“Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
– Arthur C. Clarke
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but horror is by far my favourite genre. Regardless of the medium, regardless of the creator, regardless of context – horror stories will always have my attention over every other kind of story. There’s something about the way a story can trigger such primordial instincts that a person will instantly be unsettled; possibly taking an extended amount of time from which to recover. As someone who has spent a great deal of his life – arguably the better part – in crowded rooms with strangers as the lights went down, I’ve always admired the power of artists who can genuinely provoke fear in an audience.
Not an easy skill, to be sure. As with all misunderstood things I hold dear, I often have to defend the horror genre from myopic naysayers who dismiss it as nothing more than pornographic bloodletting sold to children. Other than proper pornography (ie. that of a sexual nature), is there any other genre besides horror so easily dismissed and so frequently criticised? Mind you, both of those genres are oversaturated with mediocre content seemingly designed to prove the critics right. But to fail to see them as beneficial or lacking in substance is to do oneself a disservice. I plan to return to this topic in a later blog entry, but I’ve always found it intriguing that these two genres representing such extremes of human emotion (lust and fear) are the two that more conservative minds say should never be acknowledged.
True, they both become diluted with redundancy after a while (success breeds imitators), but the upside to that is that it will inspire the next great innovators to break the conventions. Others will simply look at the old conventions and approach them from a new angle. To keep with today’s topic (and to repeat an adage I’ve said on this blog before): the natural evolution of a work of horror is comedy, as we eventually laugh at the things that once frightened our predecessors. But make no mistake, as long as living creatures exist, they will never run out of things from which to be scared.
Even if that thing is the very place we call home.
In 1971, the Perron family moved into an old house in Rhode Island. The house needs a bit of work, sure, but it’s far removed from the noisy hustle and bustle of the big city. But all is not as tranquil as it seems. No sooner have they moved in than the Perrons are witness inexplicable goings-on within the house. It doesn’t take long for the occurrences to go from irritating to violent, most of them directed at matron Carolyn Parron (Lili Taylor).
At the request of Carolyn, the house is visited paranormalists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Although the pair are no strangers to the supernatural, this is a case that will test the limited of even their well-honed abilities.
I must say that of all the things I expected from Saw co-creator James Wan, but an atmospheric haunted house flick was not one of them. Wan and co-creator Leigh Whannell’s film is often credited kicking of the “torture porn” trend in horror films of the 2000s. To be fair, much of that blame should fall on the shoulders of Hostel director Eli Roth and the Saw film-makers who took over after Wan and Whannell. (Former Channel Awesome producer Welshy created a series of videos about the Saw franchise that gave me a new appreciation for the franchise. If nothing else, give the entry on the first film a look.) Wan’s breakthrough movie has far less onscreen violence than one would think, given the franchise’s reputation. Still, his subsequent repertoire didn’t exactly paint him as a director of restraint.
For the most part, The Conjuring is very restrained – something necessary in a haunted house film. The genre is one that builds off our childhood fears of the creaking floorboards and rattling pipes as being the unholy wails of the supernatural. A good haunted house story – from The Haunting to The Shining to El Orfanato – will appropriately build on that and leave its audience afraid of the very homes they inhabit. To its credit, The Conjuring spends two thirds of its running time using minimal music and very little CGI to give the impression that the house really is turning against them.
Also working in the film’s credit is the way it doesn’t expect the audience to just buy into the idea of ghosts in the first place. An odd idea, considering said audience paid good money for a horror film, but a winning strategy. When the house begins haunting the Perrons, the Warrens are shown applying scientific methods to would-be hauntings; in a way, prematurely debunking their own work. One scene has them telling homeowners that the noises in their house aren’t spirits, but the result of bad woodwork and plumbing in the attic. As such, they are just as taken as we when they enter the Perron house.
Where the film goes wrong is when it seemingly tires of trying to make its own way and decides to follow convention. As I said, most of the film relies on atmospheric scares in which the audience does the work themselves. But the climax of the film makes the mistake of trying to be a supernatural action flick. It’s as if the first half-or-so of the film really wanted to be The Haunting as directed by Robert Wise (a film I love), but decides to conclude like The Haunting as directed by Jan de Bont (the less said of that version, the better).
And that’s another problem: even during the good parts of the film, it’s clear from where inspiration has been drawn. The film has gotten several comparisons to Poltergeist and it’s easy to see why. This movie isn’t so much as influenced by it as it’s the Fast and the Furious to the former film’s Point Break.
Performances are a mixed bag. Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor bring their A-games to the film; so much so, that they could have done the entire piece as a two-woman show and nothing would have been lost. Ron Livingston does nothing special and Patrick Wilson is… Patrick Wilson. I don’t see his appeal, as he seems to have only one facial expression which he’s somehow made into a film career.
In the end, the problem with The Conjuring is that it squanders its potential by going for a safe conclusion. Still, it’s a relief to see a modern horror film try to actually be scary, rather than a jump-scare-filled bloodfest. It isn’t a game-changer by any means, but it’s a breath of fresh air.