Friday, July 19, 2013
Of course you've seen this movie, Hollywood has been making it for about thirty years now. Sometimes its called "The Amityville Horror", sometimes its called "Poltergeist", sometimes its called "Paranormal Activity", "Insidious", "Sinister", "Mama", "Dark Skies", "Dream House", "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark", "The Apparition", "The Last Exorcism", "A Haunting in Connecticut", "A Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia", and the criminally underrated "The Navidson Record". There are probably about six hundred other movies with this very same plot whose names are failing me right now. If you haven't seen any of those movies yet, then you are the only one. Scientists would be interesting in examining you, because you're about as fascinating as somebody with an XZ chromosome. Most of these films are utterly forgettable and bland, which is what you'd expect when you're dusting off a script so old it probably still uses the medieval Long S. (Which is why I prefer to call James Wan's last movie, "Inſideous".) I skip just about 99% of these movies since if I wanted to watch the same damn movie over and over again with a different cast, I'd rather that movie be "Batman Returns".
But sometimes, and this doesn't happen often, you can take the most generic movie ever and due something decent with it. "The Conjuring" offers no new twists on the formula, it is following the recipe exactly. No spontaneous dashes of cinnamon for this director, James Wan, who is best known for making the Saw series. This guy has had exactly one good idea, then proceeded to make six more increasingly inferior copies*. So when he's ripping off movies made thirty years ago, nobody should be surprised. We should be surprised that even when "The Conjuring" is about as artless and unoriginal as movies get, its still actually scary and competently made. This movie keeps the tension going with a variety to well-timed and well-crafted frightening moments, without needed to lean back on jump scares or gore, and it never turns into a self-parody. "The Conjuring" simply works, when by rights, it should be a valueless wreck.
One problem with the horror genre is that it really only works the first time you've seen it. Yeah, the first time you see a man get his skull devoured by a swarming mob of birds, you're going to cower in fear and have that dark imagery sewn deeply into the back of your subconscious, but see it another ten times and you're not going to care. Satan, witches, and exorcism might be scary the first time you see them, but after awhile even raging clouds of guts and detached testicles will not make even bring on a single quiver. Yeah, the first time I saw the remake of "The Haunting" I screamed out loud thanks to a jump scare, but today I can only chuckle at the awful CG. I'm twenty-two years old, and the best reaction most horror movies can hope for is ironic laughter from me. And if they really suck, my reaction will be to change the damn channel. But "The Conjuring" actually managed to get me scared. I couldn't even dismiss the film with guffaws of laughter. It shattered my dismissive snarky defenses, and the damn ghosts were squirming inside my brain. So making a movie that is legitimately scary is quite an achievement, even more so when "The Conjuring" doesn't really add much to the genre. It is playing the story totally straight, sticking right to its classic guns. And it does it so goddamn well.
"The Conjuring" is the kind of movie that matter-of-factly states that the ghost haunting this family's house is simply a witch who sacrificed her child to Satan. It is utterly shameless about how this is a ghost movie, we aren't making a satire. Its climax is - what else? - a chaotic exorcism as the house is shaking in pure demonic power. The movie doesn't even have any twists, you can pretty much predict every move the film is going to make. Its like going to your state's Six Flags theme park for the ninth time. You know where the roller coaster is, you know how long the line is going to be get on it, and you know exactly where all the loops are. And that's not to say "The Conjuring" is some kind of nostalgia trip for Seventies haunted house movies - even though it is set in 1971 and relishes the fashion and music of the Seventies - this movie is all about setting up the right timing and the right mood for pure visceral horror.
I'm a city boy, so staying out in the country is a pretty alien environment for me. But it gets way worse when its midnight, you're all alone, and the only sounds are the wind howling its way through the trees. If I am not certain that there are human beings in every direction from me, I start to imagine that sinister creatures beyond my existence are right outside. Watching me. And if I ever mistakenly glance at these unknowable things, a whole new dimension of mind-destroying horror is going to open up, crushing my bubble of ignorant and happy existence. That's what "The Conjuring" is like: staying all alone in a dark house, letting your imagination devise hideous grotesques behind every corner. The old wood of a nice 19th century house has absorbed a lot of memories, some of them probably not very nice. Those memories are just out of sight, waiting to destroy you when you're most vulnerable. So don't you dare look in the basement, because IT is down there, and its hungry. A thumping heart and the shrill breath of panic is exactly the kind of spice it needs to make the most delicious meal out of you.
Seriously, just move to the city. Your mind is safer there.
Now, why does "The Conjuring" work while just about every other movie I listed in the second paragraph end up as completely forgettable failures? I guess part of the reason is that the film does a good job of mixing in two families together in this single haunted house, turning the paranormal investigator figures into major characters who are fundamental to the plot from the very beginning. It also is able to create really tense and frightening scenes with just a little girl waking up in bed after an invisible hand brushed her leg. We don't need jump scares, buckets of gore aren't being slammed against the walls (there's almost no real violence in the film until the end), the movie is even smart enough to keep the Ghost hidden instead of making a big stupid boss fight against it at the end. The essence of this film is simplicity - timing scares is just like timing a joke, you gotta get the rhythm down or nothing else will ever work.
"The Conjuring", however, is still that same-old haunted house movie you've seen a million times before. But I believe that any movie, no matter how idiotic the concept, could be done well. Right now Adam Sandler could be sitting on a timeless classic with "Grown Ups 2" instead of "Hitler: The Movie". And "The Conjuring" proves that. Anything can be done well, anything can be made entertaining, and horror movies need to remember how to be scary again.
* Yeah, Hollywood, do you think I've forgotten "Saw 3D"? I'm waiting for my reparations check for that assault.