It Practically Gallops

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There is obviously a line between contempt for your characters and apathy for your characters and I think writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature horror film Hereditary has found the thinnest element of that line. It is a movie that is aware of the ugly aspect of what its central family is doing to each other and wants us to be aware too. It is a movie that validates the devastating feelings within these people that is making them react and hurt each other this way, knowing that they are entitled to feel the way they feel and refusing to judge them for it. Only judging them for the toxic manner in which they inflict those feelings on each other. And despite this, it is a movie that does not care what happens to them and knows that the results are of their own devices for the most part.

Hereditary’s happens to be quite a movie that it is easy to spoil by discussing its premise, so I hope it suffices simply to acknowledge that it all begins with a death in the Graham family: Ellen Leigh’s (a character we see in photos that, last I checked, were uncredited) obituary is the first thing that greets us in a chillingly neutral tone. She is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), Annie’s husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and child daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their responses to her death is complex, to say the least. Annie had a toxically antagonistic relationship with her mother amplified by mental illness issues between Annie’s father and brother while by all accounts Ellen took a special interest towards Charlie.

In any case, having to deal with a death in the family is a tough experience and very soon Hereditary proves that to only be the beginning of their troubles, with an incident that irreparably tears a conflict between a slowly deteriorating Annie and an increasingly vulnerable Peter. And between the two of those are the heightened poles of Hereditary’s miseries: Collette embodies an inability to compartmentalize between her hate, her grief, and her trauma, spitefully lashing out at everyone’s who is even slightly at fault for her losing herself. While Wolff goes through a downward spiral of muting out any of his emotions and letting himself get eaten more and more. Indeed, his big showcase is a moment where he stares at an unseen thing in the backseat of a car and stares out trying to comprehend what just occurred, refusing to frown or scream or anything except let a solitary tear run down his cheek. Meanwhile, Byrne makes a useless character feel even more like a clueless slump (which I wholly mean as a compliment) and Shapiro gives Charlie a melancholy loneliness at losing the family member she most interacted with that plays very well with the other weird ambiance she gives to her presence.

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And they have a lot of time to do it. Hereditary knows full well what happens when you have the worst feelings a person could possibly be experiencing embodied in four different people and left to simmer in four walls for weeks at a time (2 hours in runtime paced incredibly well by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston), mixed around by Charlie Dahan’s deep doomy vibrations of a score. Hereditary IS a horror movie of the supernatural sort (I do not think this is a spoiler though of course explaining how would be), but the real horrifying aspect comes for what this family is putting each other through simply for the fact that they don’t know how to process this or because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to.

The near-invisible delicacy with which Aster condemns the Graham family with only slivers of sympathy despite a loyalty to wide shots of funereal domesticity that give its central drama an empty dollhouse look to it (something Aster wants us to recognize by way of Annie‘s career as a diorama artist and indeed the very first shot after that obituary is a long close-up from an open dollhouse into a 2nd floor bedroom that happens to be Peter’s) and close-ups that accent exactly how ugly it looks for a human being to emotionally collapse. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski uses the wide shots as an opportunity to give the rooms and their inhabitants a subtle wooden brown implying how artificial anything that was holding this home together was while using the close-ups to give shadows (and aided by sweaty makeup) that make the characters look gaunt and their heads facing downwards. Collette is the best aide to this: it feels insulting to call what she’s doing mugging, because there’s so much deeper internalizing than that but she puts on a consistent exhausted frown, escalated in a dinner scene gone wrong where she can’t help ripping Peter apart verbally. She looks like if Shelly Duvall got fucking sick of Jack Nicholson’s shit and decided she didn’t an axe to murder him, just a glare.

It is so effective as chamber-esque thriller and as exercise in ruining the viewer’s day that when Hereditary takes a very-very-late turn to glibness, it is jarring in an unfortunate way (it is not the only time – there is one cutaway shot against a character’s haunting screams that feels a little beyond the pale in cruelty). It also happens to be a moment that utilizes “explain-the-plot” in the worst kind of way, at a point where we are very clear on what has went on unless we weren’t paying attention. That it is the final note in Hereditary does not particularly stain my memory of it, because when you do it right moodiness is going to linger long enough to really mess up any good feelings you could possible grasp.

NB: Good ol’ Dancin’ Daniel Bayer has suggested that you see this movie with an audience and I sure wish I could agree with that if some 305 dickhead didn’t shout “DE PINGA!” at the screen during one of the most silent-inducing moments after an hour of clicking his tongue. Still, I can’t imagine this isn’t a movie where a crowd would be synchronized emotionally so I’d say it see it… with people you know and trust.

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Kept Under Lock and…

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The future of the Insidious franchise is currently in question now that franchise writer Leigh Whannell is in doubt as to whether he wants to continue writing for it as the remaining co-creator (the other co-creator and his former collaborator, James Wan, has moved on since Chapter 2 to better things like skydiving cars, superheroes who talk to fish, and entertaining apologism for Christian con artists). Still the fourth and latest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, has already nudged itself in a direction that doesn’t seem very promising to me: it’s implied – nay, the very last scene of the film essentially propels it towards – a continuation without Lin Shaye’s presence*.

Now, I’ve eschewed the opportunity to write on the full series (maybe I’ll cover those gaps later this year), but let me tell you: it’s not a very consistent line-up, quality-wise. A large part of that happens to be the very disappointing insistence by Whannell’s writing to lean heavily on the overburdened mythology involving the blue-tinged spirit realm known as “The Further” and trying to use a lot of words just to say “demons live here and sometimes possess or influence living people” and the only way those words don’t really crash the whole thing down is because Shaye delivers most of that mythology with a sense of urgency that the material never earned one bit. Even that’s not the only merit about Shaye’s performance as medium demonologist Elise Rainier, but the fact that she’s a reliable source of warmth and personality, approaching her investigations in a superficially relaxed and assured manner as though she’s doing a solid for a friend despite how transparently draining this practice is for her. Even in spite of Shaye’s age, she has higher spirits as a 74-year-old woman tragically burdened by her abilities and responsibilities than I do as a 26-year-old who can’t talk to ghosts (… yet).

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The decision halfway through the run to turn this reliably compelling character from a late-film exposition delivery system to a protagonist has been a smart move for the longevity of the franchise and the character that The Last Key suggests will take over for Elise, her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), unfortunately feels like a non-presence, especially given how a whole quarter of the runtime has her taking charge without being able to take charge. Perhaps if she could have, it would have distracted me further from the other horrifyingly reliable source of banality in the Insidious franchise, Elise’s bumbling ghost-hunter-parody assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) and oh gawwwwwwd, if this franchise continues they’re also implied to continue tagging along while this time around hitting on Imogen and her sister Melissa (Spencer Locke).

So yes, I’m going to miss Elise a lot and fear what is to come for a franchise that I already wasn’t too fond of anyway. But I will say that Whannell and director Adam Robitel have put together a pretty fond farewell for the most part: The Last Key establishes the sort of toxic childhood Elise (played by Ava Kolker as a child and Hana Hayes as a teenager) went through in the 1950s in her family’s remote New Mexico home, exacerbated by her executioner father (Josh Stewart)’s abusive antagonism towards Elise’s powers and the sudden release of a noseless key-fingered demon (Javier Botet) who wastes no time murdering her protective mother (Tessa Ferrer), all of which leaving a rift between Elise and her brother/Imogen and Melissa’s father Christian (Bruce Davison).

Sometime after Insidious: Chapter 3 but shortly before the first Insidious, the now adult Elise and her partners get a call from her home’s new inhabitant Ted (Kirk Acevedo) reporting paranormal activity happening, forcing the reluctant Elise to face her past and particularly her feelings of guilt towards the key demon’s freedom and thereby her mother’s death (not to mention Christian holding Elise accountable for abandoning him when she ran away from home). And walking back into the domain of her childhood pain means unlocking secrets regarding its line of inhabitants that fundamentally shift the way she looks back on her hard memories.

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Now, of course, saying that the movie wants to deepen the Elise’s character one last time before she leaves the franchise does not necessarily mean it accomplishes that well: this is still a Whannell screenplay and he’s rarely shown a grip on how humans talk or behave on a superficial level, so the idea of going deeper into a full-on character study is much too daunting a task for the writer to do well on his own. Still, Robitel’s entry into the Insidious director’s holds up as well as his two predecessor’s (Wan and later Whannell taking his directorial debut with Chapter 3), able to jump into the formula they set for spooky haunted houses between the murky and earthy living world and the dingy dark blue shadows of the Further, even despite the relative goofy look of this movie’s demon (he lacks a palate and…) or the fact that Elise is missing in action for a hot minute and leaving us with characters that either are annoying or don’t feel present to drive the film.

Hell, it’s kind of by Robitel’s strength that the opening sequence is so distressing, utilizing Whannell’s need to have Elise abused, unleash Keyface, and kill off her mom in apparently one scene and one night and turning that unbalanced density into something that makes the momentum of the opening disorienting and uncomfortable. It’s affecting enough for us to align with Elise when Shaye gets to take over and even when Robitel doesn’t get that much narrative material to work with in one scare scene, he can still up the tension in the air so that it feels like maybe something of that power will occur (and he does get at least one more moment to do it: a game of hide-and-seek that occurs halfway through the film just after we’ve been given unsettling information about a character and climaxing without an out-of-character yet desperately violent act that leaves one of our protagonists shook).

Now, I’m going to admit there does come an early point where Robitel’s repetitions get more obvious to us and Insidious: The Last Key stops being scary (it also happens to unfortunately align with the absence of Elise, compounding the movie’s issues). Nevertheless, it goes far enough along the way so that we don’t have to wait long for an extremely satisfying resolution telegraphed by the constant presence of an item dear to Elise and Christian, aided enormously by Joseph Bishara’s score incorporating and foreshadowing an element of safety from Elise’s past and keeping that item present in his musical cues, and most of all smoothly facilitated by having its light source roll towards a heroic figure in such a silently climactic way. A wobbly descent can still be relieved from sticking the landing, something I’m not sure I can entirely acclaim The Last Key for doing when it ends on the sort unsubtle and clunky “here comes the first Insidious” note that it does. But even if I’m not sure I can call The Last Key a good movie, that final sequence involving the confrontation of old demons and the warmth with which it congratulates Elise is the sort of love for its character that stayed in my mind six months after watching it, even if it’s only the one character.

*Though this is not really set in stone, given that Chapter 2 is the chronologically latest entry and it ends on a note saying that Elise and her partners are still working, despite certain developments.

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25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 20 – Welcome Home

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 select horror films in all of the spectrum, 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. And here I am late again. If nothing else, it is because the next installment is to come out later this afternoon and will be another video. Until then, I was recalling movies that I think would be a fun little watch as I continue work further on the double feature style film. And the one that particularly popped in my mind is something I find very terrifying to think about putting into words, but here I go…

So, a lot of movies really try too hard to be this way. There is a significant percentage of films in the world that will swear by Odin Allfather that they are so wacky and weird and immune of any form of rational analysis that they dare you to accurately and reasonably critique them and to be honest, only a handful of them are worthy of that swagger and attitude. Bong Joon-ho’s films, Love Exposure, Phantom of the Paradise, maybe the works of Don Coscarelli, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento…

So I decided to take a deep plunge and finally directly address one of those films. Possibly the most outlandish and unchained of all of these films.

House. Which, before I should dig deeper into this flick, I should note that I love unabashedly. It is a gloriously fun movie that I expect one to either leave it shrieking their heads off or laughing themselves silly. Which is kind of fine by the film either way, which you find the more you get into it. Not because it seems to willingly allow itself to mix in its horror and comedy elements, but House seems to be the type of anomaly where each and every bit of it serves as an avant-garde Rorschach blot to the audience and filmmaking playground for director Obayashi Nobuhiko. I’ve witnessed both reaction to the film many times as well as other reactions. There’s just no sensible approach to it, ideally.

So how the fuck did the science of moviemaking bring us to such an astonishing celluloid creature?

Well, through JawsJaws came out in 1975 as a huge international hit and Japan, which had just snugly placed itself in worldwide consideration as a cultural source of cinema, decided they wanted to get in on that blockbuster feel. So, they looked to the best place to grab fresh and upcoming directors for a film – television advertisements. No, seriously, stop laughing, I’m not trying to make this subtly comic. At the time in Japan, television ads were a good source for directos honing their craft and establishing a certain style to themselves. So, Obayashi was the name out of the tv ad wizard hat that Japanese film empire Toho picked to create a film that would be able to rival Jaws as a blockbuster for all the local hooligans and whippersnappers to race into theaters to see.

Ok, I know this is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that a movie like House could possibly be considered even slightly similar to Jaws, but I haven’t even started talking about the premise of the movie. Please hold on a little longer.

Anyway, Obayashi had a habit with his then pre-teen daughter Chigumi and decided “well, why not play that game with her where I ask her to shoot me ideas and I use them in a film script?” Which is what he did. The majority of House is direct from the mind of the 13-year-old girl who was playing an imagination game with her moviemaking dad. So what kind of child’s mind fable did we get out of it?

Well, we got a film that follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac, Melody, and Fantasy to visit her aunt’s home in the distance of Japan. The reason for this trip comes from Gorgeous’ own spite for the woman her father proposed to, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous finds this an outright insult to the memory of her late mother and refuses to spend her summer with Ryoko, so off she goes to meet and stay with her distant aunt (Yoko Minamida). And from there weird stuff starts happening to the girls that gets really threatening really quickly.

Although, to be honest, from the very first seconds of the films, the weird things have already begun. It’s only within the titular house where the characters actively become aware of the absurdity that wraps itself around this film.

A good portion of this surreal essence of the film comes directly from how the entirety of the film declares artificiality. It’s a movie that thrives off showing off the techniques of the camera and playing around with it, similar to how Bram Stoker’s Dracula works except without really letting the techniques dissolve into the storytelling. Indeed instead the techniques accent the elements of the story, the attitude, the tone, but it still stands out in itself like the strings to a puppet being visible – a Man with the Movie Camera with a plot, if I may say so. From the very saturated lens and colors on the picture, switching back and forth however the mood suits, to the beautifully painted backdrops, these are all things we are meant to notice and consider just a part of experiencing the movie.

Admittedly, this approach to material could go either way in the end and nobody could really hate anybody for finding the movie stupid or just plain wrong. It wouldn’t matter.

To me, though, it’s an outstanding triumph that the movie is able to get away with the randomness and the frank display of its content within itself as a film and still not only retain its horror sensibilities, but to also strengthen it. I know a lot of people like to talk about how immensely fun and joyous it is as the creation of a 13-year-old mind (and it is undoubtedly), but I’m also very moved by how stunningly dark it is.

The movie holds onto a number of themes within it that are not exactly connected by themselves and wouldn’t ideally be placed in such a whimsical context, but still carry emotional weight when the stock characters do not – hate, fear, bullying, missing a deceased loved one, the inability to move on with change, responsibility, and so on… In particular, I’m really stunned by how maturely the film at least deals with the devastation of war – since it’s Japan in 1977, the war in question will undoubtedly be World War II, but tragedy does not get old. Before we even meet the aunt, there is some anchor of emotion in the form of the girls telling the story of her lost love during the events of World War II and it’s quite the poignant moment in the middle of a film that doesn’t really bother poignancy too much.

In all honestly, though, the film’s entire sensibility is based solely on its audience’s attitude to it. If there is ever a movie to be considered subjective at any approach, it is simply going to be House. But it does plant its feet firmly on the ground of a horror film – featuring blood sprays and focusing on the massacre of trapped young girls in a dark house for evil intentions – as well as a comedy film – providing visual jokes and physical comedy at any turn.

The result is a fable, a fairy tale mixed with nightmare. Some people will giggle at it, some people will stay awake at night thinking of what the story says, some people will just consider themselves outgrown for the tale and just turn away. But it’s not something that the film can reject, nor does it prefer to.

It’s a complex film, but in the end, its complexities and all its drive comes from the mind of that one young little girl who decided to dream up a haunted house story and its approach by a director whose filmmaking style is based entirely on using the filmmaking practice as his own toy box that brings about one of the most unique experiences ever provided to the world (the US didn’t get a release for the film until 2009, believe it or not) and how well those two approaches from two related people mesh makes the Obayashis the best father-daughter team in cinema. Suck it, Hustons, Argentos, and O’Neals!

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 4 – Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted

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.