Published on August 29th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant3
I can’t believe the level of hype that James Wan’s new horror movie, The Conjuring is, well, conjuring (it’s sitting at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes!). The only people that would rate this movie so high couldn’t have seen any of the seminal horror movies in film history, or they’re stunned and awed by the glittering lights of style over substance. It’s the only way to explain why people are treating this movie like it’s the second coming of fright, when it’s really a collection of stale tropes and old chestnuts lifted from much better classics like Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Changeling, and assorted J-Horror films.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie has a lot going for it — the cast elevates this material, especially Patrick Wilson, who I always like. He could be a much bigger name, because he’s a talented actor. Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are also good, though Ron Livingston seems awfully flat, especially in a scene where his daughter is about to be killed. The characters have a bit of story to them, though not enough to make them multi-dimensional (loosely based on the Amityville haunting, Livingston and Taylor play a couple who move into a haunted house with their many, many, many daughters, and Wilson and Farmiga play spiritual investigators that stalk the paranormal). The characters sort of flail about with very little motivation, other than the obvious haunting, making the story feel fairly pedestrian.
The other place where the movie succeeds is in the camera work and the ambience. James Wan is a skilled filmmaker in the technical sense, and The Conjuring does benefit from some creepy atmosphere and some amazing camera work. He knows when to make the shot linger in the shadows and when to make the camera rush down a hallway in terror. He knows that truly scary things play in the margins of the screen. The music and sound design also add quite a bit of spooky atmosphere and he’s captured the look of the 70s well.
So if I have so many good things to say about this movie, why am I so pissed off? The problem is, that while he builds tension effectively, the payoff at the end of the rope is always a lame ‘gotcha’ moment, and the movie is populated with unoriginal monsters that we’ve seen a million times before, perhaps found in a movie ghost bargain bin, past their due dates. They’re as scary as Kristen Wiig’s Korean Water Ghost character from SNL. And once you are onto this, the rest is diminishing returns.
To me, this is in the same vein as Wan’s other horror movies, like Dead Silence and Insidious (I’m not including Saw here as I think it’s a bit different type of movie). They were both creepy movies that don’t really come together as fully realized stories, though I’d say that I probably enjoyed both of them more than The Conjuring.
Don’t mistake this as a criticism for treading over the same ground as so many others have done before — after all, there are only so many stories out there, and people will be telling haunted house and exorcism stories for years to come. But the good ones can still feel original, whether it’s by inventing new ideas or by putting a better spin on those dusty old tropes. The Conjuring is content to throw everything but the kitchen sink at you — except a good, scary yarn. The emperor is naked — take away all the camera work and the multiplex rattling music and sound effects, and you’d have absolutely nothing left with which to tell a scary campfire tale.