“The Conjuring” – A haunted house done right

Ironically enough, exactly 12 hours after I finished watching the ghastly “The Cabin in the Woods”, I ventured to the cinema to see James Wan’s newest and (allegedly) ‘bestest’ creation – “The Conjuring”. Now, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to have been following the hype train behind this particular release that’s been going on for months now. Anyone remotely interested in what’s happening in Hollywood will probably know that “The Conjuring” has managed to rake in quite a reputation even before a single person watched it by gaining an R-rating from the MPAA based solely on the constant sense of threat it projects all throughout. Now, that’s something to look forward to, because more often than not, an R-rating gets slapped on a film due to explicit content, harsh language, or extreme violence.

On a tangential note, Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” actually had to be trimmed down in order to get the R-rating, otherwise it would retain its initial (dreaded by masses, loved by the geeks) NC-17 category, which basically guarantees a horror experience to remember, but neuters potential box office revenue.

246460id1c_Conjuring_INTL_27x40_1Sheet.indd

Weeks of extensive viral campaign promoting “The Conjuring”, that included playing the ‘based on a true story’ card behind the film’s plot and releasing trailers that showed the very family portrayed in the film, have brought my expectations to astronomical levels. I’m not usually the one to jump on a band-wagon, but this time I had really high hopes for “The Conjuring”…

…And it delivered!

For those of you who don’t quite know, “The Conjuring” is a story (based on true events, but who knows… that term means absolutely nothing within the horror genre, as far as I know) about Ed and Lorraine Warren’s one of the most terrifying case – The Harrisville haunting. You can look it all up in the interwebs and if you’re susceptible to anything like that, then “The Conjuring” will play into your fears even better, than it did for me.

In the film we are introduced to the Perron family who have just about moved to their newly-bought house in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The stage is set in a very usual way with the Perrons moving in. The boxes are being unpacked, the children run around playing and discovering the house, while Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) dwell in the prospect of a slow and peaceful life in the country. Not long thereafter strange things start happening. Lili keeps finding bruises on her body, their dog refuses to enter the house, the girls keep complaining about awful stench in random places around the house, and to top it all off, all the clocks seem to stop every night at 3:07. It doesn’t take long for the Perrons to realize something’s off about the house and when the occurrences increase in intensity and frequency, they decide to seek help by contacting a well-known pair of paranormal investigators – Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). The couple quickly identifies the problem, as they reveal to the family that they are indeed being molested by a being of demonic origin solving the problem might require some desperate measures.

I find it truly amazing in this day and age, when we are being constantly exposed to top end special effects, that a film having none of it would actually be effective as a horror. It would seem that in the era of sensory overload, a horror film needs to push some serious boundaries by showing ultra-realistic no-holds-barred violence, or shock the viewer in some different way, because our collective senses have been numbed by the onslaught of shocker films that has been flooding the cinemas for the last 15 years or so. The only things you’d find in James Wan’s “The Conjuring” are sound and music effects, props and creative use of optics, but the end result is simply stunning.

I’m still not convinced, though, whether this film really is the scariest of them all, but it sure is effective with some creative jump scares scattered all throughout the film. I’ll have to be frank, however, in saying that for a horror veteran some of the scare tactics are well known, but even with that in mind, I had a blast watching it and while I might have anticipated some of the scary moments, they still were executed with perfection and creative thought behind them. What in my opinion helps a great deal to elevate even the most mundane of scares is the overall tone of the film, which reeks of threat from start to finish and doesn’t really slow down.

 

In short, in terms of horror effect, “The Conjuring” is everything that “Insidious” failed to become. While the latter had very successful scares and the mood was just right in the first two acts, it all went downhill the minute the cat was out of the bag. In here, though, the fact we learn what is troubling the Perrons together with the presence of paranormal researchers/exorcists does not provide the viewer with any sense of security. The dread and the scares keep ramping up relentlessly, becoming more and more frequent as the demonic presence becomes more and more hell-bent on hurting the protagonists. All that serves as a well-crafted build-up to a pretty powerful climax that serves the film justice. All too often a potentially great horror film will be destroyed by its third act, or even the last 5 minutes (“Mama” for instance), but this time around, James Wan seems to have learned his lesson. I don’t want to spoil the ending by discussing it and/or comparing it to a timeless horror classic, a name of which shall not be mentioned (and I can only take the ending as a reference to that classic), but whilst not entirely original, the big finale of “The Conjuring” fits very well within the plot development.

So, the story is nicely paced, the scares are pretty darn effective and “The Conjuring” in general makes the viewer feel uneasy the whole time, so as a horror, it’s almost a perfect 10 (not that I will ever start giving out marks). Nevertheless, this cute picture has a few cracks and smudges that could have been done better in my humble opinion. As it is usual with horrors, sometimes the writers take leaps in logic, or even omit certain aspects of the story, as if they weren’t interesting or relevant to the film in its entirety. While some potential logical flashpoints are addressed and explained within the story (like the reason Perrons cannot simply move out of the house), others, Like Ed Warren’s role in the climax, are completely glossed over for the sake of keeping the pace up. I am well aware that both the pacing and time constraints of the full-feature film do not allow exploration of all the tangents and side-line characters, but at times a sentence or two (or even maybe a single take without any dialogue) would suffice to keep the holes in logic from expanding.

In the end, I think “The Conjuring” might not have been the scariest experience of my life – this is a topic for a separate article – but it most definitely worked as a well-crafted horror movie. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that “The Conjuring” could be seen as a potential reference for other films within the sub-genre of haunted house/possession horrors, because James Wan has clearly shown that a good film of that sort doesn’t need much money or special effects to do its job.

My only worry is that “The Conjuring” leaves the door propped open for a potential string of sequels based on other Warren cases. While horrors are mostly immune to sequelitis and they handle proliferation rather well (until a certain point, of course) I fear that whoever is going to take over the gig after Wan might bastardize the image “The Conjuring” has built through its creativity and adherence to the classical rules of horror.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #4 – “The Cabin in the Woods”

At this point I think I am forced to call ‘bullshit’, because I am having a real difficulty understanding, why “The Cabin in the Woods” is being universally hailed by the critics as the most magnificent and genre-redefining horror in recent history; the 92% critical score on RT is not an easy feat to achieve. I have to say that during its theatrical release, I almost ended up buying the ticket to see it, but was instead coerced to see “The Hunger Games” and given my indifference bordering on disdain towards the latter, now I can safely admit I am glad to have seen Jennifer Lawrence run about with a bow in this mediocre young-adult version of “Battle Royale”.  That’s right, because “The Cabin in the Woods” sucked so bad, I couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind could enjoy watching it, let alone praise it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pay diddly-squat to watch it, as it is available on Netflix – not that you should go and watch it anyway…

Right, so I decided to give this film a go, sat down in the dark just after midnight, put my headphones on and pressed ‘play’. So theoretically, I had everything one would possibly need (darkness, solitude and sensory exclusion from the outside world) to watch a horror film and get the most of it, but by the end of this 95-minute-long ordeal I couldn’t stop laughing – and not for good reasons – as I could only think in memes that involved Patrick Stewart as captain Picard.

the-cabin-in-the-woods-poster-artwork-kristen-connolly-chris-hemsworth-anna-hutchison

Plotwise, “The Cabin in the Woods” is basically “Evil Dead” with a twist. You’ve got your bunch of friends (Kristen Connoly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams) who hop into an RV and head for the mountains to spend a weekend in a secluded titular cabin in the woods. Normally, in a horror scenario, there would be demon, a family of inbred cannibals, a serial killer, or a deadly virus waiting for them, but this is where “The Cabin in the Woods” serves you a twist to the genre. It turns out that their weekend excursion is a meticulously devised ploy to trap them in the middle of nowhere and rain horror on their heads. You see, beneath the cabin there’s an underground command center of some sort ran by God-knows-who, whose employees find young people, make them come to the cabin and unleash something bad onto them for some weird reason.

The group settles into the cabin, we get to know the characters and identify the archetypes here and there, so that we have a better idea who dies first and why. Soon thereafter, the guys find a ‘hidden’ cellar filled with various knick-knacks and they end up reading a passage from an old diary that somehow brings a family of zombies wielding farming tools to murder them… and the hunt begins…

I said it once and I’ll say it again: I have no idea why this film scored so many gongs. First of all, it’s not even a horror film, because there’s maybe one scene that made me feel not indifferent and it had nothing to do with the violence, the hunt, the zombies, or any other shenanigans that ensue in the third act; and let’s face it – by the end of the movie everything goes bananas and “The Cabin in the Woods” loses any shred of decency by the time the credits start rolling. And cheap-looking werewolves, Jabba the Hutt miniatures, or poorly designed CG giant snakes and spiders are not really helping… So, in the interest of clarity, “The Cabin in the Woods” fails terribly in delivering a horror experience. I understand that certain films within the genre don’t intend to scare like haunted house films would, but what I have just seen here is beyond reproach. I don’t want to draw any parallels towards this year’s “Evil Dead” remake, which would make a perfect example how a secluded cabin scenario can be played, so that the viewer ends up overdosed on adrenaline, but I think it would simply come across as cruel.

 

I didn’t care about wooden acting, as I see it more as a staple of the entire genre, but it’s the story and execution that made this film such a torment for me. What I was looking for, was an adrenaline rush filled with tense moments, a hefty amount of violence and a fast-paced survival horror. Well, I got nothing… “The Cabin in the Woods” is not scary at all and the violence it sports is far from what you’d want to see in a horror movie. It’s all cheap thrills and red sauce (and I’m convinced that most of the blood and gore was CG) punctuated with attempted comedic relief served in a salad that’s simply inedible.

I think I understand what the creators were trying to achieve with “The Cabin in the Woods”, with the not-so-subtle references and the overall comedic tone of the film, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t work for me. It seems that every now and again somebody out there will try and come out with a film that’s intended as pastiche that turns the genre on its head and plays on clichés and archetypes commonly associated with it to create a new and refreshing look at a horror film. But there’s a line which should not be crossed.

A perfect example of a genre-redefining pastiche is “Scream” by Wes Craven, which plays all the notes a movie geek will recognize, tells a story that’s very typical and filled with your standard character types, but serves the genre justice. The film stays true to its roots and retains seriousness, so the violence is real, gore is real and the scares are real. On top of that, we are all engaged in the story by trying to figure out who the killer is, and while the plot is simply a variation on the icons of the genre, “Scream” never ever crosses the line and descends into pointless comedy. Sure, I had a laugh or two while seeing it, but laughing with the film is completely separate from laughing at the film – which I did profusely whilst watching “The Cabin in the Woods”.

Whoop-dee-flippin-doo, “The Cabin in the Woods” not only crossed the line between a pastiche and a downright mockery, but pretty much danced a cha-cha on it, as if to piss me off. Simply put, this film is “The Scary Movie” of the survival horror sub-genre, because it comes really close to being disgustingly stupid and not at all funny. It’s a cheap hunk of poor horror that wants to be smart but isn’t. I am seriously considering taking the time and effort to track down all the critics who called this piece of garbage ‘genre-redefining’ and throw feces at their houses – that’s how terrible this film was. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, but some jokes are so stupid you actually feel sorry for the poor schmuck who came up with it while at the same time you feel annoyed at yourself for actually agreeing to listen to it in the first place. A waste of time – that’s what this film is…

And one more thing: Sigourney Weaver should really consider retiring… Just saying…