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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring

U. S.: James Wan, 2013


Horror movies are often judged or graded by how much they get under our skins: how much sheer psychic and emotional unease and discomfort they generate. By that measure, and several others, the admittedly well-done James Wan scary show The Conjuring, failed to get to me. I can’t help it. It just didn’t scare me. I liked it for other reasons, but…

Mind you, I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for this kind of picture. I’m talking about a movie, of course, that seems to have scared everybody, or at least (almost) everybody capable of buying a ticket or writing a review: a movie going about its spook-the-hell-out-of-you artistic duties with admirable aplomb and consistent effectiveness.

The Conjuring, very prototypically and very predictably scripted by Chad and Carey Hayes,  is supposedly based on the true story of a haunted house, possessed by demons or otherworldly spirits, as investigated by honest-to God “paranormal researchers”: the real-life combo of Lorraine and Ed Warren, played in the movie by the brilliantly sensitive Vera Farmiga and the convincingly hearty and obsessed Patrick Wilson. This, we are told, was the Warrens’ most challenging case. Of course it was. And so the show goes: attacking audiences and reviewers susceptible to its familiar but effective old haunted house story and the style and technique used by director James Wan (Saw) and company to bring it to the screen.

The Conjuring whisks audiences and critics back to 1971, where its supposedly true story supposedly took place in a clamorous, dark, shadowy old house in Harrisville, Rhode Island, and where a nice working class family named the Perrons—Mama Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and Papa Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters—discover that their house is possessed by the spirits of The Exorcist (1973) and The Amityville Horror (1979), and various other scary movies about poltergeists and evil spirits. The Perrons haven’t just gotten a bad real estate deal here; they are under assault by demonic beasties who kill pets, keep mysteriously bruising Carolyn, and keep subjecting the kids—who, at one point, are puckishly compared to the Brady Bunch—to all sorts of loud noises, ghostly reflections, invisible assaults, slammed doors, and other reminders of the house‘s previous existence as the site of witchcraft and death.

Soon the house and the family were being investigated by no less a pair of spook busters than the well-known real-life pair of Ed and Lorraine, who are just recovering from another case involving a demonic doll with a Chucky expression. Ed and Lorraine were also the real-life spiritual investigators who put the real-life Amityville on the map. Now, thanks to this new case, they turn their psychic prowess on the demonically infested Perron residence, on the Perron family and their old creaky house with its weird attic and spooky basement full of weird, spooky, dimly perceptible stuff, and its mysterious population of terrifying thingies running around, behaving devilishly—as recorded, in the fictional real-life story, by Ed and local Harrisville people and some cameras, and in actual real life, by director Wan and his gifted cinematographer, John Leonetti—who start off the movie with some virtuoso moving camera ensemble shot, and keep piling on the snazzy visuals from then on.

The movie has its points. It’s well acted (especially by Taylor and Farmiga), and well filmed, especially by Wan and Leonetti (the younger brother of Walter Hill‘s frequent collaborator Matthew Leonetti). Wan is best known as the director of the first of the Saw movies, but, after another haunted house movie, Insidious, he has decided in this case to definitively give us a horror movie without the old Saw mainstays of insane torture, revolting carnage and stomach-turning bloodshed that made him famous. And indeed he does. He also, thanks to the Hayes brothers,  helps conclusively prove that horror can be more effective if it starts off with character, and then doesn’t start spraying the scene with gore too soon and too constantly.

Vera Farmiga, who plays most of the film like a figure in a Bronte Sisters novel, is one of the best American movie actresses around right now (so is Lili Taylor), and both of them give the movie soul and mind and a beating heart—a heart that doesn’t threaten to be cut out and stomped on, as in Saw and its gruesome ilk. Wilson and Livingston (of Office Space) play more everyday roles, but they’re good foils for the ladies, Farmiga and Taylor, two of the most reliable actresses around. They’re the reason, along with the movie’s classy dread-soaked visual style, that The Conjuring probably seems so effective—along with the acting, which includes good performances by the actresses playing Perron daughters Christine (Joey King) and Cindy (Mackenzie Foy). The script, by Chad and Carey Hayes (The Reaping and the 2005 House of Wax) is mediocre, predictable and illogical. And despite constant suggestions that what we’re watching is real (assurances that have become a paranormal cliché) the whole thing seems about as real as a mating of Ghostbusters and The Exorcist, if not as potentially funny.

A lot of people won’t mind that, I guess, if the movie gives them some shocks and jolts and chills. But, no doubt due to my constitutional inability to believe in demons or the Devil—whom I always see in images from my childhood of a smiling mustachioed horned guy in red long johns, carrying a pitchfork, brandishing an odd pointed tail and grinning fiendishly while trying to tempt people into misdeeds or sign away their souls with some phony contract—the movie didn’t put me through it.

I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the high-grade terrors I was assured were on the way—seemingly guaranteed by everything: the jangly, bang-bang music by Joseph Bishara, the first class prowl-around-the-house-and-the-cold-windy-outdoors camerawork by Leonetti, the rotting-old-real-estate production design by Julie Berghoff, the ads, the reviews, the trailer, and especially the genuinely frightened or frightening expressions on the faces of Ms. Farmiga and Ms. Taylor—contrasted with the furrowed brows and frowns of Wilson and Livingston. What can I say? I wanted to have a horrible time, but all I got was another okay, well-done, clichéd movie, with another predictable, illogical script. Maybe that’s horror enough.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring”

  1. michael j. wilson says:

    Wan is good but the movie and it character driven narrative is a direct result of two men, twins actually, who you didnt bother to mention, who faced the proverbial all-encompassing overwhelming blank page and that would be — hello? Bueller? Anyone? — THE SCREENWRITERS NAMELY, THE HAYES BROTHERS. Nice work not mentioning them, you did a whole review and FORGOT WHO CREATED IT. ITS CALLED WRITING. NO RESPECT. NO RESPECT AT ALL.

  2. michael j. wilson says:

    My point is when you did mention them you slammed them. But gave Wan the credit for character-driven narrative. THEY THOUGHT OF THAT. THEY DID THAT.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon