“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 #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.

sinister-poster-05302012-174031

“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.

“Mama” – Tripped on the last hurdle

“Mama” could be a perfect example of what can happen to a talented man if the circumstances are right. If you think about it, 4 years ago Andrés Muschetti most likely did not even dream about a possibility of being handed a multimillion dollar budget to make a full feature film. Add also the fact that he would get to direct one of the most promising (and now recognized thanks to her phenomenal role in “Zero Dark Thirty”) actresses of her generation – Jessica Chastain – and top it all off with a persona like Guillermo del Toro leading his project from the producer’s end. If he had said he would become a successful Hollywood director by 2013, no-one would have believed him. Well, now they have to…

Directorial debut is a risky endeavor  Someone’s trusted your talent enough to put his money and reputation on the line in order for you to have a chance to shine. The stakes are high, because no-one knows you and the only person that people would recognize would be the producer who paid for your party. If you’re lucky enough and your script is good, or if maybe people who want you to succeed pull some strings, someone relatively known will get signed to star in your thing. But that’s it. If you cock it up, their reputations will be damaged, you’ll piss in someone’s resumé (let’s face it, how many actors have at least one performance in a dodgy movie under their belts… all of them?), the studio and the producers will lose money and you will never get a second chance, because life’s a female dog.

l_2023587_1fa24b43

Fortunately enough, Muschetti managed to woo enough people to make his debut a commercial success and now he’s already signed to direct his next film. Much to my disappointment, however, he failed to woo me. Well, he did take me on a good date, but he managed to ruin everything before a good-night kiss. I’m getting ahead of myself…

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “Mama” when I sat down in the cinema. I love a good horror story and I know a bad one when I see it. So, when the end credits rolled and the lights went back on I knew full well. It was not great, it was not bad… It was fine. And that is not good enough for a genre movie.

If you have seen the short film, on which “Mama” is based (watch here) you’d know that its power lied within the uncertainty. We didn’t know who mama was, we didn’t know what it wanted, and we only knew that it was there and that it wanted something from the girls. And that’s where the horror comes from. This is what subconsciously fuels our fear – not knowing. So, the minute I learned that “Mamá” was being adapted into a full-grown feature horror, I was intrigued. I wanted to experience the same horror in its final form. I think it was a reasonable assumption on my part because the short film is merely a sequence without a story, so there must have been something interesting behind it worth translating into the language of film.

“Mama” basically tells a story of two little girls (3 and 1 years old) whose father, after murdering their mom, kidnaps them with intent to kill them as well. He finds a cabin in the woods somewhere near Richmond (Virginia) to be a perfect place to put an end to his family in a poetic way, however, before he gets the chance to kill his defenseless children, he is killed by some sort of entity (that is definitely not human nor animal). Fast forward five years; the girls are found in the same cabin by their uncle – father’s (twin?) brother. Having lived five years in the wilderness they appear dehumanized to say the least. They don’t speak, but growl and moan instead, they run on all fours and they have almost completely forgotten about who they used to be. The uncle (together with his somehow reluctant girlfriend – Jessica Chastain) decides to take the challenge of giving the girls the home and family they deserve with a hope that they would learn how to be human again. The couple soon start to suspect that along with the girls someone else has entered their lives. Someone only the girls can see and refer to as ‘mama’.

 

That sounds like a perfectly ok horror story, doesn’t it? We have a house, a couple, children who are scary in their own wicked way and the unknown evil that will do everything to keep the girls to itself. I have to say that throughout the bulk of the movie I was very positive about it. The mood was just right and even without the jump-scares (that are still quite abundant in the genre) I felt terrified most of the time. The beautifully portrayed scenery amplified the horror perfectly. The girls (especially the younger one) made me feel uneasy with their very convincing acting and Jessica Chastain took the lead in a very subtle way without overshadowing anything and anyone. I loved the way Muschetti managed to incorporate the sequence from the short movie and I loved how ‘Mama’ was portrayed. Her disfigured, inhuman body and most diabolical movement made me feel uncomfortable even after I got used to her.

That’s what usually happens, right? Be it “Child’s play”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, or anything else for that matter, after the initial terror, sooner or later, we grow accustomed to that scary little bad guy. And by the end of the movie, we are perfectly ok with it. I have to say that Mama continued her reign of terror right until the very ending – right until the climax.

Because it’s the ending, that is the weakest spot of “Mama”. You see, we could have had a decent horror story that was paced rather well, the acting was fine, the mood was perfect – it was terrifying. But somewhere along the way I started to suspect that no-one had a clear idea how to end it.

In the current climate, if you want a horror to be remembered as something more than just a run-of-the-mill shocker, you need to be somewhat creative. It’s not the 90’s anymore and you can’t just get on a torture porn or found-footage band wagon, because there’s so many of them. The haunted house and ghost stories have been exploited ad nauseam in all possible ways, so it is really difficult to come up with something new, at least from the point of view of a story.

I think that nowadays a proper mood is your safest bet. If you make your picture damn scary and/or gut-wrenching people will remember it. “Mama” had all the chances to succeed in that department, but this potential has been squandered. The minute the film started to focus around investigating who Mama was and what she wanted, it started to descend down a one-way street towards a nasty cliché. I really preferred not to know everything. I loved the mystery. But when it was solved and everything was uncovered – it was all gone. The king was naked.

If I ever see “Mama” again, it will not be the same. I can’t be afraid of it any more. What started out as a promising take on the ghost story (that was not revolutionary in a conventional sense) with everything you’d possibly want from a movie like that, ended up just another pointless shocker killed by its own ending. I have to say that as of now, I’m still rather disappointed with “Mama”. It’s a perfect example of how to shoot oneself in the foot by trying to explain too much. Some things need not be said. Some things need to be left alone. I don’t even want to know what would have happened in the story had it been 20 minutes longer.

All in all, I think I could turn my blind eye at the sad excuse for a climax “Mama” had to offer. It delivered very well when it comes to the atmosphere. The scares were genuine and the story – while it could have strayed further away from the beaten path – was good enough to be able to stand on its own two legs within the genre. Sadly, the lack of experience reared its ugly head eventually and murdered the film with anticlimactic plot development that stemmed from a terrible mistake of trying to explain to much. Knowing that I can only give the guy a pat on the back and say ‘good effort’. Next time round I won’t be merciful.

Shortcake #3 – “Panic attack!” and “Mamá”

In a blink of an eye, yet another week has passed. It makes you stop and think about the transience of life… But who has the time. Instead of that, I’m just glad I get to have my weekend again. This also means I get to share some shorts again. I’ve been really hard at work trying to figure out the direction this column will have (I get to call it a column now, right?) and while I’d really like to showcase mostly new things that I dig out myself or stumble across while trawling blogs and websites, I think I’d like to reserve some space for shorts that already belong in the past.

Mama - Panic Attack

Tonight I’d like to share these two very short forms that have more in common that one would imagine in the first place. I specifically chose these films, even though initially I wanted to write about something different (I might do it next week still if nothing better falls in my lap). The reason I decided to put them side by side is that they had been the perfect vehicles for their creators to get fished out from the crowd and given an opportunity to show the world what they’re capable of.

And so, the first film of the day – “Panic attack!” from 2009 by Fede Alvarez – is a meticulously crafted account of aliens(?) attacking Montevideo (the capital of Uruguay). It’s very short and bullet-like and reminiscent of a video clip rather than of a movie in its traditional sense. What is the most interesting in my opinion about “Panic attack!” is that its budget amounted to 300$, which is quite impressive when you examine the quality of the film. It’s really well shot and the special effects hold up to the modern sci-fi standards. Certainly, you’re unable to smell the cheapness that is far too common among the amateur science fiction.

 

I dare say that the perfectionist quality and passion that went into this little project had something to do with the fact that Fede Alvarez – a film-maker who has done nothing more than father a couple of short movies – was chosen by Sam Raimi to direct a remake of “Evil Dead” – one of the most important horror movies of all time (have a look at the red band trailer if you dare) and by the looks of it, come April 2013 we’re going to experience a whole new level of ‘horror’.

The second feature of the day is “Mamá” by Andrés Muschietti – created back in 2008, but released in December of 2012 as a part of marketing campaign for a full-length feature of the same title. That’s right. “Mama”, that is now running in cinemas across the pond and is about to drop in the UK in a month’s time, is what “Mamá” could have never been; a properly funded horror story with a professional cast and everything.

 

“Mamá” is a ghost story about two girls whose mother doesn’t want to leave them alone. It’s not exactly a story even, but more of an extended scene. However, it was more than enough for Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to notice the young director’s talent and allow him to tell the story the way it was supposed to be told. Now, I haven’t seen the feature film yet, but I’m more than keen to watch it once it opens in The Rainy Isles.

All in all, I give you “Panic attack!” and “Mamá” – two films that share more than just Spanish-speaking directors. They both tell me I should pay closer attention to the short form, as one day I might be a witness to the birth of a glamorous career of a fantastic talent.