“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.

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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 #3 – “Sinister”

This time round, my new weekly habit of delving into horror territory is going to be uncommonly fresh in the fact that I have just about finished watching “Sinister”, and I have to admit that apart from a handful of pretty predictable scares, this film was… really creepy.

To whoever thought that “Sinister” was a terrible film and bashed it thoroughly in their reviews I can only say the following: go and do what I just did – watch it alone in the bloody dark. I understand that when you watch horrors with friends, or in the cinema, the experience might not be the same, the reason being that “Sinister” as a horror does not rely on jump scares at all to get inside your head. The scares are still there (and maybe one of them is actually crafty), but the reason it was so effective lies completely elsewhere.

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“Sinister” starts of as your bog standard ghost story would, with the Oswalts, a family of four, moving into a new house. But it’s not just a regular house (of course), as we learn early on that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has chosen this place for his family to move into with a very particular reason in mind. It turns out that the family that used to live there before them was brutally murdered in the back yard in very mysterious circumstances. You see, Ellison is a semi-successful true crime writer hoping for his big break and he thinks that trying to solve this mystery would just be it. He quickly learns that what happened to that murdered family was not exactly normal, as he uncovers a box of Super8 films in the attic that seem to contain really disturbing footage of multiple families being slaughtered. Ellison’s investigation into whether these events are somehow linked (as well as the possible nature of said link) puts a really creepy set of events in motion and as a result no-one in his household can feel really safe…

If you look for any review of that film, you’ll immediately learn that it is supposed to be a found footage horror. Well, it isn’t… Or it is, depending on how you look at things, because Ethan Hawke’s character actually finds footage that is crucial to the plot development. Plus, the contents of the Super8 films set the disturbing, creepy tone to the whole film and provide the overwhelming sense of threat. But if you’re thinking about the ‘found footage’ subgenre of horror, you’d be gravely disappointed here. Apart from the Super8 thingy, “Sinister” is more of a variation on a haunted house story. It has all the usual devices a ghost story would consist of, with traversing the house in complete darkness, spooky children, attic-related jump scares, creepy noises and so forth. However, if you’re a seasoned horror veteran, you’ll be able to pinpoint the ‘scary’ moments precisely, which somewhat diminishes the net effect.

 

The scares are nicely placed and they work very well with the pacing of the film, so that “Sinister” doesn’t suffer from the fear fatigue of most recent horrors, like “Mama”, or “Insidious”. At no point during the projection I could say I was comfortable with what I was seeing, because the story is paced in such a way, that the suspense is kept at a steady level all throughout. There’s no ramp-up, no crescendos that make the viewer completely immune to the scares in the final act (which is more disturbing than scary in its own right), so all I can say is that “Sinister” does its job rather well.

One of the ways one can find to create a good horror story is to tap into our primal fears. And what is it that we fear the most? I’d say that ‘the unknown’ would be high on a list like that and the creator of “Sinister” (Scott Derrickson, both director and writer on the project) has found a nifty way to bring those fears to life. While I didn’t care for the jump scares all that much (they weren’t too creative, or at least most of them weren’t; and most of them were featured in the trailer anyway), it was the grainy Super 8 footage with creepy images and blurry details that really set the wheels in motion for me. Even when we’re eventually informed (as usual, there has to be someone proficient in the subject that will shed some light on the nature of what is going on) “Sinister” retains the sense of unnamed supernatural threat slowly but surely creeping onto our protagonists. Therefore, I think it’s vital for anybody who wants to enjoy this film to dim the lights, cut the chatter and immerse in the story – it really makes a difference this time.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #2 – “Insidious”

Following a prompt discussion with myself (accomplished exclusively in my head without coming across as a raging lunatic) I decided that before reviewing the result of this weekend’s cinema excursion I’d like to quickly lay another brick in the bridge over the gap in my knowledge of modern horror.

I was really looking forward to finally watch “Insidious” (late at night again, as one should) – a James Wan’s departure from gore to explore the more classical nooks of the genre. I do realize the film didn’t reap the best reviews out there during its cinematic release, however upon my own private screening I have to admit it wasn’t all that bad. Although it ended up being miles away from what I hoped it would be, I think there’s some merit in calling “Insidious” a horror.

The story is dead simple: A family of five (a mom, a dad, two 7-8 year-old boys, and a baby girl) moves into a new house in order to jump-start their lives again after god-knows-what had happened to them and shortly thereafter weird events start to transpire. The usual patterns of things moving around, strange noises, whispers heard through the baby monitor is quickly followed with one of the boys – Dalton – suffering an accident while investigating these strange noises. As a result he ends up in a coma and the family has to deal with that on top of the seemingly haunted house. The increased activity of whatever is haunting the house forces the family to move home in hope to flee the horror that their lives have become. Little do they know (and the trailer kind of reveals it as well), it’s not the house that was haunted, so the horror begins once more.

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I have to say that I enjoyed the premise of “Insidious” wherein we are presented with a haunted house/poltergeist story with its usual genre set pieces and devices, but with a twist… I can definitely say I dig that approach, because it successfully threw me off balance in a way. Usually, everybody has some pre-existing notions about what to expect from a given film, which is especially applicable to horror. Therefore, when I sit down to watch a ghost story, I sort of expect a certain type of devices, certain type of jump scares and a very characteristic way of building up threat and suspense through a creative usage of sound, music, set design and camera work. What I thought James Wan was going for was to have me think I know what to expect and then drop me at the deep end by going from the poltergeist to possession. While the idea could be seen as viable, fresh and potentially scary, “Insidious” didn’t get anywhere close to using this device to its full potential.

Therefore, the composition of the story divides “Insidious” into two (almost equal in length) halves with the first one being more of a haunted house story with the mystery and threat, and the second being this really awkward mish-mash of demon possessions, other-worldly experiences and the confrontation with the malevolent being of interest. By the way, what separates the two is a tad-too-long soliloquy that explains far too much and introduces the twist together with explaining it – in short, it doesn’t really do its job.

Taking this little division into account, I have to admit that I liked the first half of “Insidious” far better  than the latter one. Why? The reason is simple again – it’s actually genuinely scary and plays out surprisingly fresh in the context of what has been done within the genre before. The scares are creative and not overly complex, the entirety of the shock factor is based on our own innate fears, which made the atmosphere more relatable in a way. As you’d imagine, “Insidious” was shot on a not so much shoe-string budget, but low enough to prohibit over-use of any pricy CGI, so most of the things you’d find there are old school practical scares – and good ones at that.

Unfortunately, whatever the first half of “Insidious” has accomplished for me, was wasted terribly in the final act. The premise was all over the place, the scares were scarce and the overall concept of the story became laughable – at best. And I am incapable of fearing something that I find ridiculous, I’m sorry… Without spoiling much I can only say that being exposed to that volume of ghosts and demons in a short space of time made me completely immune to them. In the end, “Insidious” spirals out of control and drops down to the level of a laughable second-rate horror flick that tries to be something it’s not; it looks to me that James Wan has clearly lost the plot some time into the story and even the scares stopped working altogether.

In the interest of honesty, I wasn’t completely displeased with “Insidious”. Sure, the actors (especially Rose Byrne) may have been a tad annoying, the story descended into chaos after a while and attempted CGI was adorable at best. But the bottom line is – was it scary? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. There’s a good collection of scares in this film (sadly, mostly in the first half of it) and some of them are really crafty. On top of that, Wan very often doesn’t get you by complete surprise, but will hint at what’s going to happen, so that the scare works on a subliminal level as well and if you are observant enough, you can take pride in noticing it as well. On top of that, the film has a few winks to Wan’s earlier “Saw” franchise with the Jigsaw drawing on the black board, or with the rather predictable, but ultimately scary sequence reminiscent of the ‘flash photography in the dark scare’ I loved in “Saw” so much.

All in all, “Insidious” was scary enough to get me on board, despite the tragically disappointing final act. I don’t know, how the sequel is going to work though, but horrors can override the curse of sequels by providing good enough scary experience in place of the overall originality. Nevertheless, what I am looking forward the most, is “The Conjuring” hitting the screens this summer, as it is supposed to knock your proverbial socks off with the level of terror it carries.