The Conjuring Review
By Bret Dorman
Since starting my blog, I’ve had to (well not HAD to but you know, had to) declare a “favorite” film every year. Here they are:
2010: Black Swan
2012: Dredd (because Tarantino movies don’t count)
I feel no qualms or uneasiness about adding The Conjuring to that list. In fact, it feels kind of at home the more I settle into it. Here, I’ll attempt to explain why. But overall, let’s just say the movie works on three levels:
1) It’s a good film. Period.
2) It’s a good horror movie.
3) It transcends the horror genre to deliver a super thrilling climax.
So let’s break this thing down and tackle our inner cinematic demons, hopefully exorcising them into the light and eventually personal DVD collection.
The Story: Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are demonologists who tackle haunted houses, which usually means they check for squeaky floor boards and leaky pipes. Sometimes they actually get a real case and help a couple out. And on rare occasions, all hell breaks lose and they battle an unholy terror face to face! This is based on the “true haunting” of The Perron’s (parental units played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston). Also, “true story” is ALWAYS in quotes, because, well, this is a movie.
In an attempt to completely break this down, let me do this review in non chronological chapters, so to speak (there’s a reason why I ban Tarantino from my Top 10 lists, I obviously dig the guy’s style).
THE SNOWBALL EFFECTOur own personal life journeys heavily influence how we view movies. Not only our personal perspectives but also specific times and dates. I saw this movie late on a Sunday night. I wanted to see it the night before but missed it. I worked during the day Sunday and went home to take a bit of a nap. After waking up I was in that groggy state of whether I wanted to go or not. Because of our podcast, I decided to just go and “get it over with.” Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward and very curious, especially given the “rated R” hype and my fondness for James Wan. I showed up and settled in. I decided I wasn’t going to take notes, but rather let the experience wash over me and try to sit back and “relax.”
The movie start with a typical “action” beginning, a theme which more or less runs throughout the movie. We get an interview of some scared girls and supportive guy friend telling their “Annabelle” Doll Story to The Warrens. We see it through an interview, flashbacks, and eventually a classroom lecture. I really dug the intro because at one point the Warrens explain the difference of ghosts vs demons and possessions vs hauntings. They tell the girls that there is no ghost. For a second you might think “Oh that’s nice they are going to debunk it scientifically” and then BLAM-O! They go the opposite and get even more terrifying, all while remaining calm and in control. That was no ghost… it was something inhuman. And it wasn’t playing around. It wanted to get inside you.
The Warrens are very self aware. They acknowledge that people don’t take them seriously. But they remain down to Earth. I noticed there were no opening credits. I thought it was a nice move. I hate opening credits. I liked how this movie wasn’t going to acknowledge it was a movie, but just get right into the terror. And then boom. The screen pauses and fades to black. Text starts to scroll. “Ed and Lorraine are into some super scary stuff you guys! And this is ALL REAL! And this case is their most terrifying![paraphrased]
THE CONJURING (!!!!!!!!!)”
The music swells up as the big bold yellow letters fill the ENTIRE screen in a 70′s font lifted straight from William Friedkin’s quintessential exorcism film. Boom. I was sold. I took out my notebook and wrote in giant letters “THE CONJURING!” My brain started warming up, revving.
When I first saw Dredd, I saw it with a Karl Urban Q&A after. I wasn’t immediately super smitten by the flick, but I thought it was totally badass. As I struggled to get noticed and think of a perfect question, I started thinking of some of the better parts of the movie, and noticed a definite Western-y Clint Eastwood-y vibe. I saw the movie again. And again. And again. The more I saw it the more I liked it. The more I liked it the more I noticed. The more I noticed the more I became obsessed.As The Conjuring kept feeding my brain these nice little film treats (example: the opening ‘house unpacking’ scene as the camera floats from little girl to little girl in one take) I started firing more and more cylinders. The more cylinders my brain kicked up the more in love I became. Perhaps under different circumsances this would just be a “solid horror flick” as the general consensus seems to be. But personally, as the movie kicked into its third act, I found myself hovering over my seat, as if I had been possessed by the film, rooting for the characters and the filmmakers.
I left feeling completely euphoric.
I try not to dictate what I think a film should be. I don’t think films NEED to be entertaining. I don’t think they NEED to be serious. I don’t think they NEED to be escapism, or rewatchable, high art, or gritty/grimy, or soul searching, or anything. I try to let the films themselves inform me of their intent and then I mold to that. I find the whole movie going experience much better that way. But on a personal level, I will always have a sweet spot for the films that deliver a visceral adventure. In that regard, I fell in love with the Poltergeist side of this film, the one where I could see the strings being pulled and was with the filmmakers all the way.
RATING/TRUE STORYEveryone seems to have one of two things on their mind. Let’s get the more ridiculous one out of the way first.
This movie is “based” on a “true” story. Yes, more crazy than rating is the fact that NO ONE seems to have EVER seen a movie “inspired” by real life events before. Whether already having seen it and complaining about the over the top finale, or they have not seen it and are curious about the hype and using the “true story” tag as a reason to remain hyper skeptical; The Conjuring is NOT the first movie to exaggerate true occurrences and especially not the first horror movie to fudge some facts.
Hell, The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Psycho were all supposedly “inspired by a true story” and all were based on one man, Ed Gein.
The reason why we deviate from real life is two fold.
One. The real story ends after a hectic “seance” and the Perron family kicked the Warrens out of the house. That is definitely different from the super warm Ron Livingston portrayal of Roger Perron who several times thanks Ed for his help. The real life story is anti-climactic. It’s something you read about on Wikipedia or an Entertainment Weekly article. We like our films to come with a beginning, middle, and end. And we like a satisfying ending.
Two. Like with Argo and that film’s completely made up airport interrogation/chase, sometimes the exaggerations are meant to put us the viewer in the seat of the characters. In real life, seeing our own loved ones tied to a chair spewing backwards latin and blood would creep us out big time. But seeing it on screen calls for a bit more. The events might not be exact, but the terror is the same for us as it was for them.
As for the rating, yeah. The MPAA is dumb. There are articles and book chapters and even entire documentaries specifically created to point out the hypocrisy. I won’t get into that. You know. But I will say by the end I understood the rating. I think the movie earned the rating. Its a compliment. Heck, the “so scary its rated R” hype going around may have even helped propel it to #1 at the box office. Without, it may have just been some PG-13 horror flick without any blood or killing or sexy stuff. Could the movie have made more with a lower rating? Yes. Would it have? I… don’t know.
By the end of the movie I felt like I had been hit in the gut while simultaneously cheering for it like a friend in a drinking game. The movie is extremely overwhelming. Does it deserve the R? Heck yeah. Is it extremely ludicrous and hypocritical? Heck yeah.
STAND UP COMEDY AND “CLASSIC” “ROCK”
How does a movie “earn” its scares? And how can a movie use them effectively? Let’s take a look!I’ve been to Music Box Theatre’s 24 Hour Horror Movie Marathon twice. They play a great line up of classics and deep cuts. The fans are TREMENDOUS. And they get some pretty cool guests. I got my Critters 2 DVD signed by director Mick Garris. I got to ask him about horror in movies and how to create it. I’m always trying to ask “pre production” type prep questions, my “go to” one if I don’t have a specific movie/body of work themed one ready is simply “how important is story boarding to you?” Mick was cool enough to take a minute to get into the idea that it doesn’t matter how you film a scene, since everyone has a different style. What matters is making it scary at the moment. The actors will genuinely be freaked out and the atmosphere will translate to the big screen, which amplifies everything. His answer was basically don’t worry about getting the jump, editing will fix that, just worry about capturing the moment.
I certainly respect that idea. I don’t think its wrong. Who am I to argue with a “Master of Horror” (I know, Critters 2 isn’t “scary” but come on)? I certainly think composition and coverage is important. And I think certain directors just know where to be looking and for how long. Its why most horror directors get stuck in the genre.
Bad horror movies shout. They show things in close ups. Making a scary atmosphere for an actor will make them scared, but primarily showing their face can only make me so scared. Showing a close up of a toy chest or focusing too much on a dark corner takes away the mystery of discovery. Its saying “LOOK HERE! THIS IS WHERE YOU NEED TO BE SCARED!”
Good horror movies let you discover. One of the greatest shots in film (ALL film) history is the Michael Myers mask fading into view behind Laurie Strode. It’s because we know he’s alive, we know he’s coming, and we know he lurks in the darkness. But seeing him appear out of thin air is down right chilling.
I do think on set creepiness seeps through, but there is still a control over it, whether its innate or not. Horror is all about context. It’s letting the scares build up internally.In that regard, horror is a bit like stand up comedy. You go to a comedy club or auditorium/stadium. You sit in a seat. And the stand up goes on stage. He/She tells jokes. You (hopefully) laugh. You laugh because they are up on stage and you get to take in the context of the situation. You could listen to their album in the car and laugh, but there’s something about going out that makes it better.
Now imagine the comedian came up and sat at your table or right next to you. And they did the same exact jokes (not crowd work). You would feel uncomfortable. You’re too close. He/She’s not talking to the audience, they are putting you on the spot. They want to make sure you really find their stuff funny. Except… you only feel uneasy.
Horror operates on this principal. From far away, with a camera pulled back, things seem much scarier. I’m not simply talking about “The Monster Problem” or how the unknown is scarier. I’m talking overall atmosphere. James Wan and his editor Kirk M. Morri do a good job of letting a shot linger and letting the items like a wardrobe or shadow in the background build tension before the characters start to notice. Yes. There are close ups. As a character approaches the wardrobe, which has been properly established as a possible source of scary, the film cuts to a close up, looking up at the wardrobe from a low angle, to help it build dominance over the viewer. The object goes from being something maybe scary in the background to a direct threat. Opening the doors starts the process of the “jump scare.” But building up to it is where the imagination runs wild.
But what is it all for? Why scare the audience? Because it’s fun? Yeah. But so what? Horror does not play by the same rules as action. There’s only so much one-upping you can do. The back and forth tease of the atmospheric horror/jump scare doesn’t build up to one ultimate jump scare. I’d be impressed to find a movie that does. Instead, The Conjuring builds up to something different. I won’t say what, but the genius is that the horror is used not as the end game, but as a tool for something else. There’s a reason why Poltergeist keeps being brought up in The Conjuring conversations, despite the obvious static television reference.
Going back to the snowball effect, I love movies that build and deliver.
Metaphorically and literally speaking, this movie has a classical soundtrack for its first two acts. The creepy stings and ominous bass amplify the tension. But the last act has, only metaphorically this time, a total rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. The stage has been set, the stakes are personal, and the danger is real; now isn’t the time for the “let’s slowly creep up around around the corner” approach no matter how brilliantly executed it was in the first two acts. Now’s the time the demons lunge from the shadows and the characters don’t run, but fight.
This is the kind of fist pumping “hoorah” moments I love in film. The film doesn’t ask you to meet it halfway, but holds your hand up to the top of the slide and then pushes you down. Pacific Rim (my self-projected favorite film of the year) felt a tad bit off to me because the movie seemed to ask me to meet it halfway. While Pac Rim asks “this is cool, right?” The Conjuring simply states “this IS cool.” While Pac Rim is a completely different movie, its ultimately aiming for a personal story with high stakes and a thrilling climax. In that regard, The Conjuring is the best action movie of the year.
There are two types of horror. Well crafted cinematic horror that usually results in jump scares. And nightmare fodder. The Conjuring has both.Nightmare Fodder is the stuff that goes in that personal memory bank whether you like it or not. It’s the stuff that makes you turn on all the lights on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s why your heart jumps when you see a dim reflection of a lightbulb in a window and think its Michael Myers standing behind you. Its why there is always a Schrödinger’s ghost around every corner and you’ll never know until you make the turn.
On that level, there’s always going to be some stuff that goes in the personal paranormal piggy bank that others might find laughable. For me, the creme de la creme of spookiness is demons. Or should I say supernatural evil. I’m not a religious guy. But let’s pretend for a second I am. Here’s what I notice:
God is always doing weird favors. I always see/hear things like “I went to the store and they were all out of milk. I really needed milk! I prayed and then noticed a jug in the back of the cooler. OMG! God is great!” You know, that “everything happens for a reason” stuff like “I had to tie my shoe this morning I was so frustrated UGH but then I saw an accident in front of me on the way to work that could have been me OMG what if my shoe being untied was a sign from God!”
I also notice that basically everyone who is saved from natural disasters is saved because of God. Its weird that he only answers some prayers and not others. I’m sure everyone when they are faced with a tornado directly above them think “please don’t let me die.” Whether or not they are praying to a direct Christian God or just pleading in general, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, God saves people from natural disasters (not going to get into the praying is selfish if everything is part of God’s plan thing, George Carlin covers that well).So all arguments aside, my general point is God seems to be cool just doing odd favors and saving some people. I’m okay with that. Whether its real or not, I like when good things happen. So let’s just assume I think it’s all real. God is pretty cool you guys. He seems like a relatively nice guy and makes me feel warm and fuzzy sometimes.
On the flip side, the devil, demons, and the occult, are all out POSSESSING PEOPLE, STEALING THEIR SOULS, AND MURDERING INNOCENT PEOPLE LEFT AND RIGHT!!! Demons go right for the jugular. They want to take OVER your body. They want to use it to do harm to others. Even if you did nothing wrong your whole life and believed in Jesus they will Drag You To Hell Sam Raimi style and make you suffer. They exist and get pleasure out of torturing you physically and mentally. I love me some Pinhead from Hellraiser 1 & 2. And regardless of modern science, the fact that some people bring that stuff into the real world and are so convinced in its existence to the point of self mutilation creeps me right out. My imagination eats it up.
I love it.
I firmly think every kid should watch three horror movies when they are a kid that will permanently scar them for life. And one of those should be Jaws. Because I miss the days of having nightmares. I truly do. Its a visceral experience like no other. I watch movies like Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring as well as Halloween, The Exorcist, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I can admire them as films, but don’t get creeped out. My logic brain is so in control when I go home that the tiniest bit of fear is replaced with an overwhelming “nothing is going to happen, it NEVER does” override that quite frankly, the aftershock of horror flicks isn’t as fun anymore. I like feeling happy after a comedy. I like feeling sad after a depressing drama. And I like feeling scared after a horror.
When you’re a kid, the inner dark places are way more scary. Maybe not every kid will retroactively appreciate getting the crap scared out of them to the point of night terrors, but I certainly do.
CHARACTER LIKABILITYI’m going to go back to Halloween again because well, I honestly think you could put this film up with any other top notch film out there. In the first part of the movie, Laurie Strode talks about boys, babysitting, and books books books (who needs books anyway?) with her girlfriends. These conversations aren’t rushed through and they don’t focus on “plot.” They simply show the characters for who they are, mostly horny young teens who want to have a good time (the moral implications of who gets killed was totally unintentional according to Carpenter, even if it became a standard of the genre as exploited by The Cabin In The Woods).
Horror movies shouldn’t take breaks from the scares the give the audience a moment to relax. The non-tension moments can still be cranking the Jack-in-the-box. How? Easy. Audiences get scared when characters they like are in dangerous situations. Even though everyone knows James Bond won’t die, they like him so much they squiggle and squirm in their seat during the big final moments. They know the character.
Horror movies operate the same way. Only instead of seeing a cool spy come up with a witty one-liner and get the girl, they mostly work with “real” people in the “real” world. The best way to have an audience connect with these characters is to make them funny. That doesn’t mean every character needs to be the comic relief, but showing the characters having fun goes a long way. The Conjuring builds the big family vibe well as the girls shout and argue and run around. Even after some big scares, when the Warrens show up to help the family bonds over breakfast. This doesn’t just alleviate the tension, it works to build it later.
It also doesn’t hurt when you have good actors. Everyone knows kids can tap into the paranormal easier than adults, but by having so many and without relying solely on them, the kids help to amplify a chaotic atmosphere. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor are sweet and innocent. You feel their frustrations as well as helplessness. By the time Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga show up, we’ve seen them both help and debunk haunted houses. We know they’ve seen some scary stuff and try to protect their daughter from the demons in the artifact room. We feel confident as they try to piss the demons off and call them out. They can handle it… hopefully.
I understand for some The Conjuring does feel a little long. I don’t think any of it is bad, but perhaps a bit of tightening up could do. What certainly helps is the Gimmick Situation. Here are a list of gimmicks in the movie:
- Clap Game
- Psychic Visions
- Annabelle Doll
- UV Light
- Circus Mirror
- Good Ghost/Bad Witch
Some are more prevalent than others, but for the most part every gimmick has its own moments. Now normally, I would say this means the movie is all over the place, but I think each one is used in just the right amounts to ultimately build towards a thrilling confrontation. By switching the focus from family member to family member, as well as family to family, as well as scare tactic to scare tactic, the movie moves a bit more briskly than the drawn out tension of each scene might imply.
The other thing about these gimmicks I liked is there is rarely a false jump scare. One daughter jumps into frame after the mirror wind up once but that might be it? For the most part, the scares range from playful, to mildly sinister, to down right violent or aggressive. The scares are legit. Either nothing or something happens. At one point a character exits a restroom while everyone has their eyes locked on the creaking door. No scare. Just release of tension via some potty giggles.
JAMES WAN AND THE ART OF THE THIRD ACT CLIMAX
(Fair to say SPOILERS! from here to the end, including all of James Wan’s work.)
Let’s take a brief look at James Wan’s filmography and how they end:Saw: Dudes be trapped in a room and like saws and handcuffs and stuff. Jigsaw be totally creepin’ and cops be on his trail. THE END: Dude from the floor gets up and everything as we know it changes! Crazy song pumps up and basically everyone dies except that one chick. To people who complain about unrealism, just know Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are much worse. Evil gives slasher flick baddies super powers dontchyaknow!
Dead Silence: People be trapped in ventriloquism dummies and cops be chasin’ after them! Wan takes a page out of Raimi’s book and makes a spoof of his first movie (kind of). THE END: Dude is a huge ventriloquism dummy! WHAT?! Pretty sure they use the same Saw song too. Silly, but fun.
Death Sentence: Kevin Bacon be rackin’ up his degrees in this super underrated revenge flick. Things be bad, then peeps be makin’ them even more bad! No punches are held back. And a nice one take shot of a chase in a parking garage. THE END: Bacon shottily shaves his head ala Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and goes on a rampage. Basically everyone dies. Dudes, revenge is sad!
Insidious: Ghosts be totally creepin’ on Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. They move away and get ghost hunters but it ain’t helpin’ yo! What do they do? THE END: So Patrick Wilson goes INTO ANOTHER FREAKIN’ DIMENSION to get his kid and there’s Darth Maul (kind of). It’s superficial creepy but seriously ballsy.The Conjuring: Patrick Wilson is married to a different chick this time Vera Farmiga and they fight ghosts in the 70′s. Zoinks! A family asks for their help and they mess with it and do some meddling and discover there ain’t no carnival owner or mine worker under the mask. There ain’t even a mask! Jinkies! THE END: A badass last minute exorcism filled with action packed roll dodges and shotgun blasts. They have to fight the demon-y witch using the power of faith and goodness!
To go back to the beginning, sometimes certain movies just hit my personal taste buds and I can’t help but devour them up. Movies that build all to one thrilling climax that pays off really just make me happy. I keep using this term “rooting for the filmmakers” and that’s exactly what I was doing. As soon as Ed and Lorraine got the call about the mother taking her daughter back home I was hovering over my chair. The movie set up this traditional type exorcism. There was no reason to think the movie would go from its steady 2-4 range on the excitement amplifier and suddenly turn it to 11. But there it was. Police officer shooting the door open. Scissors in a crazy woman’s hand. Cheek bites. Crazy yelling. Sheet grabs. Chair tie downs. This movie BETTER not drag her out the house and take the energy down. Luckily, the witch wouldn’t let her. So now we HAD to confront this evil face to face. The timeline was set. The Warrens were experts. Even if things were getting out of control there was no immediate alarm. But once Annabelle and the chair freaked their daughter out we knew how powerful and aggressive this thing was. So as Ed comes to the realization he has to perform the archaic ritual I was pumping my fist in agreement.
The music picked up, the demon let loose, and the shit hit the fan. Blood spurts! Wardrobes! ROLL DODGES! Roll dodges in a horror movie! Diving tackles to save from possessed shotguns! Crowbar-ing floorboards. Swarms of birds! Levitating chairs! WHAT?! And then, blam-o! The witch goes full crazy, gets loose, hops up, and squat-sprints to the young girl. I had no idea what would happen. I hoped everyone would be alive. And even if everyone came out alive would they come out totally unharmed? WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN?!Patrick Wilson reaches forward. He calls out Bathsheba to stall the possessed mom. The figure turns and the mom is gone, the demon is fully present. WHAT?! Wilson screams out, “I condemn you back to hell!” Hell yeah! And then it comes. The religious tones, the happy message, the fight from within gusto. The picture reminiscing comes back. It may be a little bit forceful retroactively speaking, but we the audience have experienced the good times. We know this mother doesn’t truly want to harm her kids. She conjures (heh? heh?) up the will to spew the evil blood back out.
Then, as the family exists, there’s a moment of peace and quiet. You feel the warm glow of the sun as it shines on the warm, reunited family. The two fathers exchange knowing nods. The girl gives back the necklace. The two goofballs do a tiny quip. And for the first time in the movie instead of showing the house from the lower angle where it is more ominous, the camera lifts above. It no longer has a hold on them. Some have complained they defeated the ghost too easily. Some have complained the stickiness of the ghost should still apply. I say the cinematic language clearly communicates they have won. As for easiness… you try ROLL DODGING wardrobes!!!
END SCENEIn typical horror fashion, there has to be one last scare right? There’s a bit of final comedic-tension release as they find out the exorcism has been approved. Gotta fit the Amityville reference in for good measure. And then… the music box starts. The camera pans over. The mirror looks to us. Ed’s quote highlights the true dangers these forces represent. And then the music stops. And……… cut to black. What? Get us wound up one last time! And no release? But that means… with the mirror reflecting to us and the promise of a scare… that means… the ghosts are coming right for us. We are no longer safe! You guys. Brush up on your latin, demonology, and roll dodging. This just got real.
Like I said I’m not a believer, but using the snowball effect, by the end I was completely engrossed in the ultimate battle of good vs evil. They aren’t just waging war in some imaginary battlefield, they are possessing our bodies and tearing our souls apart.
If possessions comes in three stages, so does this movie:
1) Playing by the Rules
2) Scaring the Living Daylights
3) Kicking Ass
That’s a possession I’m willing to be overtaken by.
In Conclusion, The Conjuring may not be the horror movie to end all horror movies, but it sure is an overwhelming experience that left me rushing with adrenaline and sick to my stomach. I burst out of the theater to proclaim to coworkers my love of the movie. They called me crazy. Its just an okay horror movie. “It’s not the scariest movie ever.” “It’s too Hollywood-ized.” And “there’s no way that stuff could have happened in real life.” Oh. I’m sorry. Heaven forbid a horror movie try to use its scares to build up to a greater good and fudge a couple details. I can’t speak for everyone (despite using second person a lot in this review) but I can say, personally speaking, this IS without a doubt hands down my favorite movie of the year.
Final Grade: YAY!!!
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