Movie about ghosts? Check. Based on a true story? Check. From someone who brought you Insidious, Saw, or Paranormal Activity? Check. Found footage movie? NO CHECK. Wait, WHAT?! A HORROR MOVIE MADE IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS THAT DOESN’T FIT ALL OF THOSE CRITERIA?! What the fuck is the movie industry coming to?! I’ve had a tumultuous history with director James Wan. Despite enjoying his direction on films, I’ve always kind of been disappointed in the story, which I suppose can usually be attributed to frequent collaborator Leigh Whannel. James Wan’s newest film, The Conjuring, was done without Whannel, but I was still pretty hesitant because it seemed like most of the scares were accomplished the CGI and were shown in the trailers. Even with those hesitations, I mean, it’s not like I’m NOT going to see it. It has ghosts! And Vera Farmiga! When has that ever been a bad combination!? Kind of sort of mild spoilers ahead, but I mean, this plot was pretty by the numbers so there isn’t anything super original about what happened. But, still, read at your own risk.
I’m glad to finally see the classic game of “Marco Polo but on land and with clapping instead of talking” finally being portrayed on-screen! We all played his as a kid, right?
Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are paranormal investigators in the early 70’s. Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) just bought a house with their family in Rhode Island, also in the early 70’s. HMMM, COINCIDENCE?! I THINK NOT! Roger notices that the basement of this new house has been boarded up, and doesn’t realize it was boarded up to keep the ghosts out. By the way, just board up any room where you think ghosts are and you’ll be safe. Surprisingly, SCARY SHIT STARTS HAPPENING! Goddammit Roger, what did you do? The Perrons contact the Warrens to help them with their haunting, and through the research of the Warrens, they learn that the house used to be owned by someone involved with the Salem witch trials. And not like, a judge or Giles Corey or anything, I mean they were a straight up witch. Anyways, I guess the spirit of the witch is pissed that other people own the house and everyone who has owned the house since has had the female head of the household inhabited by a demonic spirit and would then kill someone else. Whether it be a maid or a child or whatever, it doesn’t matter. This means that Carolyn falls victim to this possession, and not wanting to wait for the permission of the Vatican, the Warrens go ahead and attempt their own exorcism, leading to one of the more memorable exorcism scenes of recent years, despite the rest of the film being filled with scares we’ve seen countless times before.
Remember that scene in Cabin in the Woods where they wander through all the haunted relics? Yeah, the scares in this movie are all basically like that. Music boxes! Mirrors! Under the bed! Behind the door! Vera Farmiga!
Yeah, the movie looked good. Even if I didn’t like the stories Wan has previously directed, he always showed he knew he way around a camera, and The Conjuring is no different. Sadly, it’s the scenes where nothing really creepy is going on that stood out, as every single scare is incredibly formulaic. For example, is shown in the trailer, a child tells an adult to open up a music box and look in the mirror, and when the music stops playing, the ghost will appear. Guess what? THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT FUCKING HAPPENS. Multiply these formulas by 4 or 5, and you’ll get the majority of scares. After seeing the film, I tweeted asking people about their favorite ghost stories of the past few years that weren’t found footage, and really only got the same 2 or 3 responses. I think the reason why found footage has been so popular in recent years, in addition to the financial reasons, are that these movies generally make the audience have to take an active part in finding the scare. Or at least, the good found footage films do. Both with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the pacing and direction lets you know that the audience can expect SOMETHING scary to happen at specific moments, but you don’t really know when or where that scare will come from. Whether it be trying to figure out which door is going to open or if you can also hear the strange sounds coming from the woods, the scares weren’t just handed to you. This might entirely be my own stylistic preference, as the scares are still done well in The Conjuring, I just don’t like being told where to look and when I need to look to see the spooky ghost. I was also frustrated that the ghosts themselves looked like every other ghost you’ve seen before, with all of the heavy eye makeup and pale skin, and despite the movie getting a lot of shit from people, made me wish for the inventiveness of the creature design of Mama to give us more disturbing looking ghosts.
GODDAMMIT, PATRICK WILSON. YOU NEED TO START LOOKING BEHIND YOU BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE ALL THE SCARY SHIT HAPPENS.
A big issue that I had with Wan’s previous film, Insidious, was that for as much as I liked the first half of the film, I equally disliked the second half and the direction that the story went in. I’d say that I liked The Conjuring a little bit more than Insidious, because even if there were a lot of things going on that I’d seen before, it was much more consistent. The cast all put in really good performances, especially when it came time for Lili Taylor to be possessed and make up for all the damage caused by her participation in The Haunting. Even though the performances in the film were good, I had a hard time connecting with either the Warrens or with the Perrons, as the film never really made it clear who the story should be focused on. The more effective character driven haunted house movies rely on your connection to the characters and how difficult it is to see them going through these terrible events, and The Conjuring didn’t never really connected me with either family. In on scene in particular, Patrick Wilson’s character came across more similarly to Michael J. Fox’s character in The Frighteners in his faux-investigations than someone who actually cares about the family. Another moment that completely took me out of the film that had been adequately set the tone of the early 70’s was a montage featuring a song by Dead Man’s Bones, aka Ryan Gosling’s band. RYAN GOSLING WASN’T ALIVE THEN. HOW COULD HIS SONG HAVE PLAYED OVER THAT MONTAGE?! I suppose that I might be nitpicking a little too much and maybe my expectations were a little too high, but I wanted just a little bit more of an edge or element of surprise with this movie considering how much was shown in the first trailer. If you dig haunted house movies and James Wan’s previous work, then there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy The Conjuring, but if you were hoping Wan’s directorial strengths would give us something that felt new or fresh, like I did, you might also leave a little disappointed.
Wolfman Moon Scale