Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Conjuring: One Hell of a Haunted House Movie Mixtape

When I heard that James Wan's next project would be Fast and Furious 7, the horror buff in me deflated a little. "There goes another talented horror director-sucked into the mainstream Hollywood machine." After watching The Conjuring I'm thinking, "Smart move." After you've made your horror masterpiece, where can you go from there?

Oh shit, did I just call The Conjuring a masterpiece? Maybe that's taking it a little far, but even so, I can't imagine a scarier, more intense haunted house movie.
It's not that The Conjuring is at all original. It's bursting at the seams with nods and homages to every great haunting and possession movie before it. In fact, it plays like a mixtape of horror's greatest hits. While that may not sound terribly appealing, for some reason this exercise in consolidation and repackaging works on just about every level.

In horror, pacing is king, and Wan has got this shit down cold. The film begins with a creepy-as-fuck opening featuring a possessed doll that puts Poltergeist's clown to shame, then settles us in with a low-level tension that slowly crescendos for the next 90 minutes, building to a balls-out climax that pounds the audience mercilessly in the face with a malevolent joy unseen since that caveman-looking fucker who kicked your ass in the seventh grade. Alright, I'm overstating things again. But give me a break, I just got out of the theater and I'm still floating on that good movie buzz.
The Conjuring should play very well with your average cinema-goer who enjoys the occasional scary movie, but for the seen-it-all nothing-scares-me horror movie junkies, it may be a harder sell. While I count myself among the horror-addicted, I have an uncanny talent for shutting off my inner critic and enjoying the ride. One common complaint among horror fans is the overuse of jump scares, and if this is among your list of peeves, I'm sorry to inform you that The Conjuring is from beginning to end a jump scare extravaganza.

But here's the thing about jump scares: deep down we all really love them if they are done well. Hack directors will substitute jump scares in lieu of real tension, but Wan doesn't hand us that platter of steaming turds. There's not a leaping, screeching cat to be found here. Again, it all come down to pacing. Wan builds the tension to the breaking point, peppering the film with minor scares so that you can never tell when he's about to hit you with a real zinger. And yeah, there's a heavy reliance on doors creaking open, but now and again one will slam into someone's face, knocking them into a pitch black basement.

The threat of physical violence looms large in The Conjuring, giving the haunting a real sense of danger. But Wan never veers back into Saw territory. The gore is minimal, which gives the few appearances of blood a real punch.

I seem to be giving Wan all the credit here, but was really makes it all work is the quality of the performances. Lily Taylor really shines in this one, coming off as naturally when she's as a sunny sixties housewife as she does when the demonic influences begin breaking her down. Watching the preview, I wasn't too thrilled with the prospect of the movie's leads being an ultra-square husband and wife paranormal research team that dresses like rejects from Awkward Family Portraits. But honestly, it is that very squareness that gives the film a classic feel that has been lacking in most horror since Kevin Williamson put pen to paper and turned every horror film into Dawson's Creek -Now with Murder! Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga keep the film grounded with nuanced performances that let you feel the burden of helping countless people survive demonic infestations. As characters, they're the very picture of Christian charity, putting aside their personal well-being (and kinda neglecting their own daughter, oops!) to help others in need. The five daughters aren't fleshed-out characters, being more or less only identifiable by their ages, but then, do we really want the extra thirty minutes of character-building scenes before we get to the scary shit? I think not.

While it doesn't fit neatly into my review, I just gotta say that I loved the scene where Patrick Wilson shows the reporter around his in-house repository of haunted objects. And while you'd think that real haunted objects might be more mundane, say, a haunted toaster or nail-clippers rather than a suit of samurai armor, I'm still converting my mancave into an exact replica of that room.