The Conjuring (2013)
Does this list send the icy tendrils of fear quivering down your spine? The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, The Haunting, The Awakening, The Shining and The Exorcist – quite a pedigree of some of the best American chiller features of the past few decades eh? Given the great strips of pulsing flesh that filmmaker James Wan has torn from these mausoleums to the macabre you’d think that his new surprise American smash horror The Conjuring would be a testament to terror, with over $100 million in receipts against a modest $20 million budget the real horror resides in how anyone could possibly recommend this defective squib of a movie to anyone but their worst enemies, due to the sheer tedium and lacklustre thrills buried in its throughly unearned two-hour expiration date. Wan is an alumni of The X-Files and the Saw franchise but I didn’t let the latter put me off this, the first in that increasingly desperate series was actually a faintly engaging puzzle movie with a gruesome side order of extremity hacking and moral ambivalence, with enough detectable posturing to elevate itself beyond its genre lair – Eye-Rack anyone? Horror has of course always been a self cannibalising genre and since its bloody birth it has reveled in stealing and appropriating characters, themes and situations for a new generation of teenage terrors, but I think it helps if you meld these ingredients with just a shred of wit or originality, and maybe, perhaps, actually attempt to craft a genuinely shiver inducing story?
An opening prologue is actually quite creepy, in the late 1960’s a supposedly possessed doll (which you can see on the right) haunts a duo of young students in their dilapidated apartment block, the grimacing Bride of Chucky returning back to mentally assault the screaming denizens even after being consigned to the local tip. Enlisting the aid of a duo of sympathetic investigators the poltergeist plaything is neutralised and sanity is restored – praise be to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Elaine (Vera Farmiga) Warren. He’s the cool-headed scientific but still religious embracing sort who prefers empirical evidence to support their dabbling in paranormal philanderings, she’s the more ethereal believer with clairvoyant abilities which have assisted the duo in a secretive career over many years of investigating things that go bump in the night. A few years later and we are introduced to the Perron family, Carolyn (Lilli Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) who have moved into a slightly dilapidated rural domicile with their five daughters (a bit greedy?), the mortgage of course being an absolute steal due to some shady, secretive history. Sinister stopped clocks, sleepwalking adolescents, imaginary friends and thumping disturbances soon escalate to a sanity assaulting breaking point, as an ancient curse finds purchase in their family the Perron’s desperately turn to the Warrens to save their very souls….
I was certainly in the mood for an effective horror movie which actually delivered the spine-tingling treats and for the first half hour I was quite enjoying The Conjuring, it sets the tone reasonably well down the well-worn genre road with some decomposing hares set running for potential third act resolution, the thumbscrews slowly tightening as the wailing history of the house is hinted at in whispered shadows and half glimpsed cadavers. Some murky cinematography builds an eerie aura with overexposed back focal planes colliding with shadowed and whispered frontal framing where exposition reigns supreme, even the deployment of genre traps – I guess that dog ain’t gonna be around for very long, hey let’s have a game of blind mans buff, hey whatever you do don’t say this accursed witches name three times or you’ll summon the wretched hag to the corporeal plane – even these eye-rolling machinations are all effectively dismembered for the fist half or so, but as soon as the tandem plots meet and the Warrens are enlisted for ectoplasmic aid the film plunges into deeply dredged waters.
Here’s the central problem – jump scares as the only tool in your arsenal are not scary – End. Of. Story. Now let me clarify, yes of course a deftly punched reveal accompanied with a shrieking soundtrack burst can always send the popcorn skyward, but when you are repeatedly enlisting this technique ad nauseam at the expense of genuine chills then you swiftly exhaust your audience, the nervous anticipation of the next lurch into frame or unexpected ghoulish apparition appearance is not lasting, even when you play the old ‘feint and repeat’ gag which has ruled the roost in American horror for far too long. Must I employ the old Hitchcock adage of building suspense through incremental reveals and anxious anticipation in favour of a few seconds of heart throttling surprise, of building an atmosphere through careful pacing and actually supplying a back story, as in The Conjuring the entire horrific history of the house is exhumed halfway through the picture, so the film resorts to frantic editing and pyrotechnics in order to assault rather than infect the audience. Leaving aside the utter implausibility of the Warrens maintaining a treasure vault of cursed artifacts in their brownstone home where you also happen to be raising your inquisitive young daughter – does the phrase bury in consecrated ground and salt the earth mean nothing to these amateurs – many of the foreshadowed features fail to materialise in the final act, errors either languishing on the cutting room floor or evidence of a mediocre and muddled script which simply doesn’t know where it’s going. In its final contortions the film lurches into Mel Brooks Repossessed territory as bodies are flung around in CGI cruelty and boil infested barking, the final showdown being more infinitely damned exasperating than eviscerating. Like those fraudulent mediums who prey on the bereaved The Conjuring reheats all the old parlor tricks in its attempts to terrify an audience which is tired of the same tricks of the trade, with a closing prowl around an arrangement of dormant relics a sacrifice of sequels seems certain – now that’s terrifying;