Monday, August 12, 2013

The Conjuring


Grade: 44/C

James Wan started as the gore-hound behind the schlocky but successful Saw, but lately, many have praised him for crafting old-fashioned, atmospheric ghost stories. Those people are on drugs. His latest, The Conjuring, has been touted as one of the most frightening films in ages, but it’s really little more than a slightly more proficient remake of his earlier, inexplicably praised Insidious. Like that film, it’s hokey and derivative exercise in that doesn’t do much more than yell “boo!” at the audience over and over again.

1971: Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) have just moved to an old farmhouse with their five daughters. It isn’t long before strange things to start happening- their dog shows up dead, weird bruises show up on Carolyn’s body, and a few of the daughters start to see spirits. The Perrons contact Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a pair of paranormal investigators, for help. The Warrens soon find that the house has a terrifying history, and that tragedy will strike the Perrons if they don’t act soon.

The Conjuring largely feels like a grab-bag of elements from other horror movies, some effective (the use of a large armoire that’s reminiscent of The Haunting), most not (a family/investigator dynamic taken from Poltergeist, a haunted child/ball from The Changeling, more than a few bits from The Exorcist). It’s hardly uncommon for a director to reference his influences, but it’s distracting in a horror movie when so many of the scares are based off of other famous movie scares.

To be fair, he does craft a few memorable scenes, most notably a game of “hide and clap” and the use of a single lighted match in a dark space. But the film also has a number of obvious, count down till it happens scares, at it shares Insidious’ need to constantly play loud, dissonant music as a scare tactic. Unless you’re building an atmosphere of constant creeping dread the way Kubrick did with The Shining, a little bit of that goes a long way, and a lot is suffocating, especially if it’s used to punctuate damn near every shock moment. It’s as if Wan didn’t trust us to find something scary. By the end, the film collapses into sub-Exorcist hooey, the feeling that this guy is trying way, way too hard is unmistakable.

But what’s most frustrating about The Conjuring is its staggering structural ineptitude. The film begins in 1968 with an introduction to the Warrens on the job, flashes back to the haunting they’re investigating, then pulls out to reveal that the Warrens are actually discussing this particular haunting with their class. It gives some exposition on who these people are and what they do, but it also unloads a lot of information that has no bearing on the primary action of the film.

Much of the movie can’t decide whether Ed, Lorraine, or Carolyn is the protagonist, and while the film is (allegedly) based on a real haunting, Wan would do best to pare down the number of daughters the Perrons have, as most of them are interchangeable and superfluous to the narrative. You are allowed to change things from real life if they suit the story’s purpose, dude! Then there’s a number of elements (a young boy’s ghost, a haunted doll from the previous case) that are treated inconsistently as either benign or malevolent, narrative threads that go nowhere (the clairvoyant Lorraine seeing something during an exorcism), and a final note that refuses to deal with a number of other dangling threads. The Conjuring is likely Wan’s best movie yet, but moving from incompetence to semi-competence isn’t that laudable a feat.

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