Tuesday, June 21, 2016

James Wan Reinvents the Ghost Story, or Thoughts on The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013) is based on a true story, in the sense that Ed and Lorraine Warren are actual paranormal investigators who have been associated with Hollywood since The Amityville Horror (1979).  The problem with ghost stories is they’re always anecdotal and based on eyewitness accounts, there’s never any substantial evidence to prove an actual haunting, one way or the other.  But that same lack of evidence is what keeps us fascinated with the supernatural and makes these kind of movies so highly entertaining.
Director James Wan, who you know from Saw (2004), also introduces “Inhuman spirits” or demons as super-dangerous supernatural threats, as opposed to your run of the mill ghost.  I suppose regular ghosts aren’t scary enough in this valiant attempt to out-Amityville Amityville, which is so engrained in our popular culture that everyone’s heard of the name and know what it refers to.  So much time and effort is spent convincing the audience that the story is factual and real, as if grounding the story in the past somehow makes it more frightening.  It comes across as desperate or superfluous.
Patrick Wilson, playing a similar role from Insidious (2011, also directed by James Wan) and Vera Farmiga of Bates Motel and Orphan (2009), portray the aforementioned paranormal investigators.  Ed’s the exorcist, Lorraine’s the psychic, and together they supply the framework for the movie without taking center stage.  These are their case files, after all.  The Conjuring starts with the Annabelle interview; an evil doll appetizer (the actual doll was a Raggedy Ann) that serves to introduce the Warrens and set up a couple frights before bringing on the main course.
The actual conjuring occurs when Ron Livingston from Office Space (1999) and Band of Brothers, and Lilli Taylor from I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and Six Feet Under move into their new house in 1971 Rhode Island, along with their three daughters.  The dog won’t cross the threshold, the youngest finds a creepy music box in an old tree in the yard, and before long doors are slamming and pictures are falling off walls and there are loud thumps in the night.
Haunted house movies and demonic possession (and hybrids such as these) always feel the need to portray young children in jeopardy and vulnerable to demonic possession.  It’s an easy scare that exploits a natural parental fear, but it also serves to remind the audience of their childhood, and a time when we more receptive to believing in ghosts and Santa Claus.
To be fair, Paranormal Activity (2007) introduced the idea of a demonic presence as a kind of super-ghost, adding an extra scare to the already scary haunted house.  But The Conjuring has a far more complex story and mythos, and doesn’t suffer from first person shaky-cam, and the inherent audience frustration that comes with a found footage movie.  In fact that mythos has been so richly developed that The Conjuring spawned a sequel, The Conjuring 2 (2016), and a spin-off featuring that creepy killer doll, Annabelle (2014).  The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) is another movie based on Ed and Lorraine Warren’s research, and I’m certain a third reboot of The Amityville Horror (2005) is just around the corner.  It’s easier than writing something new, and we all know how much Hollywood enjoys recycling.



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