Can you see it? Can you hear it?
Can you bear an evil spirit,
Claiming your home as its own
And wishing ill on all who near it?
Darkness deepens; who can light it?
Wrong runs rampant; who can right it?
One can’t stop a ghost alone
For only higher help can fight it.
MPAA rating: R (only because it’s intense; the actual content is more like PG-13)
Since I don’t really celebrate Halloween anymore, I was tempted to avoid reviewing horror movies this month and leave them to the more experienced horror aficionados. (You know who you are.) Yet with my latest list of scary movies and that general Halloween “spirit”, I couldn’t stay away from such films entirely.
Upon release, The Conjuring was just one more horror movie, a genre I typically ignore nowadays. Putting director James Wan’s name on it may have excited Saw fans, but it only convinced me that it wasn’t for me. But then, I read some reviews, reviews that mentioned how this new movie recalls a time when horror didn’t mean inventing new ways to kill people, but rather focused on atmosphere and that creepy look-over-your-shoulder feeling. What’s more, I heard that religion was positively depicted as a weapon against evil, which seems to be more and more uncommon lately. So I gave The Conjuring a chance…alone…at night, which probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do.
The beginning starts out like an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, with some stupid twenty-somethings describing how they invited a presence to live in a doll, at which point this Annabelle becomes the kind of possessive plaything they can’t throw away. (The doll even got its own poorly received spinoff movie.) They get help from Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a Catholic couple who are described as demonologists, ghost hunters, or wackos but generally take these kinds of stories seriously when others won’t. They act as paranormal investigators, laymen who refer priests when an exorcism is needed and keep their own private Warehouse 13 of cursed items in a room in their house, which probably ought to be locked.
Cut then to the Perron family (led by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who are moving into a nice, spacious, diabolical house, with no idea that a witch used to live there. Even with the few horror movies I’ve seen, I could tell that The Conjuring borrows from so many other movies that one might be tempted to call it derivative. Like Poltergeist, there’s a possessed doll, a don’t-look-under-the-bed scene, experts setting up surveillance technology, and a snowy television set (a brief but obvious reference). Like The Sixth Sense, the Perrons complain about the cold whenever spirits are about, and one scene is blatantly borrowed (hint: “Look what you made me do!”). Perhaps the closest similarity is with the original Amityville Horror. Both are based on true stories, creepy things happen at the same time every night, the family discovers a sealed room/basement, the dog reacts badly, the youngest daughter befriends an invisible playmate, and one parent is compelled to follow in another’s murderous footsteps. At the end, the Amityville story is even referenced as the Warrens’ next case, which they did indeed investigate.
Yet for all its appropriations from past horror, The Conjuring is arguably scarier than its predecessors, thanks to an overall atmosphere of dread. While there are some jump scares, more often the scary moments are drawn out, making you think something will happen and often going with a subtler but spookier option. The moody lighting and resourceful camerawork add to the film’s quality, making it no surprise that it became one of the most successful horror films ever. Ultimately, The Conjuring proves that filmmakers don’t need buckets of blood to frighten their audience; sometimes a pair of hands or a rocking chair or a door moving on its own will do the trick. Often the simpler scares are the more potent.
In addition, religion is positively portrayed, in contrast to The Amityville Horror, where the evil presence chases a priest away and later blinds him. As Ed Warren states, placing crucifixes around the house “pisses off” evil spirits, and though the Catholic bureaucracy is slow in responding to the Warrens’ pleas for an exorcism, the actual rite gets quite a reaction from the ghost and proves dominant when paired with the power of familial love. I personally found this to be refreshing and one of the film’s greatest strengths. Filmmakers are free to scare the crap out of moviegoers, but it’s less common for them to follow up the chills with a religious message and some assurance that good can still conquer evil. Bravo for that!
Best line: (closing note from the real Ed Warren) “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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