The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan (Dir.), Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lily Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, the Children of the Corn: Female Edition, and a Creepy Fucking Doll
Um…guys…can you, um, switch on the lights? Please? Like…like…all of them?
Guys? Why isn’t the light switch working? *Click, click* Guys? This isn’t funny.
HOLY FUCKING SHIT. WHAT WAS THAT? Did that door open by itself? Guys, I’m being serious right now. Fucking stop it.
JESUS MARY JOSEPH AND THE OTHER ALL THE OTHER PLANETEERS, WHAT WAS THAT?
Oh. It was just a camera getting really close to my face. Get out of my way, camera. Why are you so close to me? Why are you focusing just behind my head and not on my face? And why is it so silent all of a sudden?
Wait…wait…should I look behind me? I’m gonna look…I’m gonna look behind me…right…now…
(Commercial Voice) Talk to your doctor today about The Conjuring to help with your dyschezia. If you suffer from backed-up bowels The Conjuring might be for you. Side effects include: Mild Heart Failure, Spontaneous Urination, Close-Up Camera Fatigue, Acute 70s Nostalgia, Exorcist Deja Vu, and Bat-Shit Lily Tomlin Syndrome (BSLTS or BathSaLTS). If you or any loved ones suffer nychtophobia, insomnia, sciophobia, wiccaphobia, pediophobia or Vera-Farmigitis, please consult your physician before trying The Conjuring.
Oh the horror (genre). The horror…(genre). What a silly beast you are. My love for you is as undying as your supernatural antagonists and the rage you cause me is comparable to transforming me into a machete-weilding hockey-masked demon and slicing up my Netflix Account (side note: does anyone know a quick fix for “Machete in Your PS3”? I googled it, but there’s nothing helpful). It is a genre that has produced perhaps some of the greatest and certainly the most turd-ulent of cinematic terrors. On the one hand, we have The Shining. On the other…Paranormal Activity 4. In the ‘good’ category, there’s Rosemary’s Baby and in the bad there’s, well, everything else. Other than the annual Spielbergian Oscar grabs, there is no class of movies more emotionally manipulative or as formulaic. While, for the most part, the directors of these schlockfests usually depend upon cheap scares and the cinematic equivalent of ‘Gotcha’ Journalism, sometimes horror movies can be more effective than most at delving into deeper questions about the fabric and quality of humanity. While a soul-searching, uplifting drama of nauseating optimism might champion the strength of the human spirit, horror can venture equally far into the darkness. As they say, the brighter the sun, the darker the shadow. And if they don’t, they should (even though it makes no physical sense).
Mr. James Wan, the director of this quaint little ditty, is a fascinating fellow. His career, though short, is as storied and perhaps more grotesquely marred than Nick Nolte’s DUI record. His first film, Saw, the Rosa Parks of torture porn, if you will, transformed the terrorscape forever more, shifting mindless zero-budget BS from the hack-and-slashers of what I call the “80s Hangover”, towards the direction of the openly misogynistic (Hostel: Part II), the purely sadistic (The Human Centipede: Full Sequence) or the utterly pus-ridden and mind-melting (Saw III). Since then, he’s explored the failed career of Donnie Wahlberg as he fights dolls (Dead Silence), Kevin Bacon getting angry (Death Sentence) and the utterly bemusing and more-tonally-inconsistent-than-a-dubstep-appreciation-concert Insidious. It was that last film that clued me into a long lost talent, residing hidden below the surface of jump-scares and nonsensical scary mask design. The first act of Insidious is careful and tense, allowing shots to linger and the silence to infest. It employed Actors (with a capital A) such as stage veteran Patrick Wilson and so-deadpan-you-need-to-check-for-a-pulse Rose Byrne. There were shocks and genuinely disturbing imagery gradually seeping through each frame, growing to a throbbing and spine-tingling crescendo… And then the second half begins and subtlety is thrown to the wind, like a pair of panties captured after a Revenge of the Nerd-esque undergarment raid. We have mediums and ghostbusters and battles in the land of the spirits, not to mention an out-of-the-blue plot point that derails the story faster than you can say “Where the fuck did that creepy old lady come from?”
Now, we have the next stage of his horror opus, The Conjuring. This little ditty tells the tale of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the most famous real-life demonoligists this side of the River Styx, as they tackle a tormented house in the backwoods of Rhode Island (and, yes, Rhode Island has backwoods, no matter how small you think it is. Well, it’s more of a back ‘garden’, but you get the idea). Now, these two were the ones brought in to exorcise the Amityville Horror back in the day (though they couldn’t exorcise some fucking profit from the 2006 remake. BOOYAH!) and their work inspired the so-straight-forward-it-might-as-well-be-a-fucking-ruler titled A Haunting in Connecticut. You thought that stuff was scary? No? Well, neither did anyone else, BUT, and that’s a massive Kardashian-sized heiny, this is the scariest tale of them all. Or, at least, the Polanski-esque credits tell us so in the opening frames. Wilson, taking a second crack at a decent movie with Wan, is back as Ed and the delectable and inexplicably frilly-caped Vera Farmiga joins the crew as Lorraine. They hold the center of this tale, their chemistry unmistakable; and they offer a beating heart that is so often lacking in this sort of by-the-numbers ghost story nonsense. The family, on the other hand, does their best to exemplify the classic American Unit, though there’s so many of them (all female) that 1) it’s impossible to distinguish any of them, other than the one that was in White House Down and 2) they look like the Children of the Fucking Corn. I half expected them to transform into some kind of satanic Wicker Woman and cover Patrick Wilson in bees. The parental units are the targets, however. Lily Taylor, an actress who has already slogged through the supernatural sewer in 1999’s Owen-Wilson-gets-decapitated classic The Haunting, has once more drawn the short straw. Throughout the course of the film, along with Ms. Farmiga, she is dragged through metaphorical and literal hell. Meanwhile, Ron “That Guy Whose Career Stalled After Office Space Because He Only Speaks in Semi-Concerned Monotone” Livingston gets off almost scott-free as the kinda distant, mostly clueless father.
Alright, what’s the plot? Fresh off the case of the Freakiest Demonic Doll You’ve Ever Fucking Seen, the Warrens are called in to investigate the Perron family. They’ve been plagued with night after night of knocks and claps and smashing things and closing doors and opening doors and odors of rotting meat. The Warrens show up and Farmiga immediately goes into “Pressurized Eyeballs Being Sucked From Skull” mode. Shit ain’t right. After about 10 minutes of research, they discover that a witch literally sacrificed her child to Satan and then hung herself on the property about a hundred years before. Since then, there have been suicides and murder-suicides in store for any family unlucky enough to file a mortgage on the place. At this point, Ed Warren literally says, “Well, that explains a lot.” No joke. Anyhoo, the hauntings become worse and Bathsheba (yep, actual name) possesses the poor and haggard Ms. Taylor, who then spends the latter half of the movie acting like hemophilic Beatles fan. The haunting escalates faster than a moving walkway on meth and soon they have no choice but to exorcise the spirit without the Vatican’s help.
To be clear, there is nothing, I mean nothing innovative about this movie. You will most likely walk from the theater muttering, “I’ve seen all that before.” But your knees are still shuddering and you still check behind every goddamn door in your darkened home before slipping into bed. It seems that this is James Wan’s attempt at pure quality rather than creative depth. Almost every frame is referential to every decent horror film for the last 30 years, most notably The Exorcist. But the references don’t plague the film. They’re subtle emotional cues that, for those that notice them, usually act as harbingers of anxiety. This movie is tense. Wan knows that he only has about three tricks in his shallow tool bag, but he knows how to use them. Where Kubrick employed color tone and long, static lingering shots, Wan keeps things close, dark and unbroken. So often he keeps the take going as long as humanly possible, no doubt orchestrating some kind of graceful choreography behind the scenes to catch us off guard at every moment. It would have been nice to see this story, set in the mid-70s, to have been filmed on actual film rather than HD digital. But, alas, such things are of the past for money-minded studios. Along with that, one of Wan’s most beloved fallbacks is his creature design. He can’t help tossing in a creepy doll here and an old-lady face there. The film is truly unnerving when the threat is only suggested, much as Spielberg discovered in Jaws. Luckily, Wan’s visual indiscretion doesn’t become apparent until closer to the end, when the witch begins popping into frame with increasingly pointless frequency, a pale imitation of a Sam Raimi prosthetic. Until you see it, though, the movie is tenser than Thanksgiving Dinner after Grandma Sally brings up ‘The Negroid Problem’.
James Wan, for all of his earlier career faults, is gradually growing into a solid delivery boy of scares. His talent may seem limited to a few predictable fall-backs, but he manages to keep his direction tight and focused. I held my hand over my eyes for a good many sections of the movie. I DON’T DO THAT. EVER. For me, most scary movies are about as unnerving as a fucking squirrel in a tutu. Usually all I do is laugh and then question the humanity of dressing up a rodent in a ballerina outfit. Wan’s skill increases dramatically with every feature, both figuratively and literally. While his next movie might be the seemingly tepid sequel to the bat-shit Insidious, the feature following is the seventh addition to the brain-explodingly brilliant Fast and Furious franchise. Perhaps there he will discover a new set of tricks, what with abs and biceps and carburetors flying about the frame, before returning to horror with a set of terror-inducing weaponry to truly create something magnificent.
Godspeed, sir. Godspeed.