a Primal Root written review
edited by Bootsie Kidd
I’ve always loved a good ghost story. I was raised on the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” anthology, watched Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” on a near constant loop, on the weekends talked my Mom into renting copies of black and white classics like “The House on Haunted Hill” and “The Haunting”, and looked forward to the segments of TV’s Unsolved Mysteries featuring “true tales” of the poor crackers who crossed paths with nocturnal spirits and ghastly apparitions. The chills were plentiful, but as you grow up you realize just how cheesy a lot of this stuff can be, and it only really gets down to spooking you once it sinks in on a cerebral level much later… when you’re at home, going down that darkened hallway you’ve walked down countless times before and your mind suddenly begins wondering what inexplicable, otherworldly presence could be lurking behind each door, just biding its time before it springs out and cause you to shit your pants, lose your grip on sanity, and keel over dead from cardiac arrest.
It’s been a long damn time since I’ve seen a movie about a haunting that has actually frightened me beyond the terror felt over wasting money on a movie that promised chills and delivered yawns and moderate chuckles at the lameness of it all. From “Paranormal Activity” and its endless sequels, “A Haunting in Connecticut” to James Wans’ own “Dead Silence” and “Insidious”, they all just come across as either lazy and predictable or over the top, cheap student films. I usually wind up joking with my viewing buddies and waiting for something to happen rather than having my pants scared off of me, a rare occurrence that always leaves me breathless and fellow viewers stunned, as I typically go commando.
I’m getting side-tracked. Okay, “The Conjuring” begins on an creepy-enough note telling the tale of The Warrens’ encounter with what a group of roommates assume is a possessed doll from Hell going by the name of Annabelle. This thing looks like the aborted, fossilized remains of Bozo the Clown and post-face-tightening Nicole Kidman’s love child. Why in the world would ANY schmo would bring this doll home is beyond me. But hey! you get what you pay for, and the doll begins writing on the walls in blood-red crayon, seeming to running around the place on her own (although, unlike your favorite Good Guy and mine, we never get to see her scurry), leaving little love notes of “Miss me?” around the house to be found by the horrified occupants, and banging on doors so loudly your testicles would probably rise into your throat with abject terror. Anyhoo, we never see these three moron roomies, again, and it’s on to establishing Ed and Lorriane Warren, the real life team of hardcore paranormal investigators (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and the unfathomably lovely Vera Farmiga) just now decided their most terrifying tale of a supernatural encounter is ready for public consumption. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, they present to us, “The Conjuring.” Ed and Lorraine are leading a pretty action-packed life, as they traverse the country ghostbusting, debunking red herrings as rusty pipes, and giving lectures while leaving their little daughter at home… with an entire stock of possessed and evil artifacts from their many ghost hunting expeditions. But don’t worry! These artifacts are locked behind a door, because nothing keeps the power of evil at bay like a bolted door… It also becomes apparent that Lorraine has in the not-too-distant past encountered something during one of their investigations that has shaken her to her very core. Something that her ever-loving husband, Ed, concerned about bringing his highly sensitive telepathic wife into the ghost hunting fold again.
To be honest, the story of ‘The Conjuring” is a pretty well-worn tale. A couple and their herd of children (in this instance, all little women) decide to relocate to a beautiful, rural fixer-upper that they purchased for a steal, in the bygone days before full-disclosure was a legal necessity and this particular home’s blood-spattered, demonic, psycho-bitch history was kind of left out of conversation. The family is loving, always smiling, and ready to play games at the drop of a dime. It might sound like a trite Hallmark card, but as a viewer, I couldn’t help but genuinely like this family. Sweet people brought to life by some very talented folks; Lila Taylor as Carolyn, the sweet, southern, ice tea Mother of the clan, and Ron Livingston as Roger (yes, of Office Space fame) as the hard-working, average dope Dad. On their first night in their new home they experience a few minor disturbances, many of which we might encounter in our own home from time to time, but, ultimately, nothing too serious occurs. Besides finding a boarded-up, dusty, creepy old basement under the stairs. Everyone is super happy about the discovery (YAY! MORE SQUARE FOOTAGE!) but things very quickly go to Hell as whatever was tucked down in the basement is now roaming around the house offing the family pooch and playing chilling games with every member of the family. Also, a Burtonesque, antique music box happens to present itself right next to an ancient, gnarly oak tree in the back yard. One of the daughters adopts it, and (que Amityville horror score) unleashes her new imaginary best friend! Her buddy can only be glimpsed in the mirror of the music box once the music within finishes playing. It’s a story we’ve heard and seen countless times before, but to my own shock and amazement, filmmaker James Wan (“Insidious”, “Dead Silence”, “Saw”) uses a slow, old school pace and a nice, subtle touch to really let the suspense and dread sink into the viewer. I was genuinely impressed that James Wan has grown up so much as a director. Make a few more films as intensively creepy as “The Conjuring”, and I might just become a fan!
Some deeply disturbing incidences start to occur in their new home. The utmost of which involves one of the young daughters seeing something in the darkness behind her bedroom door which, really, might be one of the most horrifying and suspenseful sequences I’ve experienced in a movie theater in years (not a drop of blood spilt, no score, all acting and cinematography). Finally, Carolyn heads to a community college where The Warrens are lecturing, and literally begs them to come check out their own private House on Haunted Hill. The Warrens, initially skeptic, and not-a-little ghost-worn grudgingly but compassionately agree to check it out. Dressed in their Mod Squad 1971 ensembles, and looking quite fetchingly groovy, the two step into the house and instantly know this place is a deadly death trap of death. Lorraine has visions, Ed gets nervous, and the once the two investigate the history of the house, whose past tenants were all possessed child murdering evil-doers all in the wake of the original tenant, a witch who, to get in good with The Dark One, sacrificed babies to Satan, and ended up hanging herself from said gnarly oak tree in the backyard… Like I said days pre-total disclosure realtor ethics.
Of course, The Warrens take the case, and decide to rescue the family and exorcise the house of whatever evil is present there.
“The Conjuring” is really the best of both worlds as far a supernatural horror flick is concerned. The first half is expertly crafted horror in which the audience is left holding on to the edge of their seat, completely at the mercy of the increasingly crafty James Wan. The story he is unfolding, waiting for the beast to finally show itself. And, much to my delight, Wan keeps us guessing and waiting for most of ‘The Conjuring”‘s run time, allowing it to effectively chill our bones and build a truly sinister house of cards around us. Then, once the other shoe drops, we find ourselves in the eye of an ever-mounting storm of blood, horror, and chaos that, in a lesser film, would probably come off as disenchantingly goofy. Here, however, we have grown to appreciate every one of our central characters so that, once the proverbial ghost shit hits the fan, our pulse rises and we are actually fearful for our new kin. Keeping in mind that the haunted house genre relies heavily on people being too lame-brained to get out of the house the second disturbing shit starts befalling everyone in the family, but this is coming from a guy (and an audience) raised on horror and its tropes. A family in 1971, plagued by this steadily-rising level of creepy encounters might just try and explain things away until things got so bad they have to reach out for help. Plus, a family this size with only one working parent and all their money invested in this house on the edge of Hell hardly has the kind of money to be spending on stays at the local Motel 6. I guess in most horror films you have to suspend your disbelief, but “The Conjuring” is such a goddamn great spookshow you won’t waste your time questioning such things as little girls are claiming to see creatures in the darkness and the simple clapping of hands send chills down your spine.
“The Conjuring” is by far and away the best horror flick I’ve seen in the theater so far in 2013. It plays it cool, takes its time, and before you know it, you’re sitting in your theater seat, heart thumping in your chest, awaiting the next horror show to befall this poor family and the heroic Warrens. After the film was over, I found myself sitting with Bootsie Kidd totally worn out, as if stepping off a roller coaster. Both of us, catching our breath and totally awestruck by what we’d just seen. We chatted through the end credits which featured the effectively eerie score by Joseph Bishara, which rivals Lalo Schifrin’s timelessly nerve jangling score to “The Amityville Horror.” And then…we had to go home, where the evens I had seen on screen just minute prior suddenly weighed pretty heavily on my imagination. “The Conjuring” stayed with me long after I left the theater and if that’s not the mark of an effective horror film, I’m not sure what is.
Of course, this is the flick we see just as we begin looking to purchase a home together. Good timing! Jeez…
“The Conjuring” is a smartly executed , old school ghost story excellently told and well worth checking out. Hopfully it will be available to own once Halloween rolls around. 😉 I’m awarding this puppy FIVE out of FIVE Dumpster Nuggets. This one is a keeper!
Till next time,
Check your home’s history before moving in and Stay Trashy!