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Wednesday 30 July 2014

Demonic Possession, Hauntings and Such Like - A Review of "The Conjuring"

Lorraine Warren
Lorraine Warren (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)


In 1971 the Perron family (Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarl, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver) move into an old farmhouse. A series of unusual events lead the family to enlist the help of psychic investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga respectively). The Warrens discover a history of suicides and murders that have taken place on the surrounding land that once belonged to the owner of the Perron’s house. This owner had been accused of witchcraft who had tried to sacrifice her child to the devil and eventually killed herself in 1863, cursing all those who lived on her land...


Not being a person who is typically in sync with populist or intellectual taste, I guess I should not have been surprised by the response that met “The Conjuring”. Whenever someone discussed horror in social media circles this film kept reoccurring with favourable reviews of the possession/haunted house hybrid horror. The general public seem to have found it to be a genuinely scary movie, which has hit the right nerve at a time when so-called “reality” shows like “Ghosthunters” and “Most Haunted” and misleading partisan documentaries about possession have established a strong mainstream following ripe for this type of “true story” horror. The canny team behind the film’s modest $20,000 appear to have got their timing right. With minimal thought “Found Films” and “Torture Porn” along with gory B-movie send-ups saturating the horror genre for well over a decade, someone clearly thought it was time to go back to the 1970s and unearth a few more tricks. That person might well have been the film’s director, James Wan, who first found fame with the original “Saw”. The academic critical response seems to go along these lines. From what I have read their consensus of opinion is that the film executed “old school” proven concepts well, making up what it lacked in originality with sheer style. Even so, I was flabbergasted to discover that “The Conjuring” is one of the highest grossing horror movies of all time and the high praise being heaped upon in horror and general movie review magazines and websites.

It is my guess that a lot of the things that made the film the darling it has become, grated on me. The fake true story premise is a long established method. The 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is perhaps the most notorious example of using this method with its film having even less tenuous links to the murderer and body-snatcher, Ed Gein, than “Psycho” or “Silence of the Lambs” (neither of which used this device). “Inspired by true events” is probably a less deceptive description of such films, but I guess it is all in line with the oral tradition of telling campfire urban legends. The film heavily dramatizes the events in the Perron household, which is only to be expected, but it the way the film really tries to force you to believe in the film’s heroic psychic investigators that I find annoying. Early on we have a rather clumsy scene created to demonstrate Ed Lorraine’s integrity. We are shown that he knows the supposed difference between a haunted house and natural phenomena that a client mistakes for a haunting. Needless to say, this was much better handled in 1999’s “Stigmata”, where we see a world weary caught off-guard.

Ed and Lorraine Warren get the dubious credit of taking the archaic practice of demonology and combining it with Victorian Spiritualism and turning it into a business. By giving it a type of mainstream religious respectability via Christianity – especially Catholic exorcism - and actively publicising their various sensational-sounding cases, they laid the seeds for the blossoming ghost hunting industry we see today. Indeed, many of today’s psychic investigators were trained by this duo. Looking back through their history, we see they rarely missed a trick. The Warrens career included them tackling various different colourful spiritual entities, including a werewolf spirit and the case of “The Amityville Horror”. Of course, “The Conjuring” is the witch episode. The witch, in question, turns out to be Bathsheba Sherman, a relative of Mary Easty, one of the many unfortunate victims who were hung for witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The implication here is that Easty was a witch, which is an outright insult to her memory and the other innocents who perished in a time of terrible ignorance and superstitious belief. With Ed Warren now deceased, Lorraine was a consultant on this film and even got a cameo. Imagine being involved in such a deeply disturbing case, where you were taken to your mental and physical limits, and then coming back to appear in a Hollywood dramatization of said event to appear like Alfred Hitchcock/Stan Lee for your fans. The mind boggles.

From dolls and music boxes to the type of demonic possession scenes that haven’t moved on a great deal since the original “The Exorcist”, the film seems to be a buffet of paranormal horror clichés that lacks any sort of charm. I don’t like the effort that is made to suspend disbelief, which seems to be worryingly preachy. Even “The Exorcist”, which was backed and pushed by the Catholic Church, and based on a novel written by a believer who had been inspired by the story of a young boy’s exorcism, did overtly push this onto its audience. Like any art, it is often spoiled if we feel like we are being persuaded. As if to undermine this serious approach taken throughout the film, we get special effects that are reminiscent of “Paranormal Activity” and seem at odds with the 1970s atmospheric style of movie James Wan seems to be trying to recreate.

My review has come across largely as negative, but I think that is more of a reaction to balance the overzealous response I fee has been heaped upon a largely uncreative picture. The acting is reasonable if not outstanding in any particular way. The dialogue is unmemorable. The sets are excellent. The visual effects look set to date very fast and out of sync with the movie’s feel. This is not always the case, as can be seen in the most recent adaptation of “The Woman in Black”. There is certainly flow between the scenes and tension is built relatively well, which is no less than I would expect from this particular director. There is no denying James Wan’s ability at handling genre films, but his recent work on “Fast and Furious 7” appears to show that he is probably closer to the Michael Bay cynic than the Peter Jackson geek in this respect.

Beelzebub's Broker Articles on Salem Witch Trials and modern day witch hunting:

Remembering the Salem Witch Executions
Modern Witchfinders: A Reflection

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