The October Diaries: The Conjuring

Illustration by Max Brown
Blurbs by Sean & Christof

October 12th, 2014:
The Conjuring

Year: 2013
Director: James Wan
From IMDB: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

Sean’s Take:

Having just watched James Wan’s Dead Silence earlier in the month I was looking forward to seeing what else he could do. I liked his take on the killer ventriloquist dummy sub-genre but some clunk distanced me from giving myself over completely to it. Because of this hesitancy with his work, I still managed to go walk into The Conjuring without my hype going outta control. All I knew was that the movie got rated R not because of violence or sexuality, but because it was simply too scary (usually the MPAA is cool with a movie as long as it doesn’t feature a boob, or two fuck words instead of just one).

Forcing myself to express my thoughts on every movie this month, I’ve come to realize how much weight I put in characters. I need one character that I at least manage to half-care about. When I’m given this one character I can hang with most any kind of dreck thrown on the screen. When I’m not given this emotional anchor, the rough elements of the genre can be harder to ignore.

My main gripe with Dead Silence related to a lack of emotional anchor. It didn’t have a character I could relate to, and care enough about to worry about, when the dread moments made their dread call. The Conjuring, on the other hand, was packed with great faces. Vera Farmiga always feels in control of the material she’s given, working it just so to make it sit proper, and Patrick Wilson manages to find himself a home in all the varying genres I’ve noticed him trouncing through. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor round out a very solid and likeable group of hauntees and paranormal investigators. So, yeah, the acting was great or whatever, but the real star of this movie was the horror.

Wan differentiates himself from so many tellers of ghost stories by simply making sure the moments feel iconic. He puts enough care and attention into the delivery of his jump-scares that they don’t bleed into one another. Each stands as a moment. Even when you know a scare is coming is on the horizon, the tension of the moment is elevated by the knowledge, not alleviated.

I had a couple real primal goose-bumpy moments that I appreciated tremendously. Considering how many movies I watch, you’d think I’d be exposed to enough attempts at fright that I’d catch an incidental creepy feeling pretty often. It’s not the case. Watching so many movies, you anticipate too much. You read the pregnant pauses, you know the camera angles and you never trust a shot of a mirror. Wan managed to overpower this familiarity by sheer force of filmmaking. He knows when to ratchet a moment and he knows when to let one hang back.

I’m looking forward to seeing what he conjures* next.

*Get it?

The Conjuring

Christof’s Take:

I have expressed a few of the minor-ish problems I had with James Wan’s Dead Silence that we watched earlier on in the month, but now having watchedThe Conjuring, it’s safe to say that James really WAN me over.

(I’m so sorry.)

This is one of the best haunted house movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s not officially a ghost story. The house and the people in the house are haunted by demons, or “inhuman spirits”. I’m not usually one for religious-horror, but this one had me right away. From the slow roll of the titles, I was so sold. This movie flat-out struts.

I was impressed with the control James Wan had over Dead Silence, but The Conjuring is that next level of autonomy I wanted to see from him. On the technical side of things, Wan is flexing. He’s flexing hard. There are slick, complex shots and cuts that demonstrate respectable cinematic grammar, but more than that the film is executing the grammar of fear in ways more confident and precise than I have seen in a long time.

Wan has eschewed the type of rapid-flicker-cutting, jump-scare sequence-structure that he helped usher into the mainstream with Saw. He lets shots linger, he hangs out with the performances, and he allows a lack of cutting to be the source of fear. Often it’s what you don’t seen that drives the tension and motivates that fidgety October-drenched discomfort in the viewer.

This is one of the few horror movies that actually had me scared, and not merely the shock-startles (though there were plenty of those), but also the building tension of fear that you can feel in your skin. It took me back to the days when a popcorn movie like this could still get inside my psyche and leave me flush with a semi-queasy fear for these fictional characters. Often when a movie introduces an indicator that something spooky is about to happen, you turn off your capacity for fear because you know exactly when and how it will be coming. With The Conjuring, I found myself picking up on these indicators, knowing a scare was coming, but instead I was waiting in fun dread for it. It was still able to scare me even though I knew the beats. This is impressive tone-sculpting, and moreover, impressive motion picture making.

At one point, the movie seemed to read my mind. It made a choice with spooky imagery, and I started judging it, thinking, “Yeah, but what a missed opportunity. You could have done this and it would have been way more iconic, way more terrifying.” And then several seconds later it did exactly what I was thinking, except a little bit better than I had pictured.

I haven’t mentioned so many things. Things like plot and characterization. Oh well. I will say this: I love watching these people be nice to each other. Compared to Dead Silence, we have a wealth of realistic characters here, and they’re all so nice! A great group to root for. No one’s being a jerk for no reason. All of the tension is inhuman, and in this particular context, it works well as such.

I have no interpretations to offer you, no insights about the meaning behind the form. This is a fun movie, from start to finish. I’m not saying there necessarily isn’t deeper meaning. What I’m saying is: I don’t need there to be. It is a ride – a Grade-A B-Picture, and we don’t see enough of these in modern mainstream horror.



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