FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Nov 12, 2013

Film Club: The Conjuring

It's about time I saw The Conjuring, isn't it? Everyone has had their hands down their pants over this flick since it hit theaters, where it racked up more money than every other horror movie combined. It's the best genre film since forever, director James Wan is single-handedly saving the industry, it's got a 7.6 on IMDb, it's #31 on the What Movies Have Scared You the Most, I would have seen this months ago if I wasn't such a creepy recluse! Now that The Conjuring and I have gotten conjugal, how oh how do I feel?

Purportedly based on true events, The Conjuring tells the story of the Perron family, who seek the help of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren to rid their house of some seriously troublesome malevolent force. Kids are yanked out of bed, doors open and close, knocks are heard when there ain't no one knocking...pretty standard modus operandi for a ghost poltergeist demon, pretty standard horror movie stuff. So why is everyone flipping out over The Conjuring?

Well, everyone is flipping out because the film is, quite simply, designed to scare you. At times, it works- I mean, noises coming from somewhere in the dark is super effective, duh. If the subject matter is treated seriously- and The Conjuring takes itself really, really seriously- then the audience is bound to respond. One sequence in particular had me...hmm, how to describe, hmm. Okay, if The Conjuring had a hand, one sequence would have had me eating right out of the palm of it: the scene that finds Perron matriarch Carolyn (Lili Taylor) investigating those noises in the dark. Super effective! Hooray!

But man, I dunno. The rest of it seemed so calculated, so obvious, a bit like one of those haunted houses that pop up around Halloween. You know, you walk through it and it's dark and creepy and you're clinging to the shirt of the person in front of you and your stomach is twisted up in knots...but then part of you knows exactly how everything will play out. You see are dark corner and you think, "Okay, so that's where the person will jump out at me." You walk by a closed door and you know it's going to pop open. There's nothing wrong with this, and it's fun to get on board and just go with it. But ultimately, rather than burrow under your skin and stay with you, it's sort of fleeting and cheap and hollow. Like some of my best relationships! Heyoooooo!

It's to the film's detriment that Wan establishes a standard routine to the scares: there's a lure, a false scare, and then the real scare, ahh! It doesn't help that he seems reluctant to let a moment linger. Instead, there's always a music sting or a jump scare to wrap things up. On the rare occasions he allows a scene to progress slowly, it's terrific: when a terrified young girl whispers to her sister that there's someone standing in the dark behind her bedroom door, it's the stuff of childhood nightmares played out. I wanted more of that, the creeping dread, and less of the startles, if you know what I mean.

I have no idea whether or not Ed and Lorraine Warren are a couple of sheisters, capitalizing on peoples' fears and gullibility. Mind, I say "I have no idea" while knowing that they undoubtedly's just that I find a world where demons are a possibility much more interesting than one where they are not, so a part of me will always entertain the notion that the Warrens were on the up and up. Regardless, The Conjuring doesn't quite know what to do with the couple, and this is where the film really falls apart. We get some backstory (which also allows James Wan to once again confront his fear of creepy-looking dolls) and see them lecturing, sure, but there are only hints at how their demon-busting ways have affected their lives. There's too much on the Warrens, but also not enough. We know God brought them together, as they say, and we know that they've seen some why are they so friggin' boring?

The Conjuring is essentially set up like a porno: the scenes between the "good stuff" are total throwaways, the ones you fast-forward through to get to the sexy times (or, in this case, the scary times). When Carolyn attends one of the Warrens' lectures and then tries to convince them to investigate her house, it is some "Who ordered the sausage pizza?" shit! Basically, it's this:

Carolyn: Some weird stuff is happening at my house. Will you come look?
Ed and Lorraine: No, sorry...
Carolyn: Please?
Ed and Lorraine: Okay.

And the fact that somehow, Lorraine has done some research and solved every single mystery and figured out every single clue and explains it all to Ed in 15 seconds? You get the idea that the film was originally a bunch of scary ideas, and then right before shooting, everyone realized they needed some scenes in between.

Girl, and don't even get me started on that exorcism.

Okay, do get me started.

So, exorcisms are a big deal, right? There needs to be research and documentation. Permission must be granted from on high (if not from the Exorcist Committee of the Vatican or what have you). They are serious business and only once in a while are they ever performed. When they are performed, it's by, you know, an exorcist. The Conjuring makes note of all of these facts...and then craps all over them. Here's how you can perform an in-home, priestless exorcism today, according to this movie:

1. Believe in God
2. Read from "the book"
3. Sprinkle some holy water
4. Remind the possessed person about something nice

That's it! The possessed person will then barf out the demon, problem solved. I don't see why Fathers Merrin and Karras got so worked up about the MacNeil affair and why it took such a heavy toll on them, or why they had to take breaks. That shit looks easy!

I know, it seems like I'm harshing on this movie. Maybe I am a little bit. I thought the "so this one Salem witch was a real witch, honest" angle to be somewhat distasteful. As I said, the scare pattern took away much of its power, and I spent the last 20 minutes or so just waiting for it to be over. I did have some fun with it, but I'm sorry to say that my hands are decidedly outside of my pants over The Conjuring.

EDITED TO ADD: For real, can someone explain to me how this was a demon and not just the ghost of the witch? Is it because she was all "Go, Satan!" so he made her a demon? Or, what, ghosts can't possess people and the film needed a possession? I am for real confused.

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Jason Adams said...

Totes with ya, Stacie! I reviewed this forever and a day ago and we share a bunch of the same grievances; I saw it a few months before it came out and then when it came out and everybody went crazy and it made all of the money I was pretty confounded. I mean I won't begrudge it some popularity, it certainly adores the horror genre, but I don't think very much of it works.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen it yet, but that exorcism sounds like a Protestant snake-wriggler casting-out instead of the Catholic Method. You may know that independent Protestants (Pentecostals, Indy Baptists, etc) allow anyone struck with the Spirit to do God's work (these are the guys with 6 year old street preachers). Love your blog!

Stacie Ponder said...

Some stuff just catches on, I guess. I can see how this would have been fun in a theater full of people that are really into it, screaming and yelling. Beyond that, though...hmm. I guess it's more shocking that so many genre fans are goo-gooing over it, since basically the same thing has been done many times before (and, on occasion, much better). I just didn't find much meat on dem bones.

Steven and Elizabeth said...

The sister whispering "It's behind you!" was indeed some good stuff, and any film featuring The Warrens most definitely could've been worse. But my overall reaction by the end was like that after senior prom. "I got all dressed up for that!?" Followed immediately by a bottle of Strawberry Hill.

Verdant Earl said...

Maybe I was blinded by the 1970's of it all, I dunno. But I agree with some of your larger criticisms, even though I enjoyed the film more than you did.

Stacie Ponder said...

I wish I'd been blinded by the 70s-osity! It's the best decade, no doubt.

I will say, I enjoyed the music/sounds that played over the end credits very much.

timothy grant said...

Like it was written from my own brain. When they were all "She was a witch who sacrificed her baby to Satan!" I was all like what?!?! (Tire screech. Record needle scratch.) Witches don't do that. Therefore, these folks are cons. Therefore, they can't be the heroes of the movie. Even if Patrick Wilson is rocking those sexy 70s sideburns like nobody's biz.

AE said...

I totally agree that it was horror porn! That's an excellent analogy. I went home totally satisfied from seeing this, but it hasn't really stayed with me -- I had to google the plot after reading your post, because I had forgotten the witch mythology altogether. What I liked most was Lili Taylor being scared in the house. The rhythm of the Warrens' arrival felt really off to me -- they came in sooner than I expected -- but I loved Annabelle and the idea that these superhero-ghost people were vulnerable too.

I hadn't thought about the fact that it's a Protestant exorcism -- timwburke makes an excellent point. Such a thing would definitely not have the same feel as a Catholic exorcism! But I wasn't wild about any of the possession scenes -- somehow "is she going to kill her child?" is considerably less scary than "is there something down that dark hallway?"

Funny how your last couple posts have been about Lili Taylor movies. She needs to do more horror! I really loved her in this -- she's such a natural, down-to-earth presence that she looks good against a supernatural setting. You think "crap, if Lili Taylor's afraid, I better be too." Or at least I do.

Stacie Ponder said...

I'd almost written something about how I love Lili Taylor in everything, but then I remembered The Haunting. Even my love for her cannot overcome the hatred.

I thought it would have been better/tighter/whatever if we didn't even meet the Warrens until Carolyn goes to their lecture. They were the "stars", but I still don't really know anything about them, so all their other scenes feel tacked on.

Andrew Bemis said...

Don't worry about linking this - I liked the movie quite a bit, but on a second viewing, I found that I just don't have that much to say about it. A friend of mine was right, the movie's almost completely free of subtext. Still, I wrote a few ideas about it here.

Ryan Clark said...

I have to say I agree with you. I liked the film to a point, particularly the first half, but it really fell apart and dragged on far too long. Also, they totally lost me with the whole possession thing. The Conjuring kind of reminded me of Amityville II: The Possession in that it starts out as a haunted house flick and then becomes a knock-off of The Exorcist.

Bleed For Me. said...

Whenever something gets tied into religion, it fails to scare me... especially exorcism films. Dead horse.

I will say the first ten minutes or so with the doll got me good, and the creepy house kept me invested, but once the stage was set for the paranormal investigators to hit the scene, I was ready for a nap.

Great review. Wish I hadn't beaten you to this film by a week, I'd have measured my expectations accordingly.

Colleen said...

TrG, Thank You! This was when they lost me 100% and became the bad guys. It was compounded by the fact that they claim that Salem "witches" were actual witches working for Satan instead of the victims that they truly all were. As a Wiccan, I was disgusted. I totally ranted on my friend who recommended the movie to me; why on Earth would he think I'd enjoy a movie that falsifies history for its own agenda? Ugh. The whole "Based on a true story" thing slayed me.

Anonymous said...

Good review Stacie. Was scary in bits and pieces, but overall, the type of flick that's better to see in a huge crowd, just because of the fun feel you get from being all jumpy.

Jae Harrison said...

I like to think they purposefully didn't show too much of the Warrens and their backstory to make us all Google them after the movie - because is probably the most amazing how-is-this-even-serious?? website I think I've seen.

CashBailey said...

It's a very well-made movie. And it would be terrifying to someone who hadn't seen the trailer.

Also, I generally dislike any spooky movie that still goes for the 'Based on a True Story' nonsense. Where I work I remember a few of the other staff watched the trailer for this on an iPhone and freaked out. It was capped off by the owner of said phone saying "And it was based on a true story..." with something like awe.

Just goes to show that bullshit still sucks in some (a lot of) people.

Deadthyme said...

What agreat review of this movie! I didn't review it on my blog because I didn't want to support it, but I linked to your review because it's perfect!

Anonymous said...

I liked it. It creeped me out and I thought the performances were good. James Wan's stuff works on me. His "scary people" are scary and I share his fears of fucked up dolls and screaming women.

Mark Trammell said...

I liked the whole aspect of it playing like a greatest hits of horror. I also liked that it was more of an old-school horror approach. I saw it with a sold-out crowd and it played like gangbusters. Some movies work better that way, some don't. I haven't watched it alone yet, but I remember seeing the first "Paranormal Activity" alone at home on a computer and it was pretty intense, then seeing it with a packed crowd later and thinking it was actually kind of boring, so maybe that is a big factor. I'm just glad they're making more movies like this, as I was getting awfully tired of the whole "torure porn" thing. Here's my original review of "The Conjuring," in case you (or anyone else) is interested:

Carrie said...

I actually went to one of the Warren’s lectures many years ago when I was in college. I found them fascinating so I’m disappointed to hear they come off boring in the movie. They had some great stories and the pictures of things they’d kept from various hauntings creeped me out - especially the doll that supposedly inspired Chucky (I’m a sucker for Chucky). They might be sheisters but they were a hoot! I’m still going to check out the movie (I, too, am a recluse so I have not seen it).

Beaucoup Bucks said...

The first half was great and I think what helped elevate it above the usual modern horror fare was the performances of the actors. There seemed to be some kind of heavy Matriarchal type theme in there - what with the whole Witch, Carolyn and Lorraine character triangle? But yeah - they showed the ghost way too early and the build up to, and execution of, the exorcism was a bit silly. Agreed on the demon vs/ ghost point, too. Ed negates what he says about the Anabelle demon when he describes a demonic presence as being something that has never walked the earth but then labels the witch as a demonic presence when she is just a ghost. I think that the "you have a lot of spirits in here but this is the one I'm most worried about because it is so hateful." line will go on to become famous. It was good in the theatre because lots of teenagers were terrified :)

Dead In Hell said...

As usual, I found this review considerably more entertaining than the film. I don't get Wan. At all. I've never enjoyed a film he's made. I really like Patrick Wilson, and even he can't make me like these. It has to be some kind of generational thing. I wasn't 13 enough when SAW came out to think this guy is a master of horror.

I didn't grow up in the '80s, but my local video store sure did. My taste is rooted in the classic slasher franchises (you know the ones), alongside the Evil Dead trilogy, Phantasm, Hellraiser, NOTLD and other such things. It pains me that slashers have gone the way of DTV dreadfulness (the bad kind of dreadfulness, Silent Scream 2005 dreadfulness) and supernatural horror is dominated by stale exorcism/possession/haunting jobs. And I won't even start on zombies (Stacie's Survival of the Dead review sums it up pretty well).

If The Conjuring has one thing going for it, besides Patrick Wilson standing in front of spooky things, it's that it isn't found footage or SOV. Cinematography is a real thing. I'd like to see more of it in the genre these days.