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Film review: The Conjuring ****

By Preston Wilder

Here’s a thought: ghosts and monsters aren’t scary per se, what’s scary is fear and distress. A family come to their new home, chatting excitedly, blissfully happy – then bad things start to happen. Smiles fade. Children cry and look terrified. Parents are tense and exhausted. Family photos gaze down from the wall, like the dusty ruins of a happier time. It doesn’t even matter if we see what’s tormenting them – it’s enough that something’s wrong, their equilibrium lost, their space violated.

Younger audiences are notoriously fond of horror films, and (some) older people worry that it dulls their moral sense – but in fact the opposite is true: a real scary movie is a lesson in empathy, and the more empathetic the scarier. That said, most examples of the genre don’t try for empathy (which is why they’re not very scary). The standard slasher-movie template – faceless, foolish teens picked off by a killer – avoids any real identification; their distress is comical, because we never cared to begin with. Saw was sick and disturbing but never scary, its hapless victims just so much psycho-fodder (if anything, it identified with Jigsaw). Most horror films work with ‘boo!’ moments – the ultimate plastic thrill, playing with the confines of the film frame. A character turns, the camera turns with them – and suddenly sees something unexpected. Boo!

There are few if any ‘boo!’ moments in The Conjuring. We’re never scared by seeing what we don’t expect; we’re scared by seeing exactly what we do expect, the film making up in bone-deep terror what it lacks in jump-out-of-your-seat moments. James Wan directed the first Saw but has since moved on to subtle, restrained horrors, a sub-genre that may have sprung up in response to Saw’s excesses. We’ve had The Innkeepers and House of the Devil, both by Ti West; we’ve had Paranormal Activity and its sequels; and of course we’ve had Wan’s own Insidious – a low-key, atmospheric haunted-house flick, exploding into fantasy in its final act.

Something similar happens in The Conjuring, inasmuch as the last half-hour is very intense (though not exactly fantasy, and indeed the film claims to be ‘based on a true story’). Reviews always give away too much when it comes to horror movies – the whole point, after all, is not knowing what comes next – so I’ll steer clear of details, but the first half shows the supernatural occurrences in an old farmhouse that’s just been purchased by the Perron family (parents Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, plus five young daughters) while the second half switches to husband-and-wife ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) trying to cleanse the house of evil spirits. This includes placing religious icons all over the place in a bid to “piss off” the ghosts – the film comes close to religious propaganda, a final caption assuring us that God and the Devil do exist: “The fairy tale is true” – which succeeds, but also makes the ghosts more aggressive.

There are no big surprises. Wan doesn’t try to pull the rug out from under our feet (as, for instance, The Others did). His model is The Exorcist, a classic horror that worked by treating demonic possession in nakedly emotional terms – as a form of trauma for its characters, just as if it were an illness or a bad relationship. The ghost “latches on” to the family, feeding off their fears (that’s why they can’t just move away): it’s a violation, like being raped. It torments and oppresses them. Later, when the ghost hunters arrive, it makes it personal for them too, preying on their child (admittedly, that aspect could’ve been developed a bit more). In the end, the ultimate weapon is neither a vial of holy water nor a Latin incantation, but a mother’s memory of a day at the beach with her family.

Some may find The Conjuring un-scary; like I said, it doesn’t go in for shock moments (more like chills down the spine). But it works like Rosemary’s Baby, another film where the heroine’s obvious distress was much more frightening than any talk of Satan; it grips because it’s about people trying to deal with a bad thing, even if that bad thing happens to be malevolent spirits.

The Warrens are entirely matter-of-fact about their work (it gets a laugh when Mr. Warren says “I don’t believe in vampires”, given all the spooky stuff he does believe), taking down details like social workers. As so often, seeing the ghosts actually makes them less scary – because it makes the victims’ fear comprehensible. The best scene has a little girl sitting up in bed, screaming and pointing at the entrance to her room: “Can’t you see it?” she wails at her sister. “There’s someone behind the door!” – and the camera looks and looks at her point of view (a doorway, and a thick inky blackness) and we keep looking too, caught between empathy and terror, our desperate need to see a ghost and our desperate fear of seeing it. The Conjuring understands that horror in itself can be shrugged off but what it does to people – the pain, distress, derangement it causes – can’t be shrugged off so easily. You come for a rollercoaster ride, and get a chamber drama.

 

DIRECTED BY James Wan

STARRING Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor

US 2013                       112 mins

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