The Conjuring (2013)

conjuring12016.83: The Conjuring (Amazon VOD)

Its a funny thing watching horror films. The line between the genuinely creepy, authentically unnerving and just plain silly nonsense is a surprisingly fine one, and getting only more so as years pass and more films get made. In the effort to shock jaded audiences film directors are tempted (forced?) to push things further and further, in just the same ways as action films push the credibility of stunts and fight sequences. How many times have we seen film characters emerge unscathed from crashes/explosions/fights that would leave real people in hospital recuperating for weeks? How many times do we see film characters survive horror films after witnessing and experiencing things that would leave normal people mentally unhinged if not genuinely insane?

Its very refreshing then to see a horror film that doesn’t cross the line into the ridiculous but instead manages to be realistic and plausible. And how refreshing to see two genuinely great horror films in quick succession. So soon after watching The Witch, I’ve now seen The Conjuring,  another genuinely creepy, very effective horror raising itself out of the formulaic ghost story nonsense it might have been in less capable hands.

James Wan is not a ‘name’ like John Carpenter or George Romero (or maybe I’m just ‘out of the loop’ these days) but he has something of a pedigree behind him- he’s the director of Saw and Insidious – and with The Conjuring he brings us a rather more mature and confident horror tale than I was expecting. The Conjuring is a period horror film set (mostly) in 1971, with paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both excellent) helping a Rhode Island family, the Perrons, who have recently moved into a remote old farmhouse that is haunted by various entities.

What makes The Conjuring so interesting isn’t so much the jumps and scares -Wan has clearly demonstrated with his earlier films his ability with such- but rather with its sense of restraint. There isn’t a terrible amount of gore and the horror isn’t particularly graphic- its more the atmosphere and threat of horror that benefits this film, and the sense of mystery. There feels something like a grounding of reality in what might have been a silly ghost story- after all, we have seen so many haunted houses/tales of possession that its hard for this stuff not to descend into self-parody awfully quickly.

We are told from the start that this is based on a true story, but that hardly means much in a genre when so much is carelessly declared to be ‘true’. For one, I’m thinking of The Quiet Ones that I recently watched, itself a period film set in the 1970s that purports to be a true story, complete with period photos of the ‘real’ people during the end credits that are actually fake (I call it ‘The Fargo Effect’). How much of The Conjuring is true is unclear but from what I have read it does have some basis of truth with some documentary evidence. The thing I find curious is why any ‘truth’ should have any effect on the ability of the film to frighten, or give it any more credibility than horror films like The Exorcist or Poltergeist. If its a scary or unnerving experience, then surely that is enough. Maybe its all the Blair Witch Project‘s fault.



The Quiet Ones (2014)

q12016.76: The Quiet Ones (Film Four)

Its  another October horror film, and this one’s a horror for all the wrong reasons.

Its an odd one in so many ways. Partly it’s a period film, of demonic possession obviously inspired by The Exorcist, albeit with a more scientific bias akin to Altered States (I know, I know, at this point it actually sounds like it might be interesting), and its also one of those found-footage character POV films like Blair Witch Project and the early REC. films. Its a weird combo that doesn’t really work. It certainly doesn’t need any of that found-footage nonsense – the conceit of all those found-footage films is that they are based on camcorder footage or webcams etc, which is a hard sell set in the ‘seventies with a character lugging around film reels, projectors and a bloody big film camera. The whole point of that found-footage movie genre was that thanks to modern everyday technology they were somehow realistic/rational, setting it up in the 1970s is a bit of a stretch.

So the film is basically about a  young girl, Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) who is either mentally ill or possessed, and is the subject of experiments by obsessed Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris chewing up the scenery like a storm) who rather than subscribe to paranormal explanations such as demonic possession, rather subscribes to it being a quantifiable mental or physical disorder that can be extracted and cured. Cue all sorts of mad scientist cliches as Coupland refuses to ‘see’ anything that doesn’t agree with his own hypothesis. Of course being a modern horror film there is no pretense of ambiguity here, which is a pity, as the central drama is interesting. A film about scientists arguing about what they believe/reason/see from differing perspectives while all sorts of strange shit is going on, a sort of horror-themed Altered States, would indeed be very interesting and possibly quite challenging had it stayed ambiguous and possibly even inconclusive to the end, but filmgoers don’t like ambiguity or having to come to their own conclusions. So instead, and this being, at its heart, very much a Hammer film, its fairly obvious to everyone but the characters in the bloody movie what is actually going on.

It doesn’t help that, on the whole, none of the characters are particularly interesting. There’s all sorts of varied relationship nonsense amongst the ensemble which adds nothing to the story other than padding out the running time. The period setting doesn’t in itself have any importance either, other than perhaps making the science basic enough to maintain the ‘mystery’ a little longer (we don’t have the internet or mobile phones to make life awkward for the screenwriters).

Which is really the confounding thing about it- why indeed set it in the ‘seventies (lots of period pop songs infect the soundtrack if only to enforce the period setting) and why bother with the found footage nonsense if it’s so technically awkward? You could tell this story in the present-day and still get away with it. Maybe its all a ruse to maintain a ‘based on a true story’ subterfuge to keep audiences hooked. I don’t know, but none of it really works. Ambiguity is lost and things become increasingly literal and obvious as the film progresses towards its non-climax. Well, I say non-climax; its loud and violent but it’s quite emphatically non-involving.

A rather sad stumbling block then for what was a promising Hammer revival.