Saturday, August 3, 2013
The Cinema File #229: "The Conjuring" Review
A few years ago, a movie came out called Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. For some reason, this movie has since become my go to reference for bio-pics, not because it is particularly good or bad, but just because I find it so fascinating that anyone would care enough to make a movie about a guy who didn't invent the windshield wiper, but rather the mechanism by which it can change speeds. Sure, there were intellectual property issues, but still, seriously, that guy? If only we had interesting real world subjects to make movies about, maybe involving the kind of things that usually only happen in the movies, but actually happened in real life. Or barring that, I suppose we could just slap the "based on a true story" label onto some bullshit we just made up. Oh, by the way, I just saw a movie called The Conjuring, about a team of ghost hunters who combat evil spirits and demonic possessions. I'm told its based on a true story, you know, except for the part about the evil spirits and demons being real things.
Yeah, I know, this movie isn't the first, nor will it be the last to employ this insulting gimmick, but it happens to be the first one that I've come across in my brief career as an online film critic, and dogged skeptic that I am it was my first stumbling block going in, so it will have to bare my wrath. The supernatural is by definition not something that exists in the real world. That's what supernatural means - beyond that which occurs in nature. The fact that it doesn't exist is why it is often so captivating as a subject of fantasy, but once you include supernatural elements into a story, than it ceases to be based on actual events, and any claims to the contrary are disingenuous. It can still be inspired by true events in the same way FDR: American Badass is technically inspired by the actual Roosevelt administration, but since Moussilini wasn't a werewolf, "based on" is a step too far. Being cribbed from the stories of two real life paranormal investigators, The Conjuring is based on a true story in the same way Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was, taking the wild unprovable claims of authors at face value, but at least with Confessions, it was a deliberate use of ironic solipsism, not a cheap ploy to rope in the naive.
The Conjuring follows a family in the 1960's who move into a new home only to be plagued by ghosts and later demons, enlisting the aid of a husband and wife team of demonologists to cleanse their house of evil. Before I begin lambasting the larger issues this film and its tenuous connection to reality bring up any further, I do want to point out that just on a technical level, it is a very well made horror movie that might have entertained me more if it weren't so tailor made to annoy me. Its a throwback to a kind of movie rarely seen nowadays, atmospheric and genuinely spooky rather than just chock full of jump scares and gore, building suspense with creaking doors and slow moving dread in a clear nod to the classic haunted house movies of the 60's and 70's. I appreciated the approach and the dedication the filmmakers seemed to have in not compromising it, at least until the exorcism tongs come out. Prior to this I might have thought this subtle approach to a horror film would be unrelatable to a modern mainstream audience, though it appears the box office has proven that not to be true.
And yet, knowing that this story is based on actual accounts of real people who either genuinely believe in this stuff, or at least claim to, ultimately makes the ghost hunters creepier than the ghosts themselves. In the film, the Warrens are completely reasonable people who go out of their way to assume that most supposed cases of the paranormal have a rational explanation, and they only intercede when they can prove the threat to be real. But in the real world, these kinds of people are shysters who bilk innocent people out of their money, and I couldn't get away from the fact that we're watching a movie from their point of view that legitimizes and glorifies their con game. The film utilizes the Satanic Panic of the era in which it is set as the backdrop for its story, even though we now know this to have largely been based on myths and nonsense, and the main ghostly villain is a woman who killed herself after being accused of witchcraft back when that actually meant something. And of course in this skewed universe she really was a witch, because clearly at least a few of the woman murdered by superstitious townsfolk back then had to have been, right? Otherwise, that might just be an inescapable blight on our history.
The subtle apology for religious extremism is made even worse in light of the overt religiosity of our two demon fighting heroes, who you must remember are based on real people. Even if you assume that the Warrens do actually believe the bull they are peddling (a far leap in my estimation), they still couch their beliefs within an explicitly evangelical worldview that makes perfect sense if the demons are real, but just makes them creepy fundamentalists if they're not. So many of their assumptions about the supernatural world are explained through biblical reference, right down to the three knocks of the ghost being a mockery of the Holy Trinity. As reasonable as these people seem in a world designed to validate them, when you take them out of this world and remember that these actual people actually did this kind of thing in a real world where demons don't exist, what comes off as good natured assistance is, if not grifting, some form of proselytizing (assuming those are two different things). There's even a moment where one of them asks the beleaguered father if his children have been baptized and he responds by saying they aren't really religious, and they advise him of the practical merits of the church as a defense against demons!
This isn't just a skeptical atheist talking, because honestly, I would have wholly supported this depiction of these real life Jesus freaks if only they'd left out all the ghosts and actually told their story without embellishment. With so much of the movie's tone dependent on subtle atmospheric tweaks and few obvious scares, why show us that the ghosts are real at all when you can establish the same level of intrigue by keeping it vague, and maintain a sense of reality that earns the "based on a true story" tag line. Yeah, maybe the Warrens will come across as the charlatans they really are, but so be it. At least it would have made the movie more interesting and more fresh than a collection of haunted house cliches. As I said, its all well done for what it is, but its all stuff we've seen a hundred times before. After an unrelated teaser featuring a possessed killer doll, the film proper opens with a text crawl noting this as the one story these investigators never told until now, but after seeing it play out, its not all that different than the last time the Warrens had a movie based on them in The Amityville Horror franchise, and by the end I kind of wished we could see the rest of the killer doll movie instead.
As I mentioned in my review of Grown Ups 2, I often find it useful to seek out a metaphor for the films I'm watching within the film itself, and this time around, I would be remiss if I didn't note a scene where a series of ghost detection devices are tripped, only to discover that it isn't a ghost at all, but just a guy taking a dump. And yet, despite my grumblings, if you can get past the film's implications and just enjoy it for what it is, a well-crafted ghost story, The Conjuring is a pretty safe bet for a fun time at the theater, especially if you came to your love of horror movies with films like the original Haunting. As I watched Lili Taylor assaulted by evil spirits in a movie actually capable of depicting them with style and suspense, I couldn't help but wonder if this was her long awaited apology for taking part in the terrible 90's remake of the classic Robert Wise film. Personally, I came of age as a horror fan in the 80's when this kind of movie was old hat, reveling in the over the top gore of the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street franchises, so perhaps I'm just not the right person to cast judgement on it, as least on the level of faithfulness to classic horror canon. From what I do know, The Conjuring seems like it knows the right films to take its cues from and lovingly, or perhaps even slavishly honors them, though ultimately it is at the expense of a more original and exciting story. For many people, this will no doubt be enough to satisfy, even if I found it somewhat lacking.
But then, I'm the guy who loves Puppet Master and Critters, so what do I know?