*. Another horror franchise launched by James Wan, who seems to have a touch for this sort of thing. A Midas touch, that is. Shot for $20 million The Conjuring pulled in over $300 million in revenue. Hence the franchise and the spin-offs.
*. Not that he’s been all that original. I thought Saw was fresh, though some people thought it looked a bit too much like Cube. Insidious, however, struck me as nothing more than an update of Poltergeist, and The Conjuring is just a return to Amityville.
*. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how perfect an Amityville Horror clone this is. The young couple, with kids, who buy a huge fixer-upper that strains their finances and which turns out to be cursed. The secret cellar. The investigation by spirit-hunters. The exorcism. Hell, it’s even set in 1971, which was just four years before the Lutzes moved in to 112 Ocean Avenue. And the Warrens were also called in to investigate the Amityville haunting as well: it even provides the prologue to The Conjuring 2.
*. Speaking of that secret cellar . . . whatever happened to home inspections? Did the Perron’s buy this place sight unseen? I mean, Roger Perron is surprised to find the place even has a cellar, but that’s where the furnace is! How did he miss that? Hell, there are even windows in the basement. So how could it have been so secret? And why is it always so dark?
*. Even if it weren’t just revisiting The Amityville Horror it would still play out as an incredibly generic haunted house story. There are things that go bump and creak in the night. There are threatened children. There are scary visions. There’s a magic mirror that you see things in that are sneaking around behind you. There are secret rooms and passageways. There are demonic dollies (Annabelle would actually get her own movie later). There are rocking chairs rocking with nobody in them. There are swinging light bulbs. There are monsters hiding under the bed and in the dresser.
*. The other convention being mined is what I’ve described elsewhere as the Ghostbuster sub-genre. This is where a team of experts, equipped with a van full of scientific-looking equipment (motion detectors, infrared cameras, UV lights) does battle with paranormal phenomena. The Stone Tape, a BBC production, might have been the first of these, but other notable examples include Poltergeist, The Entity, and Prince of Darkness (the latter film presumably being the source of the demonic possession spreading by mouth-to-mouth gouts of vomit here).
*. And yet for all the familiarity of the material, it works pretty well. Or, to qualify that a bit, it works for the first half of the film, up until when the Warrens arrive and things get kind of stupid. You can’t go wrong with the classics and Wan knows how to play this stuff. By that I mean that he knows how to build an entire film out of nothing but jump scares. You may think this is the lowest form horror can take, but if comedy is all about whatever makes you laugh then what’s wrong with a scary movie that just wants to make you jump?
*. Reviewing the film in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir inveighed against its “deeply reactionary cultural politics, and the profound misogyny that lurks just beneath its surface.” O’Hehir’s main gripe is that the premise of the film affirms that witchcraft was a real thing back in the days of Salem: “Those terrified colonial women, brainwashed, persecuted and murdered by the religious authorities of their day – see, they actually were witches, who slaughtered children and pledged their love to Satan and everything! That’s not poetic license. It’s reprehensible and inexcusable bullshit, less egregious but somewhat akin to making a movie that claims, in passing, that slavery was OK or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
*. Whew! That’s strong stuff. But . . . I’m not buying it. Horror, like comedy, pushes us into discomfort zones. It just doesn’t mix with canons of political correctness. I mean, we can’t have scary movies about witches because that’s misogynistic? What should we think about The Witch? You can see how silly this gets.
*. It’s a good cast, and they play the material so that it stays just this side of being campy. Some of the lines Patrick Wilson has to deliver are very funny, but he keeps a straight face and does his best to sell them. And Vera Farmiga is just as good playing the neurotic medium. I imagined her breaking into laughter every time someone called “Cut!”
*. “Based on the true story.” Or, as it says at the end of the credits: “This film is based on actual events.” Was that last put in for legal reasons? I wonder what events they might have been. Whatever is being referred to, it’s a claim that’s often trotted out in horror movies. Tobe Hooper suggested the same at the start of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre apparently because he’d been impressed at how The Legend of Boggy Creek billed itself as a “true story.” I think such claims should be retired. They’re not fooling anyone.
*. I ended my notes on Insidious by saying that, while it was far from a great movie, it was a better remake of Poltergeist than the re-make of Poltergeist. I’ll sum up here by saying that The Conjuring is a better remake of The Amityville Horror than the remake of The Amityville Horror. Not great praise, but it’s something.