Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Conjuring - Insidious 2.0 (And That's Not Really a Bad thing.)

There's one odd quirk I've discovered in my taste in film over the years.  I'm not sure if this happens to other people or if it's just me, and if others get this, by all means, say so.  For reasons I've never quite understood, when the summer moves into its more 'prime' area of mid-July/early August, I start getting a strong itch for good horror.  I'm not sure what it is about this time of year that does it, but it always comes back.  As a result, I always wind up seeking out some new material (some classics also help, but the new stuff is always a plus.)  Now, this also helps in building up some new material for October, but that part is neither here nor there.

Why am I bringing this one up?  Because this year, that timing lined up VERY well for me this past weekend.

When I first saw the promotional spots for The Conjuring, I was pretty skeptical.  I think part of it was the fact that when I see "based on a true story" attached to a horror film, it causes red flags to go up for me, especially realizing how that 'based on' part gives a LOT of creative liberties.  I mean, the execution looked like it had potential, but I was still mixed overall.  This is why I was surprised when it came out to hear it was actually getting a lot of good buzz, both critically and financially.  So, last Saturday, curiosity got the better of me, and since I had a gift card to make use of, I decided to give the film a go.

The result, and this is part of where the subtitle on this comes from, actually surprised me in a very good way.

Purporting itself to be based on the case files of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga,) this regards a case that, due to controversy in its proceedings, they had reportedly kept censored (the actual controversy isn't quite the earthshaking reason the ads would have you believe, but it does make some sense.)  This case concerning investigation of a haunting of a farmhouse bought by the Perron family.

"and as for the backyard...nothing wrong here, either."

Thanks to that 'from the case files' angle, I was already a little surprised with how some of the narrative on this film was handled.  At several points, the film goes into some of the mechanics, as it were, of the supernatural, care of showing us demonstrations from seminars the Warrens give at universities about their line of work.  These also make for some nice extra bits of development for the two characters to establish them for us before they get called to investigate the house.  These also help to frame the escalation in the other main storyline concerning the Perrons as events in their house build up.  On that note, this film does its build-up quite well.  While I above compared it to Insidious, to be honest, there are parts of the first half that almost feel a bit more along the lines of Poltergeist in terms of playing with the unseen and leaving the audience wondering just what these forces want.  With two films in a row now, director Justin Wan is shaping up to show a solid understanding of the 'less is more' rule in horror.  While he still does include some of the classic 'jump out and scare you' moments that are pretty part and parcel for the genre, he's also showing a knack for suspense by playing with the sense of impending dread.  In particular some of the early sequences involving Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) dealing with the house alone build up some very effective tension.  The highlight here being a sequence involving the house's unearthed basement where the actual payoff is small, but quite potent.

On this note, I would just like to say - if you have any interest in seeing this one now, you'd actually be doing yourself a favor to see it in theaters.  While I imagine this can still be pretty solid as an at-home watch, seeing it in a darkened movie theater really DOES further help add to the atmosphere in a good way.  Plus, if you're lucky and can catch the right show, you can get another added element care of the audience.  One of the big perks to seeing this on a Saturday afternoon was hearing the teenagers in the row ahead of me losing their proverbial shit watching this film.  I haven't heard that much screaming or freaking out in a theater in a while, and in a weird sort of way, it added a whole element of fun to the movie (as well as probably one of the most bizarre post-movie statements I have heard in a theater to date.)

Anyway, back to the film.

Alongside the scares, as I said above, the narrative is actually pretty solid.  I still remain skeptical about how much of this was 'true story' territory, but as a film, it holds up well.  Thanks to the slow burn that makes up most of the movie, we still get a fair amount of time with the Perron family to see what they're like normally, and as a result, we get to really get a sense of just what this haunting is doing to them.  Even the children all have some degrees of development (albeit not massive amounts) to really let you see how this is effecting them.  It gives a nice degree of sympathy to them in a genre where bad writing can leave you just wanting to see these characters get a karmic kick in the teeth by the forces of evil.  Likewise, the writers give similar attention to the Warrens as characters within the narrative, showing us their own family life throughout the investigations, and thus giving us a reason to be concerned about the risk they're also putting themselves in by intervening on the behalf of the Perrons.  Further to the script's credit, even when they finally start unearthing the nature of the haunting, the film manages to keep itself fairly on track (albeit some parts almost feel a bit more outlandish than they probably should), and to their credit, they keep the escalation fairly reeled in.  Some of the imagery the film employs as the haunting becomes more apparent can be a bit much beyond the early buildups, but they aren't off-putting enough to really hurt the film.

"I don't care what they taught you in film school, this is NOT a good cost-effective alternative to special effects in a ghost movie!"

Also, and this is in a separate paragraph just in case anyone is REALLY sensitive to spoilers and just wants to skip this part - I have to hand the film one REALLY big point here.  It says something for some of the formula in genres these days that this film's lack of the obligatory 'one last twist at the very end' cliche actually feels strangely refreshing.  Seeing this film end with a sense of closure (and one last little bit of messing with the audience) is something that shouldn't feel this rare in a horror film nowadays.

To quote MST3k: "It's a devil and it's fun!"

The technical aspects of this film are impressive as well, especially the cinematography.  It's not anything that will catch the attention of the Academy come awards time, but John R. Leonetti still gives the cameras enough to do that it makes some sequences standout, such as when the Perrons are first moving in, and we have a long take following one of the daughters through the house, ducking under a moved piece of furniture, turning to look at other members of the family she talks to, and only switching to a separate cut when she's outside the house.  It's a fairly minor part of the film, but it's nicely executed.  Likewise, some of the other sequences involving the children during the early phases of the haunting show similar creativity with the camera work, another good example being when one of the daughters checks for a sound under her bed.  The camera shares her view of the shot upside down, then as she gets up again, the camera rotates with her.  In some ways, this further adds to getting involved in some of the sequences that really pays off in the early parts of the movie.

Alongside the other surprises in the film, the casting stands out.  As the Warrens, Wilson and Farmiga strike a good balance of both professional and caring.  This works out particularly well in the later half as the events at the house intensify, and a rift occurs between Ed and Lorraine.  Ed is, understandably, concerned for her safety, while she's concerned about the family, and Wilson and Farmiga play these points off each other well.  The former is rather welcome since I find that Wilson can be somewhat hit or miss with his performances, but he's actually found a good fit in this one.  Likewise, the Perrons don't come up short for acting - as parents Roger and Carolyn, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor at first start off seeming like they may be running the 'believer-skeptic' parallel, but as the events become harder to ignore, that archetype is quickly defused and we are instead left with two parents who are trying to help their family to the best of their abilities.  I have to also give Livingston a few extra points here - while he's been keeping busy, it seems like he never quite fully hit another career-maker like he had in the cult hit Office Space, and I admit at first it was hard for me to shake that image here, but once he got to shake the archetype risk, the role worked a bit more in his favor.  Taylor, admittedly, was a little bit of a harder sell.  For the first part of the movie, she's in good form and plays her role well.  It's near the end, when a development I won't get into here happens that her role somewhat derails.  Now, granted, that's not entirely her fault, and she's still clearly trying even with this turn of events, but it is a bit of a downside.  Their five children, meanwhile (played by Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Shanley Caswell, and Kyla Deaver) all thankfully, do their jobs well without defaulting to the cliche of child actors in horror just having that spaced out and scared look.  The fact they all maintain a believable sibling dynamic is just a bigger plus here.  Rounding out the cast are the Warrens' two associates - Drew (Shannon Kook) and Brad (John Brotherton.)  While somewhat relegated to just being the supports, these two still have some good interaction together, playing the strongest back and forth of 'believer-skeptic' in the cast, albeit here used somewhat for humor. I just have to make a quick aside with regards to Kook's casting.  I'm pleasantly surprised - between Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, and now this, this summer has actually been pretty good to the Asian acting community.  Just a minor side note, take it as you will.

"If it's any consolation, if we screw this one up, the whole investigation and exorcism is free.
...probably not the time to bring that one up, huh?"

I'm sill pleasantly surprised this movie turned out as well as it did.  With its buzz, I went in expecting just an OK ride.  I walked out fairly pleased with the movie, and even surprised by some of the technical merits.

Maybe part of that was just my summer itch talking, but all the same, this movie did the job nicely.

On that note, I have to say, yes, I am still working on Summer reading. It's not Summer Reading if we're actually putting it first.

Till next time, when life finds a way to crush that optimism out of me...

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