is going wrong in the house. The Warrens start digging deeper and deeper and the two families together begin escalating the paranormal happenings to a more threatening level.
Now, that level of disbelief is essential to anyone. I like to think of myself as open to paranormal concepts, but when the chips are down, I don’t believe in half of the shit I see in horror films – I don’t believe in ghosts, monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, telekinesis or sharks. Ok, that last one was a joke, I totally believe in telekinesis. You see that Uri Gellar fella?
Anyway, the point is that when it comes to concepts like this, it is unfair but the movie has to sell it a lot more to me in order to get me onboard with you. If you can’t do that, I’m going to be biased towards a topic I don’t find plausible enough to entertain. It’s just who I am. But The Conjuring treats its subject with a great amount of respect and delivers it as a completely straight-laced picture. Especially considering how incredibly dedicated the Hayes brothers, the writers of the film, are to trying to convince us that it’s true. Well, at the risk of hurting their feelings, it convinces me in the world of the picture very well, even if not in the real world. But I guess I’m too much of a skeptic outside of the silver screen.
Anyway, we also got the picture of the film. A very surprising warm gray that I was unaware of was even capable of recreating in film (sometimes the technical aspects of a movie really astound me) blanketing an extremely lived-in home closed-in on by some of the most ominous looking woods you could never want to have surrounding your homey home. It has so many results for doing this: We get both a sense of domestication and ominous sinister motivations within the environment itself and we get this very familiar 1970s horror movie aesthetic that we really find neglected nowadays by every filmmaker who isn’t Ti West. It is quite the effect coming from director James Wan, who actually spent a career prior making mostly horror movies that disappointed me from Saw to Insidious Chapter Two.
Here, Wan shows he’s got it right, precisely going over each detail of the story to lend itself to the air of the film, rather than the air of the film lending itself to the story, which makes me think he wasn’t half as dedicated to the concept itself as the Hayes brothers were. What results is that, well, further revelations in the story of the Warrens and the Perrons don’t have really as much weight as information as they just do as scares – the reveal of the origins of the ghost just gives way to one more creepy shot we get to see involving a tree and what secrets it really hides; Ed’s confession about his and Lorraine’s last case just leads to giving more of a sense of urgency and danger to the situation as a whole than just being that “here’s a serious emotional moment where we reveal the true fragility of our characters” scene and so on. And that results in its ups-and-downs. On one hand, it blatantly neglects the importance of the story, which I can honestly live with but I can imagine others won’t. On the other hand, it makes the setting of this film more of a living breathing entity than it could have been if it just followed what the Hayes wrote line-by-line.
Yes, I’ll definitely take the latter over the former. Because this is a horror movie, first and foremost. And a haunted house film like Paranormal Activity and The Shining has a responsibility to bring out more of the inexplicable than just giving an answer to everything that’s happening. The reason movies like Paranormal Activity and The Shining rise above recent haunted house movies is their violent refusal to give a straight answer for everything, which would completely remove the unnerving feeling of “what is going on and why does it make me feel this way?”.
But The Conjuring, being based on a true story that ideally has a happy ending, can’t get away with that and thankfully doesn’t try. And while Wan gets to dodge that “we’ve rationalized and explained the ghost, Mulder! Now let’s exposition him the fuck away!” standard by, again, having the story seep into the overall mood than let it upstage the mood, the ending doesn’t get that chance. And the movie hurts for it for a little bit, before just deciding to switch gears from frights to being a battle against good and evil. After selling the weight of its situation well enough without even letting us remember the full details, we as an audience feel enough for the Perrons to be invested in this battle. The movie may have faltered, but it hasn’t lost us.
This is also thanks to a surprisingly talented roster of actors from children Joey King and Mackenzie Foy being innocent victims, to the do-gooder Wilson, to the concerned Livingston, to the troubled Taylor, to the haunted Farmiga, everybody carries their own weight and then some to become a real part of the experience of the film, despite not very nuanced characters and the only real dynamic role is Taylor’s, for reasons I can’t go into with spoiling the film. But even the expendable associates of the Warrens are just fit snugly into this picture frame of a 70s haunted house story.
Now, that is the best of my ability to try to figure out, with you dear readers, how the hell The Conjuring got away with being a good movie. It might not answer all the questions, but it’s certainly a miracle.
But there is one more thing I wanted to find room to fit into this review and I can’t, so now I’m just make it the end.
This movie sounds amazing. In one of my previous articles, I went over how a great deal of the effect of horror films is smartly used jump scares (which this film does apparently have – even though I was unaffected, a lot of the audience was and I was at least amused with a particularly iconic jump scare you will definitely know about if and when you see the movie) and sound. The sound editing here in this film is goddamned perfect, though, with the house sounding so hollow as to be one big dead lung, breathing in ice, punctuated by falling lights or mishaps that will have you not really buying the visual explanation of the source of that sound. It actually sounds a lot like my house when I’m alone and the lights are out and the sun is going down, so the entire house is in this blue dead glow that suggests there’s something frightening with me here. Maybe that’s just my own association with the noise and sound emanating from the world of The Conjuring but it is effective and it works for me.
And again, this review is just me trying to figure out how, just how oh how, against all odds The Conjuring works. It’s just going to bug me as much as it does that some people still believe The Amityville Horror.