Sorry for my absence over the past week and a half. I was sick from ConnectiCon and in tech/dress/run on summer camp shows. I’ve mostly recovered now and feel up to writing and handling all the day job craziness again.
Haunted house movies are a hard sell nowadays. Between the minimalist found footage style of the Paranormal Activity and the hard turn back into over the top dark comedy/horror ala Drag Me to Hell, Evil Dead, and This Is the End, the era of quiet narrative cozies taking audiences by surprise is on the wane. The Conjuring attempts to have it both ways, going over the top with implausible horror stunt sequences and underplaying a rich tapestry of family drama.
Ed and Lorraine Warren (a strong pairing of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the most acclaimed and respected paranormal investigators in the world. Running from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, we see the duo give interviews to journalists, present cases to public forums, and investigate a few paranormal circumstances. From their own experience, most hauntings have a logical explanation grounded in the real world.
This is not the case with the Perron family. Carolyn (an incredible Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston), and their five daughters move into a new house that really doesn’t want them there. The clocks stop at the same time every night. Weird noises and echos of their own conversations ring through the house. Doors lock so that no one can enter or exit and the children are attacked with horrific nightmares. When they run out of patience, the Perrons ask Ed and Lorraine Warren to help them.
The Conjuring is director James Wan’s first horror film without his Saw/Dead Silence/Insidious collaborator Leigh Whannell’s writing and the effect is unsettling. Wan is a very stylish director who likes to take big risks in his storytelling.
Here, simultaneous action is connected with tilting establishment shots. A young child searching under her bed for whatever is pulling her leg is followed by a camera shot that tilts 180 degrees to be upside down. The scene continues like nothing strange happened with the camera.
This technique occurs a few times throughout the film and it’s totally hit or miss. The bed shot and a really clever swing up and down a staircase work wonders; other tilts are disorienting and shift the focus from horror story to the realization that you’re watching a movie. The technique draws you in when it works and pushes you out when it doesn’t.
The camera tilts aren’t the only alienating effect in The Conjuring. Chad and Carey Hayes’ screenplay refuses to let the suspense build to the trembling heights necessary for an American Gothic-hued haunted house film. More scare scenes than not are intentionally punctuated with a bad joke to cut the tension.
There’s a reason horror films try to make you laugh: it’s to relax you before a much better scare coming up so it catches you off-guard. However, when a film only has scare scenes with punchlines attached, the scares go from shocking moments to laughable plot points. There are scenes in The Conjuring that would have been terrifying if the characters onscreen just closed their mouths unless they were calling for help, praying to God, or searching for a lost family member. The best scenes have little dialogue at all and no laughs to break the mood.
The Conjuring tries to smash together styles of horror that are totally at odds with each other. You can’t do the Roger Corman Poe/Gothic cozy and the nonsensical extremes of the 1970s Hammer shockers in the same film. The Conjuring shifts back and forth between competing styles for an effect that’s disorienting as the camerawork and ultimately unfulfilling.
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