Monday, August 5, 2013

The Conjuring

By James Wan

Note:  Because Chelsea is a scaredy-cat and likes to have control of the situation when watching horror films, her mother, Marge, is guest blogging with David today.  Marge loves horror movies, and we think she has done a bang up job of offering her perspective on this particular one.

            With a healthy respect for the forerunners of its genre, James Wan’s The Conjuring skillfully utilizes the tricks of the horror trade rather than lazily relying on them.  This film leaves little doubt that Wan is well versed in this genre’s rich history, and he does not hide his affections for the filmmakers who did it best.  To him, this means borrowing the slow zooms and establishing frames of Kubrick’s Shining, the foreign sounds and patient pacing of Freidkin’s Exorcist, and the canted mirrors and crooked hallways of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.  The opening titles borrow typeface from such era films, which for this film buff brought a tinge of eager excitement.  Effectively spun frights are all too rare, and the prospect of a film that openly respects and borrows from such horror masters is refreshing.  In a sea of uninspired slashers and torture flicks, this film stands apart.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it knows the blueprint and uses it well.
            The film’s story is familiar – a happy family moves into a country home and starts experiencing strange ghostly events.  These happenings become more and more violent until they are forced to seek help, which comes in the form of paranormal specialists (Ed and Lorraine Warren, of Amityville fame) whose calm expertise leads to a quick assessment of the situation and a rescue plan.  This plan, of course, comes with complications, which ratchets up the intensity and provides the film’s climactic set piece (or should I say showdown?).  There is nothing new here, but Wan lovingly milks every inch of his film for optimal suspense, showing patience in timing and an impressive attention to detail.  We all know the drill, but his reverent craftiness introduces anew the exhilarating frights of darkened corners, crooked pictures, creaking cellar stairs, and bumps in the night.

A strong *** out of ****

Is that you Mrs. Bates?
            I love a good scary movie and The Conjuring did not disappoint.  I must admit I struggled with the beginning and how it would fit in with the plot, but it did not take long for me to move beyond that and become totally involved with the film’s country setting, the family of characters and the emotions that accompanied the story.  Thankfully, my doubts about the beginning were later assuaged by what I saw as a clever blending of subplots.
            I am not a film critic, nor do I have the background of David and Chelsea to truly judge a film from an artistic viewpoint.  But even I can agree with David's thoughts about the director's love and appreciation for the horror genre and its unique use of the camera.  This film’s use of upside down camera shots and disorienting zooms had me on the edge of my seat, and I found myself holding my breath until the lens became more familiar and I could gain my bearings.  I couldn’t rest long as the movie’s scares clipped along at a good speed, and the people around me had to contend with my ragged breathing throughout the viewing.
            I enjoyed the movie; it was a nail biter.  In spite of some questions of believability and its muddled idea of demonology which niggled at me after I caught my breath, I would also give it a hearty recommendation.

*** out of ****

            You mentioned the film’s opening, which introduced a fittingly creepy possessed doll that comes to play a minor role in the film.  While I didn’t love this aspect of the film (I thought it felt somewhat superfluous), I can say one good thing about it – it worked to reinforce the film’s theme of corrupted maternal instincts by bringing danger to the Warren home as well.  In that sense, I appreciated it, if not only because it added some deeper emotions to the film.

Vera Farmiga
            I am embarrassed to say that I can really get carried away with the human emotions of a story and that held true for me here.  The actors portrayals were excellent, especially that of Vera Farmiga as a fragile expert in demonology and clairvoyance.  The smallest of hand movements in descending cellar stairs gave her character's sensitivity more depth.  It was also great to see Lili Taylor again.  Her portrayal as the possessed mother was haunting!  But it was her portrayal as a mother who loved her children that clicked with me; she embodied that tender mother- child bond which  can be impenetrable.


Lili Taylor
          While I agree both Vera Farmiga and Lily Taylor act the hell out of their roles and effectively communicate the horror of an inability to protect their children, I wish the film would have given us more time to explore their panicked and petrified psyches as mothers.  As Wan so openly references The Exorcist, it is hard not to watch this film with that classic in mind.  And as a straight comparison, this film seems like a sterilized version of its predecessor, taking its stylistic elements and leaving its thematic depth at the door.   What do you think – would a deeper exploration of a mother’s terror improve the film, or was this communicated well enough as it was for the purposes of this film?

            I don't know that exploring those maternal characters would have worked, at least not without making a very different movie!  A mother's psyche is complex, and I think delving into this subject within the context of a "horror" film would have simplified it to the point of invalidation.  Leave that to a documentary or something else where educating takes precedence over entertaining which, in my mind, was the purpose of this film.  Horror films, to me, are not for education; they are for good old fashioned fun - a scaring the pants off you kind of fun!

            I think the reason I was somewhat disappointed the film didn’t delve deeper into the psychology of its horror is that the films it so openly pays homage to do just that.  The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are, for example, mainly about the internal terror of the women in them and utilize frights to supplement these more deeply disturbing ideas.
            That being said, you make a solid point and this may be an empty lament, as for better or worse, it seems the modern horror movie is more concerned with experience than ideology.  There once was a time when thoughtful auteurs tried their hand at the genre and elevated it to something meaningful, but nowadays, the horror genre is mainly about cheaper thrills.  As such, it would probably be unfair to criticize this film for being simply really good at “scaring the pants off you.”  And it deserves some form of applause for achieving its relatively uncomplicated goals of doing just that.

Why does ANYONE buy houses like this?
            The only real lesson I could glean from this film is to be wary of buying an old house out east.  The notions of hauntings and exorcisms challenge my sensibility and my spirituality to begin with, but especially here, as they were sensationalized and, in some scenes, bordered on silly.

            I am glad you brought up the film’s demonology – a topic that most everyone, including Christianity at large, seems to avoid completely.  As a Christian, I find this topic to be interesting and, like you said, very complex.   It should be taken seriously by Christians, especially since most of the public is introduced to such concepts with the bogus and sensationalized theology of films like this.  Demons seem to hit a nerve with many, which to me hints toward a fear in the possibility they really do exist, so proper information is vital.
            The main concern for me with films such as this is that they make Christianity look very strange and clearly mythical, while the reality of such things is far more distressing, simply because evil forces are far craftier.  While Scripture teaches that demons are mainly concerned with diverting God’s grace, this film seems to communicate they are primarily concerned with creating pain (and apparently hanging around old farmhouses).  I kept thinking that if anything, the tortured family in this film would be driven toward God rather than away from him, which would make this particular film’s evil forces pretty dumb.

            I guess this further clarifies the need for good judgment and common sense when viewing these films.  I still maintain, though, that this movie should be seen purely for entertainment. Perhaps this is because I can see the inherent dangers in walking into the theatre thinking it might answer some questions regarding theology, morality, psyche etc.  In other words, this is not a film for the gullible and definitely not for children.  Parents take note!

Pedicure, anyone?
            If it weren’t for the fact the film presents itself as a “true story,” despite the fact the Warrens were essentially exposed as frauds years ago, I would have little issue with using false tales, or even false theology, for the purposes of creating cinematic thrills.  Yet, I have to say that while you or I can see the dangers in allowing Hollywood to shape our worldview, I think many people do not have an understood worldview and can’t help but be shaped by the schlock they consume.  They may understand it is just a story, but it could sway their beliefs anyway.  How else could you explain, for example, the number or people who wrongly believe that people become angels after they die?  Such silly things come from popular tales, not Scripture.

            Well, I think we could go on and on... and, contrary to one of my original premises, we have used the film as an invitation to a pretty courageous conversation.  The bottom line, I guess, would be if you were to view The Conjuring at face value and simply accept it as a scary horror flick which enjoyably pays homage to its predecessors in its genre, you won’t be disappointed.  Just don’t try to learn anything more from it.

Combined Score: *** out of ****

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