According to its opening weekend box-office of $41.5 million, The Conjuring was the number one movie in America last week. Having seen the film, I can only conclude that this represents a triumph of marketing over actual content. In addition to bringing hordes of people to the theaters, the film received generally strong reviews from sources such as The New York Times and Variety.
It was Justin Chang’s rave review in Variety several weeks ago that really got my hopes up. Then I saw the movie. Far from being the “…sensationally entertaining old-school freakout and one of the smartest, most viscerally effective thrillers in recent memory” or the “…exuberantly creepy supernatural shocker…” his review claims, the film I saw last Friday was inept and clumsy, more annoying than frightening. Most disturbing was the disconnect I felt between my reaction, all the positive reviews, and the many thousands who flocked to see this film. Was I that far out of the loop? Did I see a different film entirely?
The Conjuring presents itself as the “true” story of the exorcism of a haunted house, based on actual persons and events. In 1971, Roger Perron, a long-haul trucker (played by Ron Livingston, who will be forever dear to me for his role in Mike Judge’s 1999 film, Office Space) and his wife Carolyn (an excellent Lili Taylor, giving the best performance in the film) move into an old, secluded farmhouse in Rhode Island with their five young daughters. The family dog refuses to enter the house. Hello? This is not a good omen. The dog senses something that quickly becomes all too apparent to the Perrons: the house is possessed by evil spirits that mean them harm. Doors open by themselves, unexplained sounds are heard, bruises appear on Carolyn’s body without apparent cause, pictures come crashing down from the walls, that sort of thing. And because money is tight, they can’t afford to move.
At this point, Roger and Carolyn, desperate for help, call in Ed and Lorraine Warren, ghost hunters who investigate hauntings and other paranormal activity (the real Ed Warren died in 2006; Lorraine still walks among us and was a consultant on this film). Ed, a “demonologist,” is played by Patrick Wilson, wearing period-appropriate sideburns that nonetheless distracted me every time he was on the screen, though his sweater-vests may also be to blame. Lorraine, a clairvoyant and medium, is played by Vera Farmiga, an otherwise terrific actress (Down to the Bone – 2004, The Departed – 2006, Up in the Air –2009), who’s basically wasted here, along with everyone else. These are all good actors, but I never for a minute felt that any of the them believed a single word they were saying (though the kids were pretty believable).
The entire film felt almost completely inauthentic to me, despite the effort to pass The Conjuring off as an account of actual events. The story wasn’t told in a way that allowed me to buy into what I was seeing. I don’t mean that I have to come out believing that ghosts actually exist, but I need to believe they do in the context of the film itself. A willing suspension of disbelief, so to speak, is required for a film like this — or any film, really — to work. No matter how far out — vampires, zombies, a Martian invasion, time travel, teleportation, whatever — it needs to be presented in a concrete way that feels real. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth(2006) are excellent examples of films that work, despite being quite fantastical.
The closing credits of The Conjuring included photos of the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, and the Perron family, as though this would somehow lend validity to the movie we’d just seen. This felt really cheap to me. Another effort to give the film a bogus seriousness it neither possesses nor deserves can be seen in the “warning” poster below, which was apparently displayed at a theater where The Conjuring was playing. Though in all fairness, I’ve not been able to find out where this was, or who was responsible, so the studio may not have been behind it. This kind of hype is a throwback to gimmicks frequently used to sell horror films in the 1950s.
This brings up another point. Note where the warning poster says that someone called Father Perez will be “available after the film to provide spiritual support and/or conduct a personal blessing should you feel the need.” Aside from being total bullshit and offensive to boot (unless it was written tongue-in-cheek, which I can only hope), the religious element of this statement underscores something fundamental to all ghost stories, which is the existence of an afterlife. Almost always, in American films at least, this is seen as a Christian afterlife (usually in Roman Catholic terms). Vampires are repelled by crosses and burned by holy water; demons are cast out by priests. My favorite scene in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) cleverly plays with these conventions. When a crucifix is brought out to ward off a vampire who was a Jew in life, the vampire dismissively waves his hand and says, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” The Conjuring sees ghosts, demons, and possession from a Christian point of view (the Warrens are deeply religious) and plays it completely straight, as though none of this was open to question. There’s something about the way this is done that I found extremely off-putting. I’m not sure why, exactly, because I’ve never had a problem accepting this aspect in films such as The Exorcist, for example.
I don’t quite understand the rush to see The Conjuring, though as I said earlier, strong marketing must have played a big part (it will interesting to see how well it does in its second week). Certainly a lot of what’s currently in theaters hasn’t connected with audiences. Hugely expensive films (costing $130 to $225 million) have already tanked, including After Earth (did anyone really want to see this?), R.I.P.D. (ditto), and the awesomely useless Lone Ranger (which I actually saw, no excuse). For me, World War Z is clearly the best of all the “big” summer releases so far. I liked it a lot, though I don’t hear people talking about it much. World War Z reportedly cost $190 million to make plus another $100 million to market. As of July 22, its domestic box-office was nearly $188 million, with foreign at $457+ million. So World War Z is hardly a flop, but Hollywood gets more excited when you have a film like The Conjuring that costs only $20 million to make (this is now considered low-budget), and already seems to be a hit.
The most effective thing about The Conjuring is the poster at the head of this review. I wonder if critics and audiences who have embraced it as a superior horror film have ever seen The Univited (1944), Dead of Night (1945), Curse of the Demon (1957), The Haunting (1963), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), or The Others and The Devil’s Backbone (both 2001). These are well-made, intelligent films that get under your skin with truly unsettling moments, and are worth getting excited about.
I’ll close with another shot of Patrick Wilson and his side burns, plus someone in the background he doesn’t seem to notice. — Ted Hicks
P. S. While there may be a shortage of good multiplex movies to fill the need this summer, all is not lost, as plenty of excellent “smaller” films that have been recently released, including Museum Hours, Fruitvale Station, The Act of Killing, The Attack, A Hijacking, and Much Ado About Nothing. All are well worth seeking out.