Monday, August 19, 2013

Delusions in the Witch House

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring

There’s a depressing sameness to the middlebrow horror that’s being released into the multiplexes these days. Without gainsaying their various qualities, there’s not a lot of difference between the basic elements of, say, The Possession and The Devil Inside and Mama and Sinister and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Woman in Black. All of them represent a kind of zeitgeist, in which the signature horror of the times is the family unit under threat. This is the horror movie at its most conservative, if not at its most formulaic. This is doubly true of 2013’s The Conjuring (directed by James Wan), which gathers up familiar elements from the genre toybox and assembles yet another portrait of the nuclear family under siege. If you’re looking for something new, or even a fresh wrinkle on something old, you will look for it in vain in this movie.

The story follows the fortunes of two families: the Perrons, who have just moved into a house in rural Rhode Island, and the Warrens, a husband and wife team of paranormal researchers/ghost hunters. The Perrons discover in pretty short order that their house is profoundly haunted: their youngest of five daughters finds a new invisible friend, while some other force plays meaner and meaner tricks on the other members of the family. Every night at 3:07, all the clocks in the house stop. The family dog won’t enter the house, and on the second day there, the dog is found dead outside. The Warrens, by contrast, have settled into a life as paranormal experts. They keep a museum of occult and cursed items in their house. But things are not hunky dory. Lorraine Warren carries with her the trauma of their last investigation, an exorcism. Ed Warren thinks he can handle investigations on his own, much to her annoyance. They have a daughter whom they leave in the care of the child’s grandmother when they go out on an investigation. Eventually, the Perrons and the Warrens cross paths when Carolyn Perron seeks them out for help. Carolyn, it seems, is the particular focus of the forces in her house. The most malevolent of these forces is Bathsheba Sherman, a purported witch who possesses mothers and kills their children. The Perrons have five daughters.

The Conjuring is a fairly standard contemporary horror film, shot in a desaturated, autumnal palette, emphasizing its period (it’s set in 1971) and replete with ghosts wandering into the frame at stock beats. The elements it brings to bear are all familiar: the paranormal investigators, the cursed objects (particularly beat up antique toys), demonic possession. This is another “one from column A” film. It shares its imagery with The Woman in Black (sinister toys), Mama (unseen entities playing with children), Sinister (the hanging tree), and any number of haunted house movies from The Haunting of Hill House to The Legend of Hell House to Poltergeist. You’ve seen this movie before, and often better. But that’s the nature of genre and I really shouldn’t be complaining about it. This is executed with a fair degree of professionalism, though it lacks in any kind of signature style.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring

Certainly, its ghosts are unimaginative. This is a movie that could have used a more competent conceptual designer, because its ghosts are nothing special: mostly human beings in pale make-up and eyes darkened with kohl. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a crisis in horror movies surrounding the design of creatures. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore. There’s only one scene in The Conjuring that made me sit up and take notice of its cleverness, in which a windstorm frees a sheet from a clothesline and it winds up wrapped around an unseen figure. As images go, this is witty: something new with a ghost and a sheet, that hoary old cliche. Other horror archetypes, by contrast, get short shrift. If you want a demonic witch, well, you’ll be disappointed in the one in this film. I know that nobody likes the film but me (apparently), but if you want an example of truly frightening witches, take a look at Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness. This film gives us Lili Taylor with a pair of contact lenses. Mind you, I like Lili Taylor and she’s committed to the part, but director James Wan does her no favors. The best I can say about The Conjuring is that it has good actors in it. Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have been making side careers in horror movies and they’re both usually better than the material deserves. That’s true here, as they invest the Warrens with a kind of gravity that sells them as credible supernatural paladins. That the film gives them nothing but variants of, “I don’t want you to get hurt this time,” and “God brought us together for a reason,” as character development is almost criminal. This is another in a long line of bourgeois horror film that reifies the sanctity of the nuclear family, too, which is annoying if inevitable. It makes me appreciate Sinister and its instinct for the jugular even more than I did while I was watching it.

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring

The thing that really galls me about this movie, though, is the sheer credulity of it. This is “based on a true story,” as it were, and it’s true that the Warrens and the Perrons are real people and the Warrens did investigate the Perrons’s haunting in 1971. But here’s where I have, shall we say, a philosophical difference with this movie. This is all presented by the movie as fact. This movie believes in what it’s putting on screen and the end title features a real quote from Ed Warren that asserts as fact that “The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges on which we decide to follow.” The movie even tries to deflect any kind of skepticism of the Warrens when, in talking to a college auditorium, they say, “We've been called ghost hunters. Paranormal researchers. Wackos.” Self-deprecation as credibility. At its core, The Conjuring is religious propaganda, in the best tradition of The Exorcist. For me, this is a serious problem. It's why I don't generally like movies built around demonic possession. There’s a further problem with this, though. The Warrens themselves, in real life, aren’t credible.

Now, let me head this off at the pass: I can respond to supernatural horror as a fantasy, as dream language, as a manifestation of the collective unconscious, as a collection of archetypes acting as signposts to a universal massmind. As fiction, in other words. As a movie. This movie, by way of contrast, passes itself off as a true story, featuring representations of real people. As such, I think it becomes fair game for skepticism. The history of the Warrens is not above reproach. Their most famous case was the Amityville haunting, which has been thoroughly debunked in spite of what you may believe from the Hollywood versions, or from the protestations of the Warrens themselves. Their second most famous case, filmed as The Haunting in Connecticut a couple of years ago, has also been debunked. The movie’s self-deprecation, when they call themselves wackos and kooks, takes on a different tone in light of the history of the people involved. If you want to suspend your disbelief for the sake of the movie, well, that’s your business, I guess, and I can’t argue against that. For myself, though, I find it hard to disengage my reaction to bullshit when I see it.


Emily Walker said...

Originally, I wasn't going to watch this movie, as I have a really low opinion of the Warrens, but I heard it was really scary so I decided to give it a try. I actually thought that the first half was really good -- sure, it was using predictable stuff, but isn't pretty much everything in this genre done to death already? Still, I wanted to know what the house's story was, and I did jump quite a few times (the clapping scene was my favorite.)

But the second part...ughh. I agree with you about the religious propaganda. And how did the ghost turn into a demon? I guess because with the Warrens it's always a demon.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. The Clapping Ghost was pretty good. I remember seeing a guy speak at Dragon*Con who debunked ghost hunter shows, and he related a story about a warm spot on a wall in one of the houses they were looking at. The ghost hunters (not the Warrens) immediately theorized that it was a portal to another dimension. They went RIGHT there. The debunker dude pointed out that it could be, say, a rats nest or somesuch. It turned out to be a bee hive in the wall. The Conjuring shows the Warrens going for at least one rational explanation, but I wonder if they were that skeptical. I somehow don't think they were.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oh, and it's been noted --particularly by horror writer Ray Garton--that the Warrens started seeing demons where before they saw ghosts at the time of The Exorcist. More profitable, I guess.

Dan O. said...

Nice review Vulnavia. Didn't terrify me to bits, but also didn't bore me either. Very fun, and one of the better horror flicks I've seen since Sinister for the most part.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Dan.

You definitely liked this film more than I did, based on your review. I can't say I was bored with The Conjuring, but my engagement with it wasn't exactly what I want from a horror film.