The Conjuring is being advertised as this year’s “scariest movie ever made!” The MPAA Ratings Board gave it a boost by giving it an R rating, even though there isn’t an extreme amount of violence or gore, no nudity, and hardly any foul language. The MPAA said there couldn’t be any cuts made to the movie that would give it the less prohibitive PG-13; the tone of the entire movie was just so scary and unsettling they felt it was unsuitable for anyone under the age of 17 without parental consent. Wow.
The problem is, the movie isn’t all that scary. Yes, director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) does a good job of establishing atmosphere and in setting up and paying off the jump-from-your-seat moments (The Conjuring does what every Paranormal Activity movie has failed to do, which is actually delivering what it sets up, as opposed to the Paranormal Activity movies that just tease and tease and TEASE for eighty-five minutes and then go all gonzo in the final five.)
Wan is clever in the way sets us up: when the Perron family (Lili Taylor as Carolyn, the mom; Ron Livingston as Roger, the dad; Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver as the children) first move into the house, we don’t see the house from the family’s point-of-view, but from inside of the house, as if something is looking back at them. The only one who immediately wants nothing to do with the house is the family dog.
Maybe it’s just a symptom of me being old and having seen too many of these types of movies, but nothing that happens is much of a surprise. The Conjuring feels like an obvious patchwork of other horror movies; it starts with the “creepy doll”, then turns into a haunted house movie (Wan includes a moment where the camera holds on a shot of a TV full of static… nice touch) and ends up being a Poltergeist/Exorcist hybrid during the climax.
Wan does a marvelous job in presenting all of this (and he’s ably assisted with a score by Joseph Bishara that’s all strings and brass playing Penderecki-inspired discordant melodies), but it feels like hearing a good cover band playing songs you’ve heard over and over again; yeah, it’s kind of fun at first, but after a while it feels like everyone is just going through the motions.
And yet, despite of all of that, The Conjuring is worth seeing because of the quality of the performances, a rarity in this genre. EVERYBODY in the movie does such a wonderful job of grounding their work with a level of realism and empathy. And the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes actually gives us characters who react with good sense under these extreme conditions; Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, one half of the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, even comes right out and asks the Perrones why they haven’t just moved out, and their answer makes sense.
While Wilson and Livingston are spot on as the husbands, it’s the leading ladies who really shine. Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine Warren, who’s clairvoyant, which is a definite advantage when investigating the paranormal, but it also takes a grueling emotional and physical toll on her. The Warren’s are coming off of an exorcism that was particularly painful for Lorraine, and Ed is fearful about letting her take on this case concerning the Perrones, which seems particularly dangerous. But Lorraine knows she’s the more gifted investigator, and won’t let Ed go it alone. Wilson and Farmiga are fantastic playing this couple not as cooks, but as open-minded people with enough healthy skepticism to not automatically assume that every case they take on is some sort of haunting.
Let me fawn over Lili Taylor for a moment. Why this woman doesn’t work more often is beyond me! Going all the way back to 1988’s Mystic Pizza, Taylor has never given a performance that wasn’t completely heartfelt and fully formed; why she wasn’t Oscar-nominated for Dogfight or Household Saints is outside my comprehension. The Conjuring gives Taylor her largest role in years, and she runs with it. As the mother of five children who may be the focus of an unseen demonic force, Taylor is put through, and puts us through, quite the ringer. She is gracious and protective and frightened and frightening and overwhelmed and overwhelming, and never over-the-top, which would be an easy trap to fall into with this type of character. If there is any justice, we’ll be seeing a whole lot more from Taylor.
The Conjuring is really about the legacy of mothers; mothers both present and long gone who do everything they can to protect their children, and those, influenced by forces many of us will never understand, who are compelled to do harm to them. Perhaps this is why, along with the fine performances, the movie works as well as it does despite the feeling of over-familiarity with its genre tropes. The climax of the movie, despite all of the enveloping chaos, is surprisingly moving.
The Conjuring is drawing a lot of comparisons with Poltergeist, and though it does lay on the special effects in the third act like that movie, it actually has more in common with The Sixth Sense. Granted, The Sixth Sense doesn’t try to pound you with shocks like The Conjuring and relies more on atmosphere in creating tension, but what makes both movies work are the quiet intensity of the performances. And maybe that’s what will make The Conjuring a horror movie that’ll be talked about for a while; it’s not what scares us that makes something really memorable, but what moves us.
Do you have a favorite pizza place? Probably some little, out-of-the-way, neighborhood joint that does the sauce just the right way, or they generous pile the cheese on without having to ask for extra cheese? Then you have Pizza Hut. Every city has one. They advertise all the time. But then you actually have one of their pizzas… and it’s just meh. The sauce is a little flat. The crust is a little dull. They may add a little gimmick like CHEESE IN THE CRUST or something ridiculous. But ultimately, it’s a pizza made by a large company, and it lacks anything to make it memorable; Pizza Hut isn’t anybody’s favorite pizza. Well, World War Z is Pizza Hut.
World War Z is the first big budget zombie movie by a major studio, and you can tell. In an effort to recoup its mammoth production costs (between 175 and 200 million dollars), it tones down the requisite gore that movies in the genre provide by the barrel load in an effort to get a less restrictive rating and allow all the kiddies to enjoy the rampant carnage! Another problem with the movie, it doesn’t quite know what type of disaster thriller it wants to be. And these subtle shifts in style only call to mind better movies.
At times, it wants to be a straight-up zombie movie, but it’s no 28 Days Later; it lacks that movie’s soulfulness and true sense of horror. And other times, with its long dissertations on what’s causing the outbreak, it feels like a viral-outbreak movie, but it’s no Contagion; it’s missing that movie’s cool detachment and chilling dread. But then it begins to feel like an action-horror hybrid, but it’s no Aliens, lacking that movie’s escalating suspense and superbly staged action sequences.
But the biggest problem with World War Z is its size. If you look at the quintessential works of the genre (Romero’s Dead movies, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead), all of those works suggest a large-scale, but they’re small-scale. They focus on a small group of people (emphasis on group) and create characters we get to know and hope to see survive and not succumb to such a horrible demise.
World War Z doesn’t want to suggest scale, it wants to show it. Two scenes into the movie, we see a zombie riot in downtown Philadelphia. Buildings explode and cars overturn and trucks careen into everything! But then the actions shifts to a large carrier in the middle of the ocean. Then we’re off to South Korea, where the first report of a zombie epidemic was reported and we get a shootout at a military installation. Then Jerusalem, where they believe they have found a stop-gap measure (a giant wall) that is eventually breached and leads to another chaotic action sequence. And finally, after a horrific flight that results in a giant hole being blown out of the fuselage and hundreds of zombies sucked into the sky, we end up at a nearly deserted WHO lab in Wales.
In its zeal to take us all around the world, the movie feels frantic, and not in a good way. And we never get to really know anybody other than Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane. Every scene of the movie, he’s the primary focus. So all the other characters in the movie are basically Star Trek “red shirts”, only existing to be eventually taken out. One character who seems to be important meets such a sudden and ridiculous demise that it doesn’t even register; we just sit there and say to ourselves, “Really?”
One of decisions the movie makes is to present the zombies like swarming insects, which in a strange way almost neutralizes their effect. The threat of the post-Romero zombie is so intimate; you’re literally being consumed. And it’s not by some monster or supernatural being, it’s by that guy who works at the gas station. The lady at the checkout counter at the grocery store. Your neighbor. By having thousands upon thousands of zombies running over each other as they descend on their prey, they just look like a fast-moving blob.
World War Z is just too busy to develop any sort of personality. It wants to use its enormous budget and infinite resources to WOW you. But zombies aren’t built to WOW you. They’re built to scare you. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.Follow @filmbyfelix