I had to think on this one for a while as I wasn’t sure of my reaction to this film, but as things turned out, I’ll say it was very effective. We’ll rewind for a minute so I can give you the whole perspective.
When I was younger, I had terrible nightmares that visited me almost every night from when I can remember (which is probably about age seven or eight) up into my late teens. At first they were hard to describe, nothing visual, but deep booming sounds that I couldn’t escape. It was as if I was trapped in some sort of catacombs with no light and something large was chasing me. I never got a glimpse of what that thing was, but it kept me up at night shivering, tucked under my blanket and sometimes my pillow…so scared I couldn’t even get out of my bed to find help. As a small child, I’m sure I found my way to mom and dad on occasion, but when I was older, it was paralyzing. Maybe it was embarrassment? Who knows, but the short story is this: I found my therapy in other scary things. Books, movies, comics. If it was horror, I was all about it and I consumed as much as possible.
That consumption included renting everything on the shelves at the video store, at least those things my mother would approve based on the cover art. I would read magazines about upcoming horror films and watch for trailers on television, and stay up late to watch good ol’ Sammy Terry on channel 4. When cable came around and we had HBO or Cinemax, I would sneak to watch movies I had no business watching…and that’s how I was introduced to The Exorcist. It changed me and nothing has ever topped it—for me, but this isn’t about The Exorcist.
Now that the stage is set, I can get to the rotten meat of this tale. We’ve all heard movie hype. We’ve probably all fallen for it, shelled out the dough and actually put our butt in the seat to watch, heart racing, hope in full bloom, wanting to be blown away. This summer’s “The Conjuring” from the ever growing and improving James Wan, was such a film. “Terror”, “gives you the heebie-jeebies”, “artfully crafted”, “new classic”, “uncommonly intense and frightening” were all used to describe the movie, but the one thing that made me want to see it was this: The MPAA said it was to be rated R without any language, sex or nudity, or gore. In fact, they said it was too intense for PG-13 and they really didn’t see any way to cut the film to achieve PG-13.
Too scary for PG-13? What? That’s it, just too scary? We’ll get back to this in a minute.
So my oldest daughter turned 14 this year…and she was begging me to go see it and the wife and I figured, okay. She’ll be sleeping in our bed with us for a couple nights, but okay. Last Friday afternoon (so it would still be daylight when the film was over) I took her to see it while the wife took the little one to see Despicable Me 2 (which they loved). It was about $40 for the tickets, if you were wondering, and $11,284.18 for the popcorn and drinks. I had to take out a loan. The teen hugged her mother and little sister as if she would never see them again and we walked into the darkened theater.
My daughter’s words as we sat down in the almost empty theater? “I’m gonna die.”
Including us, there were five people in that house. Not exactly good horror film watching ambiance, but it wasn’t a silly slasher movie. This was serious ghost story stuff. I assured her she wouldn’t die, and that was the point of horror films. Excitement, terror, adrenaline, but with the underlying knowledge that you, the viewer, would survive.
After eight trailers, sigh… it started. Spoilers from this point on.
Let’s start with the cast. Wan has a great cast, no denying it… With Patrick Wilson (of Hard Candy and Insidious fame), Vera Farmiga (who’s latest role in Bates Motel is brilliant) as the Warrens and Lily Taylor (Hemlock Grove and a load of other horror) and Ron Livingston (Office Space, Band of Brothers) as the Perrons…the main players are super-solid. All five of the actors playing the Perron girls were great, and even the cop (John Brotherton) and smart-ass-ghost-hunting tech guy (Shannon Kook) were smart in their roles.
Now, if you’ve ever loved ghost stories, you’ve heard of Ed and Lorraine Warren, or at least you’ve heard of The Amityville Horror which is their most famous case… The Conjuring is the story of another case of theirs, one they supposedly never wanted to talk about, until this film. The movie, however, starts with another case of theirs. That is the case of Annabelle, the haunted doll. The real Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann and the claim was that this doll was not only haunted, but manipulated by the demonic spirit to walk, and write with a crayon. Creepy stuff. The portrayal in the film was cool, starting with Annabelle, but making her a much more menacing looking doll, like a ventriloquist’s dummy from the 1940’s. (Creepy Doll. Check in the box #1)
The Warren’s had the house cleansed and put the doll in their “room”. The room in their home contained a haunted trinket from each of their conquests and as Ed explains in the film, gets blessed by a priest once a month. Annabelle is creepy. Some good atmosphere and jump scares already, and we’re like five minutes in. My child is watching through her fingers.
Then we quickly meet the Perron family, a husband and wife with five daughters ranging from about four to about eighteen (I’m guessing at the ages). They’re moving into a new home just purchased from the bank. Maybe it’s a foreclosure…that isn’t exactly clear. What is clear is the home is big enough, the price was right, and they couldn’t resist. Familiar point? Yeah, sounds like Amityville to me. (Creepy house sold cheap because of its past, check in the box #2) Still, there’s a cool scene where the camera sweeps through the house in one very long shot and introduces us not only to the home, but to each person. Now that we’ve been introduced, let’s scare the shit out of everyone. Did I mention the dog wouldn’t go in? Yeah. First clue, Perrons. (Check in the box #3)
Weirdness starts almost immediately with odd noises, bruises on the mother in various locations and something pulling on the next-to-youngest daughter’s legs while she’s sleeping. Then, the little one finds a music box with a spinning mirror and a creepy head-bobbing clown inside (clown, check in the box #4). She tells her mother that she met a friend named Rory, and when the music box stops playing, you can see Rory in the mirror behind you (creepy dead kid and ghost in mirror, checks #5 and #6). That scene is wicked tense, but Rory doesn’t show…yet. My child is still watching through her fingers.
I won’t ruin all of it for you, but the disturbances escalate quickly—did you see the “Hide and Clap” trailer? Yikes. Clap Clap!
Frantic, the mother goes to one of the Warren’s lectures and asks them for help. With a little hesitation, they agree. (and if you watch the lecture, I’m pretty sure you might see the real Lorraine sitting in the audience).
The investigation yields the following information: The home was once owned by a witch(#7) named Bathsheba who worshipped the devil (#8). She was caught trying to sacrifice her newborn child to the devil. Then she climbed a tree on the back of her property, proclaimed her love for Satan, cursed anyone who would take her land and hung herself. Following that, the land was subdivided, and several other violent deaths occurred to those who lived on the land. Ed and Lorraine decide the home needs to be exorcised (#9). For that, they’ll need irrefutable proof. It doesn’t take too many nights in the house before that proof comes in the form of a film of people being thrown around the living room by the spirit and one of the children being dragged by her hair. The church agrees to contact the Vatican and move forward with the Rites of Exorcism. Still watching through her fingers.
I know it sounds a little hokey, but stick with me.
Carolyn Perron (Taylor) becomes possessed by Bathsheba in a nasty little scene. Things get progressively worse and the family goes to a hotel. While Roger Perron (Livingston) is out, Carolyn kidnaps her own daughter and takes her back to the house to kill her, carrying out Bathsheba’s interrupted sacrifice of mother murdering daughter. The cavalry arrives just in time and the exorcism is performed. Then the clouds part, the bruises disappear and all is right with the world.
My daughter says, “I didn’t die! But I think I lost some of my innocence.” Poor kid. She’ll never be the same.
MPAA stuff: Language? I heard Goddamn three times—but I think it’s okay during an exorcism. And Carolyn bumped her knee and said “shit”. That’s it folks. Nudity? Not even cleavage. And violence? Well, there’s a little. Gorehounds will be sorely disappointed, but there is some blood vomited, and one bite scene that’s pretty nasty, but nothing I haven’t seen on ABC Family. So the rating was truly for intensity and “Paranormal” violence. I wouldn’t take a young child to see the film.
The look of the film is fantastic. 1971 is fleshed out with visual perfection and while I might find mistakes on subsequent viewings (of which there will be many), it looked great. The only thing missing from the visuals was the hairs and scratches on the flawless digital print. They even watched “The Brady Bunch”.
The scares were there, most of them in the first half, and they were done well. Jump scares a plenty, but mixed with tangible tension and old school atmosphere (and creepy dolls, clowns and an evil-as-hell witch).
Sound was brilliant. Deep bass builds tension that puts Paranormal Activity to shame. Pounding on the walls, noises in the dark, a crazy score (until the end), and even smartly utilized silence.
Okay, I’m going to rant a little here, but trust me, the short blurbs above far outweighs these.
The clothes were right, the hair was right, the cars were right, the TV was right… but the language just seemed wrong. There was one scene where he said “Far out, right?” and she said “Groovy.” But it came across as an afterthought. Small nitpick, but still.
And as is the problem with all of Wan’s work (although it’s getting better by leaps and bounds)—Dialogue. There were moments of dialogue so bad, it jerked me out of that creepy atmosphere he’d built so beautifully. “God put us together so we might as well finish this.” Gag. Mr. Wan, please, get someone to look at the dialogue and give it a reality check. I’ll do it for nothing. Seriously.
The first hour or so was brilliant, but I did get the feeling the director was holding back. It seemed a little soft in some of the darker moments. The movie is scary—even to a jaded bastard like me—but I felt like more could’ve been done. It felt like he was shooting for PG-13, but got R…instead of shooting for the moon and getting the R.
The last few minutes of the film were too syrupy, the sunshine, the bruises disappearing, the hugging, the mention of “the disturbance on Long Island”, even the score sounded like an afterschool special ending and just added a layer of cheese to the whole thing that I didn’t appreciate… and the tacked on visit back through the Warren’s trophy room didn’t really lead to anything.
So…my overall impression? 3.5 out of 5. Classic? Probably, but not quite up there with the greats. Wan is so close with this one, though, I can’t wait to see his next film. Sure, there were checks in boxes, but most of them worked and many fired on all eight cylinders. There were nods to other films—Paranormal Activity, Exorcist, The Changeling, The Birds, Wan’s own Dead Silence with the design of Annabelle, and many others…but they all worked. It was refreshing to see what a true student of the genre could do if left to his own devices.
I couldn’t help but think I’d seen it all before, but rarely done so well…and I also couldn’t help but think the story—if any of it was truly the Perron’s story—was a cover up for bruises of a battered wife caused by a stressed and possibly alcoholic husband. I have no basis for this and it was not portrayed that way in the film at all…it’s just what came to mind, but that’s for another discussion.
What was the best part? My kid was scared out her wits and she spent the next couple nights sleeping with her sister or her mom and dad…and while I’m terribly sorry she’s having bad dreams, I feel the torch has been passed. Clap clap.