Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Conjuring, or, The Curse of the True Story

[Author's note: as you can see I've been absent from this blog for a couple years. I recently came back and found several half-finished posts that I, for one reason or another, lost interest in. This is one of them, which is why my opening paragraph about The Conjuring speaks about it as if it's a recent release.]

Earlier this week I caught up, on home video, with one of the most ecstatically received horror movies of the past few years; The Conjuring. It's a film that garnered pretty glowing, if tempered, reviews upon it's theatrical release, and carried with it a wave of positive word of mouth. It's currently sitting at an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes*. Not the most scientific or consistently rational of sources, but still, that shows that reaction has been pretty darn good. This all led to a low level of excitement on my part, because I am always interested in a good horror film, and I like haunted house stories, particularly of the old-school style this film reportedly aligned itself with. I say 'low level of excitement' only because I don't really get worked up about movies I'm looking forward to, because I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. In fact, I knew nothing about The Conjuring beforehand aside from some cast members, and the fact that it was reportedly based on a true story. But then, what horror movie in the last 30 years hasn't laid claim to being inspired by true events?

I may as well jump to the point here; I did not like The Conjuring. I didn't hate it, and in fact I admired many aspects of the film, but throughout it's entire running time I found that I was just not engaged with the film. I was mentally nitpicking things I might let slide in other films, and I kept asking myself what it could be that I was missing.

Now, this may come as a shock to some of you, but I do not believe in ghosts. I've heard many friends relate their own ghost stories, and truth be told I've got a few of my own, and I never assume anyone telling this story is crazy or ignorant. We've all experienced stuff that can't be rationally explained in the dead of night. I'm not closeminded enough to admit the possibility of all sorts of unexplained and inexplicable phenomena, but I do not believe in ghosts as traditionally presented in fiction. I do not believe that after death our souls wander our old homes in order to rearrange the furniture when the new owners aren't looking. The same can be said for demons(which, spoiler alert, figure into this movie), or angels, or god, or the devil. I don't believe in them as anything other than fictional objects invented to explain forces or concepts we didn't have the language for.

And yet, as I've mentioned, I love ghost stories. I appreciate ghosts as powerful dramatic totems, full of resonant emotions. If a movie or book asks me to accept that ghosts are real, then I will accept that within the fictional confines of the universe I am witnessing, those things are very real indeed. But on the flip side, when a movie tells me that what I am witnessing truly happened, to real people with witnesses and everything, then I just assume I'm watching crazy people. This assumption is not helped by the speed with which everyone just accepts that ghosts are wandering their home, and the willingness to accept even the most ridiculous premise with no evidence whatsoever begins to paint the characters as mentally challenged. Case in point; in one scene psychic paranormal investigator Vera Farmiga proves her abilities to haunted housewife Lili Taylor by picking up a picture of Taylor and family standing happily on a beach somewhere, and says 'this must have been a fun day at the beach' to which Taylor responds with delighted shock 'How did you know!?' Immediately I figured there was a gas leak in the house.

Actually, that may not be far from the truth; the fact that the husband(Ron Livingston) can't get the house to warm up no matter how much he tinkers with the heating system is a running subplot.

Yet again, I would have no problem with this, or the many other examples if this were a purely fictional film. Fiction is often fueled by ridiculous coincidence and characters who jump to conclusions in ways that strain credibility.And yet the film goes to lengths to remind us that the Warrens, the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, are real people, and this movie is based on a well documented case of theirs, with witnesses and testimony from the people that were there. That strive for realism means that when the Warrens spend 30 seconds in the house and hear one person say they sometimes smell rotting meat, the Warrens feel qualified to say that the house is inhabited by a demon, and not a ghost, and the family is immediately accepting of this 'fact'. Somehow the idea that maybe there's a small woodland animal rotting somewhere in this vast and slightly rundown house in the middle of the woods never occurred to anyone.

Maybe I'm being too critical, maybe I should just accept that the film is heightened fiction the way I accept haunted house movies like The Changeling or The Others, but I can't really do that for a film that desperately wants us to believe we are seeing the absolute truth. Which is a shame, because the film had elements that I might otherwise have enjoyed. I'm always happy to see Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor in a movie, the seventies milieu works great for a ghost story like this, and there were some clever, classically staged sequences throughout. The problem was, none of it was very scary. Though I don't need a horror movie to be scary to enjoy it. In fact, I don't find most of the horror movies I love to be scary, but if you combine the lack of scares with a lack of believable(or even compelling) story, then you've got a problem.

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