Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: The Conjuring

The Conjuring is the latest in a long, long line of haunted house films. It's a mildly scary tale and a stylistic throwback to horror movies of the 1970s. It was directed by James Wan, who also directed Saw and Insidious.

The film stars Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (there's something vera farmiga about her…) as Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Lily Taylor (who I've had a crush on since the 1990s) and Ron Livingston (of Office Space fame!) as Carolyn and Roger Perron, owners of the haunted house.

The characters are all patterned after real people, especially the Warrens, who were supernatural researchers involved in a number of investigations throughout the 1970s, including the infamous Amityville Horror case.

Like many movies of this ilk, it begins with a warning that it's based on true events (insert eye roll here), which I assume is supposed to make the film seem scarier. That trick never works!

Actually now that I think about it, I bet it is a true story. It's no doubt true that someone made up a story and then based a movie on it.

At least one theater out there posted this sign at the entrance to the film.

I must have seen a different movie, because the one I saw wasn't psychologically or emotionally disturbing and I didn't experience any unusual circumstances after seeing it. Nor did I feel the need to seek support from Father Perez.

I'm betting that this sign was some kind of modern day William Castle-like trick, designed to get people all worked up about the film. If you tell people a movie's so scary they're going to need a priest after seeing it, they'll find a way to convince themselves it's true.

The Conjuring has done very well at the box office, racking up over one hundred million dollars so far. You know what that means! Yep, sequel! So if they make a sequel, will it also be a "true" story, or will it be made up? Or will it be another "case" from the files of the Warrens?

SCARY SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
You know the drill by now— the Perron family moves into a new house, weird stuff starts happening, they call in ghost specialists Ed and Lorraine Warren, they battle the spooks, clean out the house and then everything's OK.

Pros:
• I liked the old school feel of the film. Not only is it set in the 1970s, but the feel and look of the film are old school as well. There didn't seem to be a lot of CGI effects on display either, which is a plus. I'm sure it's there, but if so it was used sparingly.

Speaking of the 1970s era, all through the movie Carolyn Perron keeps waking up to find her arms and legs mysteriously covered in bruises (spoooooky!). She goes to the doctor, who diagnoses the bruises as a simple iron deficiency. How times have changed. It occurred to me while watching the film that if it took place in the current day, the minute Carolyn showed the doctor her bruises he'd send her to a women's shelter, have her husband arrested and hand the five kids over to the state! 

• At one point in the film the Perron kids are watching the Brady Bunch on TV, specifically the episode Will The Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up? The film sets the date as November 1st, 1971. That particular Brady Bunch episode originally aired on January 15, 1971, so it's entirely possible the kids could have been watching it. Kudos to the producers for picking (either deliberately or by accident) a plausible episode. A lot of period films get little details like that wrong.

• I liked Ed Warren's "haunted artifact" museum. There were lots of cool items in it that I wanted to see and learn more about.

Cons:
I hate to be a Title Literalist, but… the film's called The Conjuring. What exactly is being conjured here? The witch demon? Who conjured her, or any of the other ghosts for that matter? No one that I can see. The supernatural events just started happening on their own as soon as someone new moved into the house.

• The plot is very familiar and hits all the usual notes for modern horror films of this ilk. If you've seen The Amityville Horror, The Haunting In Connecticut, Insidious or Poltergeist, then you've seen this film.

At times it feels like the movie's ticking items off a checklist.
• A normal everyday family begins a new chapter in their lives by moving into a new home. 
• The home is old, somewhat dilapidated and in need or repair.
• Strange events that can be easily explained begin. 
• The events gradually escalate until they disrupt the lives of the family. 
• The family sunk everything they had into the home and can't afford to move. 
• The family pet disappears or dies. Birds also fly into the side of the house and kill themselves. 
• Experts are called in. They're initially skeptical that the supernatural is involved, but agree to check it out. 
• The Experts set up monitoring devices. 
• The Experts witness the supernatural happenings first hand and are convinced. 
• There's a final confrontation between the Experts and the forces of evil. 
• The family moves out of the cursed house and goes on with their lives.
Every one of these events happens in the movie, and every other modern haunted house film you've ever seen.

• The Perron family seem to accept the supernatural happenings and the Warren's explanations awfully quickly. I'm of two minds about this. When characters seem to buy into a ludicrous premise such as this too easily, I roll my eyes and say, "Psyeah, right." On the other hand, when it takes the characters an hour to believe in something the audience already knows is true, I get bored and restless. I admit there's no easy answer to this conundrum.

• Carolyn Perron shows Lorraine Warren a family photo. Carolyn cherishes the photo and calls it their One Perfect Day (Uh-oh! I smell a plot point!). Unfortunately it's one of the worst Photoshop jobs I've ever seen. 

It's supposed to be a photo of the Perrons at the beach, but it looks for all the world like they posed indoors and were crudely cut out and pasted into a shot of the sky. Where the hell's the horizon? Was this beach at the top of a mile-high mountain? Why do multi-million dollar movies always have such awful Photoshopped photos in them? I'd be fired if I turned in such subpar work.

• The Perron girls like to play a game called Hide & Clap (or something), a variation of Hide & Seek. The subject is blindfolded and spun around as the other players run and hide. The subject then has to blindly feel their way through the house trying to find the other players by asking them to clap occasionally (Marco Polo-style). A more stupefyingly deadly game I've never seen.

At one point one of the girls trips over a bunch of boxes on the floor while groping about blindly. Later one of the kids talks Carolyn herself into playing, and she comes this close to blindly toppling over an upper stair railing! Take off the goddamned blindfold before you all break your necks!

• Ed Warren keeps a museum of haunted and possessed artifacts in a room in his home. The items ooze so much evil and malevolence that the room is blessed by a priest once a month as a precaution. So where do the Warrens store this evil treasure trove? In a vault in the basement? In a lead-lined room? A secret government warehouse? Nope! It's all stored in what appears to be a spare bedroom of their home, protected by a particle board door with a simple latch. If I had a room full of evil tchotchkes like that I think I'd have them locked up a bit more securely. 

• In the third act, Carolyn Perron becomes possessed by an evil witch slash demon called Bathsheba, and tries to murder two of her children. Ed Warren says she needs an immediate exorcism, but the priest on his payroll is "too far away" to get there in time. Even though Warren admits he's not ordained or authorized to perform an exorcism, he feels he has no choice and does so anyway. In the end he's successful in driving the demon from Carolyn's body.

But how? He ain't a priest. I wouldn't think a demon would listen to a layman trying to evict it. It'd be like me trying to arrest the lady who lets her dog crap on my lawn every morning. She'd snap her fingers in my face, say "You ain't no cop" and go about her business. It seems to me like a demon would only listen to a man of the cloth, someone with some religious authority. Is simply hearing the words enough to drive a demon out?

The Conjuring has style and one or two genuine scares, but for the most part it's a walk down a very well-trodden path. I give it a B-.

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