Friday, October 14, 2016

The Films of 2013: The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013) is a slick and entertaining horror film buttressed by solid performances, good production values, and quite a few highly-effective jump scares.

The film’s recreation of the 1970s milieu is also effective, and pinpoints genuine terror in a time of our national “crisis of confidence.”  

For some reason, there’s just something about the 1970s -- the era of The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) -- that remains scary to many of us.  

Perhaps it is because the 1970s was the last time we really let ambiguity seep deeply into the national Zeitgeist, before it was “morning in America” again -- and eternally -- even in times of war or other strife.

There’s also some solid suspense wrought in The Conjuring’s first act, particularly in a chilling prologue involving a doll possessed by a demonic entity. This opening sequence plays like a mini-movie (or mini-Twilight Zone episode) in its own right, and gets things started off in good, creepy fashion.

All these values earn the film a positive recommendation from this writer, yet many aspects of The Conjuring don’t work nearly as well as they ought to, and manifest as a kind of carelessness in terms of storytelling.

In short, The Conjuring is an entertaining movie, but not a particularly deep one.

Elements of the film feel very familiar, and on top of that, narratively inconsistent.  The story makes a mincemeat over its central debate (the difference between a ghost and a demon), and even gets a key historical date wrong, all while banking on a “based-on-a-true-story” approach to add to the effectiveness of the horror. Then, the film ends with a paean to superstition, suggesting an ardent belief "in the fairy tale" (of an afterlife) rather than in the auspices of science and reason.

Also, and in some very crucial ways, The Conjuring feels more like a TV pilot  -- an inducement to franchise-i-fication -- than a horror film with the potential and desire to transgress, shatter decorum, or undercut convention.

To put this all another way: The Conjuring is a great roller-coaster ride and you’ll have a good time watching it.  Have no mistake about that.

But it simply isn’t the kind of horror movie that will trouble your slumber, or linger in your memory.  The film is entertaining in a generic “summer blockbuster way,” yet never quite succeeds as a work of transgressive art…which is the highest calling of the horror movie, in my opinion.

The Perron family moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island in the year 1971, and almost immediately begins to encounter strange, supernatural manifestations.  After the death of the dog, Sadie, events spiral out of control.  The girls report imaginary friends, the smell of rancid meat saturates the house, and the family even discovers a dark, hidden cellar. 
Bruised and oppressed by an unseen “ghost,”  matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor) seeks the assistance of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Verma Farmiga).  The couple visits the house and confirms that a demonic entity has “latched on” to the family.  The Warrens plan for an exorcism, but first must gather information so the Catholic Church can approve the procedure.
Research reveals that the Perron’s house was once home to a witch, Bathsheba, who murdered her infant child in an attempt to gain favor with the devil.  Bathsheba hanged herself soon thereafter, but not before cursing any and all trespassers on her land.
Ed and Lorraine worry that Bathsheba is now attempting to possess one of the Perrons, the most psychologically vulnerable of the clan. 
Before long, their fears come to fruition…even as Bathsheba also attempts to latch onto Lorraine, and her daughter…

When The Conjuring stays focused on the Perron family and their haunted farm house, or explores the possibilities of a malevolent ambulatory doll in its prologue (arguably the film’s most effective sequence), The Conjuring absolutely qualifies as an adroit horror machine, a roller-coaster ride with all the requisite bells and whistles.  The film is a big, successful crowd-pleaser.

And shit, what’s wrong with that?  

The film is a machine that works.

But test drive the machine some, and the film’s narrative doesn’t cohere.  For example, consider the film’s menace: a witch called Bathsheba who possesses mothers and makes them kill their children. 

The Conjuring spends a great deal of its early running time describing in detail the important differences between ghosts and demonic entities.  Ghosts haunt places; demonic entities latch onto people, the Warrens explain.  Demonic entities never walked the Earth as humans, but ghosts did.

All these “facts” are ably related by the film’s screenplay, but in terms of Bathsheba, the whole idea is terribly muddled. Bathsheba is a witch who died years ago, and who -- actually -- walked the Earth as a human.  So quite clearly, then, and by the Warrens’ own definition, she’s a ghost, not a demonic entity, right?

Yet the film continually refers to Bathsheba as a demonic entity who latches onto people (not to a place, like a ghost), when in fact she simply can’t be, since she was formerly a human being. 

The Conjuring thus seems terminally confused about the very nature of its monster.  

If Bathsheba’s a dead personality continuing to exist after the end of her life on this mortal coil, she’s a ghost. By Ed’s own definition -- provided in the prologue -- she can’t be a demon.  So our question to the film’s writers must be this: why go to such great lengths to present these definitions of ghosts and demons, then simply to ignore them?  Better not to bring up all these details in the first place if the script can't stick to them.

Secondly, Bathsheba’s range of powers shifts radically depending on the needs of the screenwriters.  At one point, Lorraine Warren turns her glance skyward, and ominous clouds blot out the sun, moving in around the house.  

The inference is that Bathsheba is literally casting a shadow over the land.  Similarly, Bathsheba can appear anywhere, at any time, and literally throw people around the room (gripping them by their hair).  She can press the trigger on a shotgun, and even shoot at people, too.

But yet Bathsheba can’t endure in the physical body of a mother who…wait for it…loves her children. 

The conclusion of The Conjuring literally suggests that Perron’s love of her children is the very thing that repels Bathsheba’s presence. 

This is a lovely sentiment about a mother’s love, to be certain, but not one that survives close scrutiny.  Given such facts, are we then to assume that the ghostly Rory’s mother didn’t love him, since Bathsheba possessed her, and she killed her own son? 

Or does Carolyn Perron just love her son more than Rory’s mother loved him?

Mother’s “love” is kind of an occupational hazard of the job, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t Bathsheba take that into account when possessing Moms?  It's like saying that a ghost who is allergic to garlic decides to possess only people who eat garlic.

The problem here is, frankly, a deeper one.  

The Conjuring simply doesn’t leave any room for ambiguity. It settles on its rules fairly quickly, and then attempts to show how those rules work in practice. Demonic entities are not ghosts, but beings that can latch onto people, and this demon, Bathsheba, exists to make mothers kill their children as she killed her own. The antidote for possession by Bathsheba is, per the climactic scene, a mother’s love. 

It’s all neatly tied up in bows for the audience, but that kind of clear-cut explanation of a supernatural entity’s motivation is the enemy of successful horror, which seeks to foster uncertainty, not bring clarity.

Even in terms of getting historical details right, The Conjuring trips over its feet. It is established that the events at the Perron family farm occur in the year 1971, for example. 

When the possession crisis ends, the Warrens return home, and get a call from a priest to investigate another haunting on Long Island: the Amityville Horror Case.

But history clearly records that the Lutzs didn’t even move into the house at Amityville until 1975.  If the Warrens are investigating the DeFeo case at the same house, well, those murders didn’t occur until 1974.

For a film that tries so hard to squeeze mileage out of a “based on a true story” approach, The Conjuring places fast and loose with the Warrens’ chronology (not to mention the actual fate of Bathsheba, in real life…).

I would agree that I am nitpicking here were it not for the fact that The Conjuring works so assiduously to succeed on its claims of veracity.  The movie even ends with authentic photographs of the Warrens and the Perrons, furthering the apparent connection to historical “fact.”  But the photographs are less persuasive than they appear.  All we see are personalities, never anything supernatural.  Given all the “demonic activity” that the Warrens witness (and record on film...) in The Conjuring, why not end this movie with their authentic footage, with excerpts from some of their "sessions" curing people of possession?  Or, the film could play the audio of the possessed woman that apparently spawned the making of the film

But instead, this true story only throws up a few photos which establish, simply, that the Warrens and the Perrons knew each other, in the 1970s.

The very structure of The Conjuring actually diminishes real psychic fear or terror too.  Ed and Lorraine are presented as demonologists who do this kind of work on a regular basis.  The film opens with one of their previous cases (and again, quite effectively so…).  The movie ends with the promise that we will see their future cases.  In the middle, we see their present “case.”

So, essentially, then, we know that Ed and Lorraine, a priori, are going to survive whatever horrors they face in the film. 

That’s why I made the comparison to a TV pilot in my introduction: The Conjuring feels more like a set-up for a (perhaps very good…) TV series: one in which we follow a pair of investigators on their quest to deal with supernatural entities. 

But most horror movies are built around their monster, not their protagonists, and the could be a problem, going forward, for the franchise.  We know the Warrens are going to "make it," don't we?

The true concern here, however, is that in terms of the horror genre all of this franchise setting-up only serves to diminish the terror of this entry. We’re being prepared, from start to finish, in The Conjuring for a movie series…and that very fact takes away the filmmakers’ ability to surprise audiences, or take risks with structure, format and theme.

A really good, really memorable horror movie must subvert expectations and play with those things -- think Psycho, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even Wolf Creek.  

Or think instead about the sub-textual messaging of The Amityville Horror (1979), a very like-minded haunted house film from 1979 that treads in economic woes (as a source no less than Stephen King commented on...).  The haunted house there, in other words, was a metaphor for something else; something disturbing the society of the Carter recession.  

By contrast, there is no meaningful structural or thematic subtext in The Conjuring.  It is simply – and I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment – a strikingly effective “scare” machine.  The "bumps" and jump scares are orchestrated brilliantly and effectively.

But the supernatural encounters in The Conjuring, while well-vetted in terms of visual presentation (make-up, wire-work, and so forth), are also, alas from the same stew of genre clichés we’ve seen many times in recent years. 

The exorcism angle we’ve seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Devil Inside (2012) to name just three films of the last decade. 

The ghost hunters we’ve met recently in films like Apartment 143 (2012), and the malevolent entity endangering families might as well be the demon from The Possession (2012), the evil inter-dimensional interloper from The Apparition (2012), or the child-killer of Sinister (2012).  

While I enjoy the fact that The Conjuring locates the 1970s as America’s decade of true terror (it was, in a very real sense, given the Oil Embargo of 1973, Watergate, Three Mile Island, and the Vietnam War), the period trappings are simply not enough to make The Conjuring feel original or fresh.

Again, I wish to be plain.  I enjoyed The Conjuring.  It passed the time pleasantly and scarily, and I jumped a few times, but there is not one quality about this film that takes a chance or risk, or that challenges the audience’s perceptions of reality. 

Imagine how we’d look at Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, or other films deemed “classic” today, if they had adopted the same commercial approach.

So The Conjuring will entertain you, but it will not, I suspect, endure as a horror classic in the way that those other films have.  It may be remembered as the start of a durable film series that entertains, but that's it.

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