So, I’ve written about “horror” films a few times on this site so far, and what I hope people would take away from those long winded, declarative statements is that I, over pretty much everything else, appreciate atmosphere. Now, atmosphere encompasses a lot of different facets, and requires a deft hand with a delicate touch. A director really needs to have full control of every aspect of his skill set. Everything matters in creating atmosphere and tension. The speed in which the camera moves, what the camera does and doesn’t show you. Having characters that the audience can empathize with(Way more important than sympathy when it comes to these films.); we have to care about them in a real way before we can invest ourselves in their dilemma. Most importantly, the sound design has to be put to good use, and almost become it’s own character. It can signal a “scare,” and then eventually subvert our “scare” expectations.
Director James Wan’s output so far has been promising. He definitely understands what works in horror movies of old, and painstakingly tries to recreate the tone and atmosphere of those movies. Even going back to his first film Saw, it’s clear that he loves the genre he’s working in, and he’s only gotten better. Once, he was merely a “homage” artist, but his past few films, Insidious, and now The Conjuring, he seems to have really come into his own. Having said that, both Insidious and The Conjuring do have some similar problems; the most “offensive” of which take place in the third act. He seems like he doesn’t know how to craft an ending that is as exciting as the rest of the film. Sub plots and side characters get dropped, and are left hanging, and then the movie just kind of hurtles to the end. Almost as if the movie is afraid of losing steam, and just wants to cross the finish line before it peters out.
This is a simple story, really, and it also is fortunate enough to be able to carry with it the most coveted horror movie moniker, “Based On a True Story!” It’s not shy about that fact either, and has been the focus of a lot of the marketing. There’s something about the combination of the words “true” and “story” that just sends people into a tizzy, of sorts. Maybe it’s just me, but the possibility of what I’m about to watch is based in some semblance of reality definitely does some of the heavy lifting on the “creeped out” section of my grey matter. It’s based on one of the case files of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren(They are most famous for the Amityville Horror case.). They are staples in the “ghost hunting” community, and have been working in the field since the fifties. I’ve always had an affinity for the paranormal investigating world. I’ve been reading about it since I was around ten years old, and I was already aware of the Warrens long before I heard about this flick. Honestly though, as I’ve gotten older, my ability to put my “faith” in this kind of stuff, and those that do the investigating, has somewhat waned. Although, how can you blame me? As time has gone on, and paranormal “investigation” has become part of the reality tv entertainment monster, and the sincerity and honesty that was once displayed by these investigators has all but dissipated, not unlike a ghost finally crossing over into the ethereal plain, in the name of commerce.
For most of the films run time, it’s pretty effective. It’s all about set ups and pay offs. Well, at least from a “plot” perspective. The movie is really economical in that way. Everything that the movie makes a point to show you will eventually come in to play at some point. It’s film making 101, but it’s something that is often not done very well, if at all. I never felt blind sided by anything that happened, and it all makes logical sense. Where the movie stumbles, in the “logic” department is with it’s characters. I don’t mean from a “motivational” stand point, but from a “character arc” point of view. The main characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, have some semblance of a sub-plot, but it’s only touched on in the beginning of the movie, and then brought back up at the end. The problem with their sub-plot isn’t that it’s there, but that it’s completely inconsequential to the larger story. It doesn’t effect them in any real way. It’s kind of an emotional “cheat,” in a way. It posits a “neglected and endangered child” scenario, but the characters don’t really learn anything from it, or really even acknowledge it. At the end of the movie, they are, more or less, in the same emotional place that we find them. I’m sure they added this stuff to give their characters a little more texture, but given how tight the rest of the story is, it just comes off as sloppy. I feel like this sub-plot was the victim of editing. It feels like they cut a lot of this stuff out to keep the pace of the film going, but it makes me wonder why they left as much of it in as they did.
The actors did a really great job of getting me to empathize with their plight. Especially, the afflicted family. I liked them, and didn’t want anything bad to happen to them, and the fact that I knew bad things were going to happen to them(Wouldn’t be much of a movie if it didn’t, I suppose.), just added to the tension of the proceedings. The young actresses that play the daughters, should definitely be singled out. The amount of tangible terror they are able to get across is really effective, and is really the heart of the movie. It speaks to your inner child, staring into the darkness, wondering if something is there, but in their case there is, obviously. The Warrens, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, are totally affable, but not all that relatable. The film tries to ground them with the before mentioned sub-pot, but given those results it’s not a really successful attempt. The thing that does work is the actors, though. They have a playful, quirky chemistry, and that has everything to do with the actors and not the script. In the hands of less capable actors they could have really come across as too one-dimensional. I mean, as written, they kind of are one dimensional, but the actors give off enough of a sense of history that it ultimately works.
From a film tone perspective, this is a throw back to the haunted house movies of the seventies, and shares DNA with something like, The Changeling(It’s more “exciting,” and well paced, though.). It’s all about methodical build ups, and subverting our expectations. The thing that makes some of the sequences in The Conjuring work so well is our preconceptions about these kind of sequences based on other haunted house movies we’ve already seen. It is definitely a “classical” approach to the material, but it’s smart enough to know that we know what types of things happen in these movies, and recognizing this allows the movie to always stay a few steps ahead of our expectations. Well, for most of the movie…
James Wan seems to have some trouble sticking the landing in his movies. The first two acts are always great, but then in the last act he brings up some new concept to act as a twist, but never gives that concept any legitimacy, because the movie wants to keep its pace. In effect it creates a “rushed” feeling. It’s really unfortunate too. The movie is so patient, without ever being boring, for the bulk of it’s run time, that I wish he would just trust the movie’s simplicity. Complicating your story in it’s last act is never really that great of an idea, and the things that happen stop feeling fair, and cohesive. The successful portions of this flick have entirely to do with the straightforward simplicity. It’s works because it’s done really well, not because it gets “crazy.” The quiet moments are the most terrifying, and unfortunately the last few minutes of the movie go into some really formulaic territory. It gets bombastic, and kind of silly. The “realism” that is created in the first two acts makes the last act even more jarring. They over complicate things, and start relying on spitting, snarling histrionics. This could have worked if they had brought something new to the table, but, like I said, it’s pretty “by the numbers.”
Just as a side not, there has been a lot of talk about why this movie received an “R” rating, as nothing that happens in the movie would lead you to that conclusion. I don’t really even recall any swearing in this movie. It’s a pretty bloodless affair as well. It kind of points to either the hypocrisy of the MPAA, or the shrewdness of studio marketing. Maybe they wanted an “R.” For horror films, an “R” rating implies to people that “This should be taken seriously,” and “Grown up.” Some people look at the rating a film and based on their preconceptions decide whether or not that rating will allow the story to be told “correctly.” Yeah, it’s dumb, but have you ever gone outside and talked to, like, anyone? Not a lot of “logic” making the rounds out there…
I may seem to be somewhat negative about The Conjuring so far, but honestly, even with it’s flaws it’s still a really entertaining movie. I was completely engrossed for most of the run time. Even given the standard direction the ending goes, I wasn’t ever bored. It completely reminded me of how I felt after I watched Insidious, “That was almost a really awesome movie!” It’s close enough though, and I can’t imagine that any one that has an affinity for the genre will feel like they have completely wasted their time.