Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Conjuring: a museum of haunts

One of the most common complaints I've heard about James Wan's The Conjuring is that the film is chock full of cliches. Those holding that opinion are right: The Conjuring hits every haunted house/possession story trope known to cinema since before 1963's The Haunting. Scary dolls, suicidal witches, possessed mothers, somewhat creepy little kids, things that go bump in the night, music boxes, hidden cellars, skeptical law enforcement, reluctant religious officials, rural New England, and the troubled pasts of our hero paranormal investigators all come into play during the almost two hours of the film. On the surface this seems like a huge mess and a case of seen-it-all-before-itis. It's a legit complaint, but let's think about why all of that stuff is in this one movie.

The Conjuring is based on one of 10,000 cases Ed and Lorraine Warren claim to have investigated since founding the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952. The story (and yes, you've heard it before) has the Perrons, a family of seven, moving into a home they bought at a bank auction in 1971 only to soon be plagued by paranormal activity. After things escalate, the Perrons track down the Warrens and the investigation soon begins. The Warrens discover the land the Perrons home occupies was once owned by a descendant of a Salem witch who cursed the land and hung herself from the big scary tree in the backyard. Things get worse before they better and then everything turns out OK.

There are no surprises in the plot and that's fine. This isn't a whodunit and even the scares are somewhat predictable, partly because Wan used the Paranormal Activity trick of increasing the intensity of the throbbing score as a precursor to a scare. In Wan's defense, he uses the method to trick the audience into apprehension then pulls back or doesn't show us what a character is seeing. Like that giant list above, Wan knows his cliches and isn't just randomly throwing darts to see what sticks.

The character arcs are predictable, too, but familiarity breeds comfort and comfort often leads to sympathy. The Perrons are your run of the mill early 1970s family. Ron Livingston (Office Space) is a typical dad trying to make the best life possible for his five girls (and if that's not a nightmare, what is?) and Lili Taylor (former indie darling and most recently in the Netflix series "Hemlock Grove") is the valiant mom doing her best not to get as scared as her children. They both inhabit their characters without going overboard until called upon to do so. Livingston's frightened and exasperated expressions are among the most believable I've seen from a male actor in a long time. Taylor goes a long way to redeeming herself for the atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting.

But the Perrons are only the catalyst to introducing us to the Warrens, played by Patrick Wilson (Wan's Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). Farmiga owns this film and much of the action revolves around her portrayal of Lorraine Warren. She's a clairvoyant and a mother: these two aspects play together to give Lorraine the desire to help where she can and protect her own. Farmiga at times looks vibrant and at others defeated with no change other than maybe wardrobe and the set of her mouth. Farmiga brings a loving and welcoming spirit to the role, which is made even more poignant after seeing the real life Lorraine Warren (briefly) in the documentary My Amityville Horror. Wilson captures Ed Warren's cloistered intensity. He's a quiet actor which suits the better characters he's been given. And for some reason, he looks natural in the '70s suits he wears (he managed the same naturalistic look for his role in Watchmen, too). He knows when the spotlight is on him and runs with it, but he also knows when to be the straight man. That second part is played out perfectly in his recounting of a prior investigation which deeply affected Lorraine. He tells Roger Perron that something happened to Lorraine, that she saw something. Roger asks what she saw and Ed responds that he won't ask her. Wan sets us up for a big reveal about what happened to Lorraine Warren, but doesn't let us have it. Instead of taking the bait for another cliche, Wan leaves the audience wondering, he leaves us with questions. That is the stroke of a burgeoning master.

Before we go, let's go back to that big list of cliches. Wan shows most of them to us. In their home, the Warrens have a room full of objects relating to the various cases they've investigated. In a nutshell, they stocked the antique store at the center of the Friday the 13th TV series. At one point, Ed Warren tells a journalist not to touch anything, including the accordion-playing toy monkey. The room, filled to the brim with cursed objects of all sorts, is a visual metaphor for the entire film and a defense against the cries of cliche. During their active years as paranormal investigators/demonologists, the Warrens encountered every type of demonic, cursed, ghostly being you can imagine. They lived these cliches and the cliches are part of their story. The images, incidents and artifacts are there not because Wan wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator but because the Warrens had all this stuff and greatly influenced the use of such items in film and fiction. Without their case studies, the landscape of horror cinema and literature in the last 60 years would be vastly different and probably not for the better. Consider The Conjuring not just an ode to an amazing couple but a love letter to the genre.

 THREAT LEVEL: ORANGE.  I'm going orange on this because it's already been in the theaters for a month and probably won't last long. It's something to see at the cinema because there's a good chance your house doesn't have the sound quality of the theater. You need to hear this movie as much as see it.

The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, is rated R (for sequences of disturbing terror and violence. No boobs and not even an F-bomb that I recall; it's just really intense.) 

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