Monday, August 5, 2013
THE CONJURING Is a Frightfully Effective Horror Film
THE CONJURING Review:
- Rare is the scary movie that's also got great characters. And rare, especially these days, is the horror movie that takes the time to do a nice, slow build so that when the real crazy stuff goes down, we're seeing a satisfying payoff to all that has come before. THE CONJURING is that rare breed of horror flick, and, perhaps surprisingly, it comes to us from Saw director James Wan. Wan doesn't fully abandon a lot of the conventions of modern horror for his latest film, but he does take great care to make this an entirely different breed of horror film as compared to Saw and its ilk. The Conjuring is set in the early 70's, and there's a definite 70's horror vibe to the movie, from the muted-color palate to the more methodical pacing of the first two acts ... the film aims to channel the classics, from Rosemary's Baby to The Exorcist (and some Poltergeist thrown in for good measure). I wouldn't exactly call The Conjuring a new classic, but it is one of the first horror movies in a while that got me genuinely invested in the characters, and made me think that, hey, I wouldn't mind seeing their further adventures.
THE CONJURING has an added layer of mystique in that it's "based on a true story," and it's protagonists - Ed and Lorraine Warren - are based on the real-life Warrens, a well-known husband-and-wife duo of paranormal investigators. Ed passed away a few years ago, but Lorraine is still alive and not at all averse to talking about she and her husband's supernatural encounters. In fact, their home in Connecticut houses a museum in which various haunted / mystical artifacts are kept as keepsakes. Better to be kept under the Warrens' watchful eyes than out in the wild, was the thinking. The Conjuring heavily features the Warren's house and said collection, and overall, it really builds up the Warrens as eccentric but likable challengers of the unknown. On some level, the part of me that's a skeptic wonders if it's right to turn the Warrens - who may be genuine, or who may be self-promoting scam artists - into horror movie heroes( I don't lean one way or the other, but read up on their famous Amityville Horror case for some interesting perspectives). But as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, you can't help but root for and take a liking to the fictional versions of the husband-and-wife ghost hunters. Wilson gives Ed Warren a blue-collar pragmatism that makes his steadfast belief in the paranormal a bit easier to swallow. Farmiga is also pretty fantastic as Lorraine - a clairvoyant who is haunted by her psychic visions, but also eager to use her gifts to help others. Farmiga has really become a favorite actress of mine of late, largely thanks to her turn as Norma Bates on the TV show Bates Motel. She's got a natural gift for playing slightly left-of-center, for making the weird feel normal. Wilson and Farmiga also have a natural, believable chemistry. And there's something refreshing about seeing a husband-and-wife team of heroes who really are partners in every sense of the word. Bonded by a shared belief that they were put together by fate for a higher purpose, the movie's Warrens are slightly kooky, sure, but they also are full of humanity. Wilson and Farmiga make them at once relatable yet iconic.
The movie very smartly divides its time about evenly between the Warrens and the family who they've devoted themselves to helping - the Perrons. The Perrons have recently moved to a semi-remote New England farmhouse, and very quickly, found themselves in the presence of some particularly unpleasant paranormal activity. At first, it was the youngest of the Perron's five daughters who began to suspect that something wicked might be afoot. But soon enough, the Perron patriarch Roger (Ron Livingston) and his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) are similarly spooked. Eventually, they attend a talk given by the Warrens and desperately seek out their help and advisement. The Warrens, sensing that this may be a legitimate case of a haunting (as it turns out, most of their cases turn out to have simple, logical explanations), agree to investigate.
Livingston and Taylor make the Perrons into compelling characters in their own right. Lili Taylor in particular is pretty fantastic in the film. Her growing sense of dread - and her maternal instincts to protect her daughters from whatever is haunting their home - is conveyed expertly by Taylor. Livingston brings his usual easygoing likability to Roger. He and Patrick Wilson's blue-collar bromance can get a bit goofy sometimes, but overall, Livingston does a nice job of helping to ground the movie's more out-there aspects. The kid actors are all also really good, with each of the girls playing the various Perron daughters doing a nice job, and really selling some of the scares effectively.
Wan, for his part, does a nice job of establishing the world of the Warrens. The movie actually starts with an intro showing them on another case. It's an opportunity for Wan to introduce a creepy-as-hell evil doll, but it's also a great way to show us what life is like for The Warrens. We see them out in the field, we see them giving university lectures to packed halls of paranormal enthusiasts, and we see them at home - where they have a young daughter of their own, often under the care of her grandmother while her parents are out on their adventures. Again, the fact that Want takes the time to create these fully-realized characters - who seem to exist beyond just the scope of the movie's main plotline - feels like good franchise building, but also like something beyond what we usually see in many horror films, where paper-thin characters are often a given. In the context of the movie, we also see how The Warrens have an alternative to their current life of placing themselves in danger. They've got a daughter at home, and cushy university lecturing gigs as a way to make an income. That feeling of risk, vs. the need to help others, helps create some of the film's central character-based conflict. There's also the fear that the Warren's investigations could come back to haunt them (literally and figuratively) in their home, and even place their daughter in danger.
Honestly, in some ways I found the movie's characters more compelling than its scares. I loved all the build-up in the film - the character stuff, the atmospherics, the sense of eeriness and creeping dread. The actual scares themselves are effective, but I personally still found that the movie relied too heavily on jump-scares. Look, horror movies are always going to look to shock and disturb us, but why does *every* single modern horror movie need to employ the "look, I made you jump!" style of scariness? In a movie like this one, where the slower, creepier parts are so effective, it seems especially jarring when everything just reverts to the sort of "lots of loud noises and things popping out of you" aesthetic, popularized of late by the Paranormal Activity movies. Don't get me wrong, as far as jump-scares go, the movie's got some good ones - and there's some really creepy imagery that accompanies many of them. I just feel like it can be a major cheat to produce scares with loud music cues or things popping out of the shadows all-of-a-sudden, especially when it's done in a way that disrupts the overall flow of the film. Tonal inconsistency, in general, is something that pops up occasionally in The Conjuring. For the most part, these are smart, well-written characters. But sometimes, the movie can't seem to resist having them follow "horror movie logic" instead of normal logic. And that means some moments of head-smacking "why would they do that ...?" in the midst of what is, for the most part, a really smartly-written and nuanced script.
To that end, I'll mention that another area where the script is really interesting and well-done is in the way it handles the Warrens' relationship with the Church. I (and many others, I suspect) have always been fascinated with the way in which the Catholic Church sanctions and oversees exorcisms, and just with the way the religion has as a part of its doctrine this whole supernatural aspect of demons, spirits, and devils. The Conjuring thoughtfully looks at the dichotomy of the modern church having to deal with these pretty out-there scenarios, and has some interesting scenes of the Warrens bringing their evidence to the Church in hopes of having a priest commissioned to perform an exorcism on the Perron's home. It's pretty interesting - the movie ends with an actual quote from Ed Warren talking about how God and the Devil are real. It sheds a sort of religious light on a movie that I wouldn't have called religious, per se, until that moment made me view it in that context. Again, there's sort of a weird meta thing going on, where you wonder to what extent the movie is "endorsing" the Warrens and the Church and almost serving as a bit of "yep, it's all real - so you'd better start a-prayin'!" propaganda. I don't think that's what Wan intended, exactly ... but I'll admit that the movie's roots in real people and events - and the way it, in retrospect, seemed to want to legitimately give some credence to those people and events and to the Church itself - left me feeling just a bit uneasy as the credits rolled. I'm a fan of the "based on true events" horror movie conceit, and know to take it with a pretty large grain of salt. But I didn't love that, even if just in some small way, the movie took on some slightly propaganda-ish overtones by it's end. Not a huge deal, but worth noting, I think.
Overall though, I really dug THE CONJURING, and would put it up there as one of the better horror films I've seen over the last year. With this film under his belt, James Wan has shown himself to be a versatile director, able to make horror movies that emphasize character and mood as much as shock-value and gore. It's to the movie's credit that it got an "R" rating without being overly explicit. Wan crafts a legitimately creepy, scary, unsettling film that generates plenty of great fright-night fun, but does so in large part thanks to characters we care about, whose fates we are invested in. I definitely want more of Farmiga and Wilson as the Warrens, and I can't help but find the promise of exploring more of the stories behind the artifacts in that museum of theirs to be pretty tantalizing.
My Grade: B+