Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Conjuring conjures scares, but how much more?

Who goes there?  The Conjuring sends Lili Taylor on a classic quest.

I admit I was skeptical as I took my seat at The Conjuring last weekend.  Could James Wan, the director who helped unleash the Saw franchise on the world, truly have crafted an old-fashioned "scary movie," the kind that existed before the words "scary movie" became a pop-culture in-joke?

Surprisingly, it turns out he has - but you can't blame me for doubting the guy; even if you ignore the noxious content of Saw, it's hardly an exercise in style.  But The Conjuring quickly proves itself the kind of movie we haven't seen in years (maybe decades). Resplendently creepy and deliciously suspenseful, it confidently launches and lands a series of sequences that slowly build with escalating dread - like the clank of a roller-coaster climbing to the crest of a precipice - before plunging into giddily effective shocks, the kind that leave you giggling afterward, not the kind that make you almost lose your lunch.  (In fact the film's "R" rating barely seems justified.)

There's an inexplicable pleasure to this kind of mechanical catharsis, and The Conjuring delivers it repeatedly; the crowd I saw it with left the movie happily exhausted, and chattering about the best parts.  Wan clearly set out to prove himself a craftsman, and there's no question he has earned that title. He even brings a touch of macabre poetry to a few moments: the flapping sheet that suddenly takes the form of the unseen, and the pale hands that reach out from the dark to join in a children's game - these are up there with the eyeless head in Jaws and the arm reaching from the grave in Carrie.

But alas, by the time the credits roll, The Conjuring has conjured little more than an appreciation of its own expertise. The hardcore scary-movie connoisseur will sense a certain vacuum behind its set-pieces, which, cleverly crafted as they are, almost always imitate other scenes from other movies; indeed, at times The Conjuring feels like a set of cinematic nesting dolls from the 70's (and early 80's); it's basically The Exorcist lurking within The Evil Dead concealed in Poltergeist hidden in The Amityville Horror (with borrowed touches from the  Paranormal Activity series).

Part of the film's moment-to-moment persuasiveness stems from the very accuracy of its evocation of those (and other) pop touchstones.  In fact its shaggy design and funky costuming are among the most accurate period evocations I can recall; they're so good we sometimes feel we're actually watching some lost movie that has been languishing in a vault since 1975; next to The Conjuring, 70's epics like Almost Famous or Boogie Nights look amateurish and thin.

Don't look now . . . a clueless Patrick Wilson wanders amid female demons.

What's funny about the movie, though, is that while its period look goes deep, its period feel is superficial.  Wan and his screenwriters source their scares in anxiety over female sexuality, just as faux 70's schlock should; their resident ghoul is a witch hanged for trying to sacrifice her baby to Satan, and the movie's occasional gross-outs tap into that classic 70's recoil from the sexual revolution. In The Exorcist, after all, a pubescent little girl morphed before our eyes into a lascivious, pock-marked crone, with a voice reeking of whiskey and cigarettes - while a few years later, Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick repeated the trick, cramming a similar segue into a single jump cut in The Shining. And don't forget that the eponymous Carrie's troubles began when her period did. Meanwhile, in a series of cheapie hits, sexual adventures brought down on randy high school girls the wrath of masked male executioners, whose nearly-supernatural powers could only be stopped (for the time being) by a lonely virgin.

But while Wan wanly imitates these tropes, he seems unable to tap into their dark juice.  Or rather he doesn't seem to want to. The supposed plot of the movie follows "real-life" paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (dorky Patrick Wilson and saintly Vera Farmiga) as they unravel the mystery behind the nasty spooks rocking the crib of working-class parents Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston. But little is unraveled in the end - plot points are more or less announced instead - and the corpse-witch behind the attacks is barely characterized (Pazuzu, the demon of The Exorcist, feels almost Shakespearean in comparison). In the final act the she-devil even possesses Taylor, but Wan hardly dramatizes the assault; indeed, Taylor, a fascinating actress in the right role, probably feels robbed of what could have been a terrific part: the witch's apparent plan is for her to murder her family (shades of The Shining!), but the actress spends most of her big scene under a sheet (below), in the throes of a klutzy DIY exorcism.

Exorcising the sexual politics out of The Conjuring.

That could almost be read as symbolic of the movie's M.O. as a whole: cover up the actual content and go for the money-scare (to be fair, the witch's mad visage tearing through the linen yields another great screen image). It may also be worth admitting that while Wan's results here are, yes, impeccable - still, the repellent Saw had more cultural punch. Its narcissistic viciousness was revolting, but it certainly mirrored the national mood; it was an ugly franchise for an ugly period in American history - like Tarantino's oeuvre, its Senecan sensibility unconsciously gave away how far our nation had fallen morally and politically.

Precisely what, however, is moving beneath the sheet of The Conjuring? The idea of a working-class mom turning on her own children would certainly punch a lot of cultural buttons - perhaps more than the pop audience can handle. It's also intriguing that while short-changing Taylor's torment, Wan lavishes sympathy on the suffering of Farmiga's career woman. She is somehow the new Virgin Mary who can slay the bogey-man (or -woman). Hmmm.  I'm actually not even sure that James Wan has thought any of this through - he seems content instead to treat his characters as props, or maybe dolls (a subplot features a devil-doll who, naturally, is also female), and in the end his story beats serve merely as markers for the shortest distance from Scare A to Scare B.  But as he leads us down that dark primrose path, I can't deny that he knows the lay of the land.

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