Thursday, December 12, 2013


As a rule I'm not into ghost stories, but word of mouth on James Wan's "fact"-based period piece had been good and a friend wanted to see it, so I borrowed the disc from the library. To show you how out of touch I am with sizable chunks of modern pop cinema, The Conjuring is the first James Wan film I've seen. I've never seen Saw and have nothing to say about the "torture porn" subgenre it spawned. I missed Insidious and its sequel. That allowed me to approach Conjuring on its own terms. The film's loosely based on an actual investigation by pioneer paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren, the latter of whom, now in her eighties, makes a brief cameo appearance after serving as a technical advisor to the production. While I identified Conjuring as a period piece a few sentences ago, I found it refreshing that it was not self-consciously a "70s" movie. Its object is not to display the outrageous fashions or play the outrageous music of the decade; the only real "ha ha, the Seventies" moment has the beleaguered Perron family watching The Brady Bunch, presumably in first run, on their television. Something that Conjuring self-consciously is not is a "found footage" horror movie in the currently popular style. Wan makes clear that such an approach was an option, showing us brief found-footage moments from previous Warren investigations only to set them aside. Given the proficiency he shows with the camera in this picture, why limit himself? The only advantage found-footage has is its illusion of immediacy and spontaneity, punctuated by so many "oh my gods" and "holy shits." As befits a period piece, Wan was interested in more old-fashioned chills. I don't scare easily at the movies but I was impressed by the director's craftsmanship as he slowly established an atmosphere of dread and menace in the Perrons' haunted house. Little did they know that a lineage of death dating back to a witch's curse (do Wiccans object to such portrayals these days?) has left them vulnerable to attacks, visitations, bad smells and finally the possession of the mother (Lily Taylor) by the witch's evil spirit. The film makes the most of the physicality of the house; we always have a sense of exactly where we are, at least until another piece of floor gives way and someone falls into an unfamiliar part of the basement. Conjuring deserves more credit for art direction than it will get, while Wan deserves credit for suggestive restraint despite the expected effects displays toward the end. I liked how he constantly teased how someone could go over the railings on the second floor, yet never puts anyone in that predicament. There's a modesty to the production that makes a greater impression than CGI spectacle, making Wan's film part of a positive trend in this year's cinema. This is no acting showcase (except arguably for Taylor) and there's nothing profound to it, but it was watchable both as a story and as a movie, which is more than can be said for many modern horror films. Still, it left me wondering. Are movies dealing with demons and exorcisms part of a distinctly Catholic mythos? The film emphasizes how Ed Warren, though a layman, is recognized as a serious demonologist by the Vatican, as if Rome's opinion alone counted, and it shows yet again how demons are uniquely responsive to or fearful of Latin words. Is a Protestant SOL in such cases, or do demons not bother with such heretics? Just wondering, and only in fun. The Conjuring is fun in its own way, and that alone may make it one of the better horror movies in a while.


Sam Juliano said...

Agreed Samuel, that the fun quotient trumps all in this surprisingly effective horror film that you seem to have very much appreciated in this excellent essay. Here is what I had said about it originally:

"THE CONJURING borrows from a number of past horror films, but this gripping hybrid does something that few so-called horror films manage: it scares the bee-jesus out of you. Spirits infest a rural house, and a family of seven must enlist the help of possession investigators who eventually perform an exorcism. Surprisingly effective, and well-acted, with some smart effects."

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, while I don't scare easy my viewing companion jumped frequently as we watched, which is a good sign for the movie. I appreciate a modern filmmaker who appreciates when the old methods still work -- and when they work better than the new methods.