Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Conjuring: good, but not great

It was with high expectations that I went to see James Wan’s new horror film, The Conjuring, at the cinema last week.

There were two factors that contributed to my expectations: First of all, I was moderately impressed with Wan’s 2010 offering, Insidious. This was a story of haunting and demonic possession. While not a movie that changed my life, Insidious was well done and modestly spooky. There were a few creepy moments that lingered with me long after the end of the film.

But nothing contributed to my expectations like the advanced publicity surrounding The Conjuring itself. I must confess that I—usually cynical to the core—was a bit taken in by all the hype. Advance reviewers across the Internet promised that The Conjuring would be “the scariest movie since The Exorcist!” In a market that is currently dominated by repetitive slasher flicks and inane comic-horror clunkers like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, this was enticing news indeed. I decided that I would have to see The Conjuring.

As a bit of background information, The Conjuring is loosely based (and I use that term—pun intended—loosely) on events that purportedly occurred in New England in the early 1970s. The film’s two main characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life ghost hunters. Moreover, Ed Warren (d. 2006) was the only non-ordained demonologist to be recognized by the Catholic Church.

Here is the basic setup: A family moves into an old house where horrific and evil events took place in the past. They begin to experience phenomena. At first they try to explain the strange occurrences away. Finally they conclude that yes, they are victims of supernatural forces. Feeling overwhelmed, they call in expert help.

You’ve seen versions of this plot dozens of times, of course. And this is what gives The Conjuring a certain feeling of familiarity. You feel like you’ve been there before, because you probably have. There were scenes in this movie that seemed like they were directly clipped from the much-ignored 1982 film Amityville II: The Possession. Viewers who have seen Wan’s earlier movie, Insidious, will also experience occasional moments of déjà vu.

The film’s climactic scene involves demonic possession. Wan pulls this off skillfully, for the most part. However, this scene lacks the punch of similar scenes in The Exorcist. The 1973 classic struck a psychological chord that hasn't been equaled since, not by James Wan—not by anyone.

Wan’s depiction of demonic possession is technically competent, but artistically bland. Once again, I was reminded of Amityville II: The Possession. (If you haven’t seen that 80s-era movie, rent it from Red Box or catch it on NetFlix; you’ll see what I mean.) The acting was good, the pacing was on-target; but no—I wasn't scared. Nor was I able to fully suspend my disbelief—something that I was able to do when I watched The Exorcist.  

So those are the downsides; but what about the upsides? While The Conjuring (as you have probably gathered by now) did not meet my elevated expectations, it did contain a few genuine chills. The movie opens in 1968, as the Warrens are conducting a counseling session with two young women who have happened upon a demonically possessed doll. This opening scene was arguably the creepiest one of the entire movie.

There were a few other scenes in The Conjuring that will float into your consciousness on those nights when you happen to find yourself awake at 2:00 a.m. The main supernatural force in The Conjuring is the vengeful spirit of a witch who hung herself in the mid-1800s. The old woman is made up to be delightfully hideous, and Wan makes her appear at unexpected moments, with satisfying results.

In summary: The Conjuring was not the twenty-first century’s answer to The Exorcist. It didn't really break any new ground, nor is it likely to keep you awake at night for weeks—unless this is your first horror movie.

However, The Conjuring does represent a much-needed shift in direction: toward the serious, thoughtful horror movie. Keep in mind, The Conjuring is in competition with unabashedly silly horror films like World War Z. James Wan deserves credit for giving the market a horror movie that isn’t based on a lame laugh track (something that is fundamentally inappropriate in a horror film) or the simple gross out (the lowest common denominator of the genre).  

I can’t quite give Wan five out of five stars, but I have to give him at least three or four. While not a brilliant film, by any means, The Conjuring far outshines its contemporary peers.