Sorry I’m slow on this one. The review should have been up last Thursday, but I was finishing up another job, and just today got to the theater.
Like all the movies I review, there are two levels of analysis happening here: there is the analysis for the experiential moviegoer, and the thoughtful moviegoer. The Conjuring, for the experiential moviegoer, doesn’t go wrong. It doesn’t go terribly right, but it’s a good horror flick. Jump scares. Good ghost story manifesting in a good frightening possession. I can see why most people are liking it here in its first week.
For the thoughtful moviegoer… well… if you don’t know me by now, that’s where my discussion comes in.
As always, it helps at this point to have seen the movie, because apt discussion comes best when we can discuss the meat and potatoes of a movie, regardless of spoiler-worry, and in a way that puts us all on the same page.
This review is going to hit on a lot of the topics I continually hit on when writing reviews on supernatural-movies, because this movie generally failed in the way most of these supernatural-type movies fail.
What makes the horror genre brilliant is that horror is dealing with extremes. These extremes take us out of our comfort zone, both emotionally, ethically, morally, and philosophically. Most horror movies get stuck in the first category: the emotional one. If they can scare you, they believe that they’ve done their job.
Many movies run in the same trend. Romantic Comedies have real potential to rip apart conventional social standards and dig around inside. Action movies can make larger commentary on the workings of government and politics and science-fiction. You name it. It’s usually the movies that push their boundaries, in whatever genre, that are reaching for real depth, and find themselves redefining the genre in the first place. Those are the brilliant movies.
Horror is not unique in that capacity, but it is closer to my heart.
This oftentimes is where I get frustrated with possession movies, because possession movies seem to always start with a beautiful layout of themes at the heart of their premise. These themes range from crises of faith, to the existence of a god, to the evil inside us, to the nature of insanity, to the nature of evil, to the pros and cons of religious systems–you name it. But in 99% of the execution, they fall into simply bloody messes and shark-jumping.
I suggest that the real tension–the real drama–of a horror movie comes from these themes and their emotional manifestations within the movie. The same way that my all-time favorite movie, The Dark Knight, manifests these themes in character, letting them play out on a symbolic level, I expect the demons and the ghosts and the things that go bump in the night to be manifestations of the same types of themes.
This hope alone goes back to philosophy, to Jung in particular, whom I love. He structured the way for Joseph Campbell, who wrote the Hero’s Journey. Jung took a mystical approach to storytelling, and charted the recurring tropes of stories on an international scale to be indicative of a kind of Platonic, mystical depth, where each trope was a manifestation of some spiritual consistency.
Regardless, this play between symbol, theme, and emotional, dramatic tension is, for me anyway, the heart of any brilliant movie. (These can be manipulated across the board, of course. Symbol and theme can be sacrificed for an emotional tension that reveals deep, deep inner truths. And by the same coin, emotional narrative can be sacrificed for pure exploration of theme and image, branching into very post-modern, abstract filmmaking. But it’s all along the same spectrum: dealing with deeply human issues.)
So here, in a genre that is–at the very least on a spiritual level–screaming for thematic discussion and tension, we have movies that just seem to ignore it.
And unfortunately, The Conjuring seems to have ignored it.
The Conjuring takes its emotional tension from the situation: (whether you consider the main protagonists to be Ed and Lorraine Warren, or if you consider them to be the Perrons) there are angry ghosts, and the angry ghosts create a mess.
There’s nothing more than that. At best, there are themes hinted at: the importance of family and… well… the importance of family. Really, that’s it.
Even with that theme, a pretty decent one: there’s no stress put on it in any kind of executable way. Even with the risk of having their daughter put in jeopardy because of their need to help the other family, the Warrens’ argument is instead about Lorraine’s safety rather than their daughter’s. The question at the very heart of the movie, whether to continue to help one family at the expense of another, is never even discussed. The writer’s didn’t seem to recognize the very tension in what they had already wrote, let alone the potential for more.
Really, past all that, it’s just a succession of tropes. And there were so many: creepy imaginary friend; creepy doll; creepy cursed object; clocks stopping at 3:00; creepy basement; creepy blindfolded hide and seek game; family dog dying; birds crashing into the house; spirit with unfinished business; team investigating the house; exorcism; eye of the hurricane lull… the list goes on.
I think the reason so many people liked this movie on the surface was that it presented all these tired tropes in a way that didn’t suck. Which is only really celebrated because in most movies they do suck.
I was hoping that even with the steady progression of tropes, that the director of Saw and Insidious would have some style up his sleeve to give us a bit of spectacle with them. But really… just a creepy house. That was all the atmosphere we got. I can only recall one shot in the movie that really stood out to me in any kind of creative, atmospheric capacity.
Really, this film falls perfectly on the spectrum of mediocrity.
It wasn’t as laughably bad as 2012’s atrocious The Apparition, which couldn’t even execute a cliche trope to save a life. But, by the same token, when compared to the masterpiece Spanish Del Toro-produced Orphanage, which heaps on many of the exact same tropes, but with a skillful execution thoroughly mindful of atmosphere, genuine frights, and depth of theme, The Conjuring just flounders around in average mediocrity.
It was just hitting its beats.
And yeah, maybe that was exactly what this movie was supposed to be. It didn’t pretend to be more than what it was. It was a summertime frightener. But really, can’t we get some effort out of a horror movie these days? Especially one that so heavily leans on the treasure trove that is Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com