Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Conjuring Review: Call it The Borrowing instead

Finally, I had a chance to watch The Conjuring, a much-lauded horror film, among my peers and critics alike. The peers include fellow members of the (Not The) Masters of Horror film club, Miss Jay and the Maniac of Barbosa. The Maniac actually watched the film two and half times; don’t ask...he’s dubbed a Maniac for a reason. He’ll watch anything, anyhow, any number of times. I respect that. Now, on with the film review.
The Conjuring revisits of a plethora of older 1970’s and 1980’s possession and haunting horror fare. Think horror involving poltergeists, Satan speaking through little girls, and brooding, scary old houses, mixed with a dash of security-camera-footage-disguised-as-regular-film-shots. Think Spielberg blended with Friedkin blended with a tad too much CGI. But is The Conjuring good? In a word—no. At least, not to the discerning horror viewing palette. To the less initiated? Perhaps. This film may seem more ingenious to less critical eyes.
To be fair, director James Wan did conjure one original dash of spice—his blood-cooling depiction of a game of clap-and-play. The seeker susses out a hider who is not what they seem, and the supernatural and living collide, in an exceptional scare standout. Wan also cleverly tricks the undiscerning viewer. In scenes involving an unknown, invisible force stripping bed sheets off of sleeping characters, one thinks they are merely witnessing a haunting. What the viewer is actually seeing are the same kinds of shots that  Paranormal Activity established, except that Paranormal used security camera footage to heighten the reality and visceral impact of haunting. In The Conjuring, Wan applies the same technique with higher production values.
These tricks aside, though, Wan fails to command a story outside of his ability to film in enclosed spaces such as his did in the Saw films and Insidious. This reviewer lost count of how many times the director begged, borrowed and pillaged from other horror films, throwing in stock character types, scenes and plot points. For example, there are the conventional motifs of the unwitting family settling into their new abode and the progressively rundown-looking parents who are helpless to fight supernatural forces beyond their control. It all seems just too familiar. But more on this concept later.
Lily Taylor (as Carolyn Perron), being fabulous, as always.
One cannot blame the cast for the film’s unoriginality. They all do well. The children actors, in particular, give heartrending performances, with believable characterization and reactions to traumatizing events. Ron Livngston puts in a good effort as the father figure, Roger Perron, although not enough effort to avoid his hang-dog stereotype. Lily Taylor is fabulous, as always., this time as Carolyn Perron. Yet she plays a suffering character type that seems to be her stock in trade. At one point, she is tricked into taking a header down wooden stairs into a dark basement and has only a pack of matches to ward off the darkness, and perhaps worse. However, when the paranormal investigators visit, she fails to mention this incredibly relevant injurious event. Thus, the viewer’s suspension of disbelief disintegrates into incredulity.
The investigators in question are Patrick White, playing Ed Warren, and his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). White is also great in his assertiveness, albeit macho and abrupt in a very 1970’s way, which may be the intention. (Canadian viewers may note his lack of “Please” and “Thank you”.) Farmiga also plays a suffering character in the vein of X-Men character Jean Grey; her psychic ability always exacts a physical and spiritual toll. However, why Ed and Lorraine house all the artifacts from their supernatural cases in a room without a padlocked door—and a mere staircase away from their young daughter—makes little sense. Obviously, Wan wanted to get the little girl in that room again. However, leaving the room available defies all logic.
Unfortunately, I think that film should be titled The Borrowing. And here is what James Wan should return:
       - The stock scene of the safe American family unit arriving at the newly-purchased and brooding home. Any number of films would like this scene back, particularly Poltergeist and Amityville Horror.
       - The family-settling-in-scene-done-via-a-180-degree-shot-of-the-househould-as-seen-through-a-child’s-point-of-view. Stanley Kubrick of The Shining fame, in particular, might want this back, as well as countless scenes other Horror Americana films.
-        The demonic possession of a character. Take your pick, faithful viewers. The Exorcist wants this back, for a start. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead might also want it, too.
-        The beleaguered family, turning from one horror special effect to another. Both the Poltergeist and Amityville want this premise back.
-         The creepy little-girl dolls. The Puppet Master franchise might want them back, creepy little eyes and all. And so many other films involving spooky dolls. (The Chucky franchise is disqualified for not being scary.)
-        The seemingly sentient rocking chair. The Changeling, a stellar piece of Canadian horror featuring George C. Scott, featured a very similar effect with a wheelchair. And don’t forget the much better tribute to animate furniture, the unsettling Session 9, featuring a thoroughly satisfying performance from David Caruso (during his pre-CSI: Miami days).
-        CGI demons. There are so many films that include these that I am unable to articulate any.

As a result of all this familiarity, Conjuring maintains a certain distance between the viewer and the subject matter. That is, when you realize you are seeing a copy of a copy of a copy, your need to care or empathise lessens. By contrast, your need to spot the next pastiche/tribute/theft increases. There’s a thorny question at the heart of this film. When does homage become pastiche and then sour into rip-off and dullness? Why did Wan construct a film longing to be so much like other films? This is a particularly prickly consideration for someone who might enjoy tributes.
Patrick White as Ed Warren and Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren.
In full disclosure, this reviewer appreciates many films and T.V. shows that homage other films, particularly the animated series, Samurai Jack. Jack, while not containing bursting originality, has a certain charm and vitality. Another example is Ti West’s The Innkeepers. The Conjuring, by contrast, plods along. Even the very final shot of restorative horror narrative feels common and worn somehow. The film is not quite enough like other such films to give the watcher a visceral experience aside from two or three frights.

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