I see a filmmaker in full control of his frame, who can play with his audience in a manner that is in no way cheap or exploitative, but who can still use the full force of his camera to unsettle his audience…I see a film that actually builds its tension quite effectively—from a basic sense of dread to something far more gruesome and horrific.
To read Bilge’s full review in Vulture please click here.
The film often tries to trigger these context-less scares that do not build on anything beyond the filmmakers’ guileless attempts to lull you into complacency long enough that they can jolt you out of it. I can’t get into a film that’s this over-determined when it comes to scaring you with falling picture frames that sound like cannon-fire when they cascade down the stairs, or violin strains that are as shrill as a fire alarm.
To read Simon’s full review in RogerEbert.com please click here.
Bilge Ebiri v. Simon Abrams
Here am I. Please imagine me pointing aggressively and silently in Simon’s direction.
How is this different from any other night?
Yes. Though we’ve studiously avoided discussing The Conjuring, precisely because we hoped this opportunity would come up.
We did?! I mean, yes! One of the rooms I’ve studiously avoided having this argument with you, Bilge, is I take some issue with the way you qualify the film as being “old-school.” I’m not sure I know what you mean, and having seen all but two of Wan’s feature films, I feel we’re going to disagree vehemently on this point. I’ve rewatched some of Wan’s films and while I want to buy into them because of their chutzpah, just often feel they are bone-dumb, unimaginative, poorly assembled, and not especially atmospheric. I think we can agree that Wan, as a filmmaker, is only improving with each film he makes. But beyond that, I don’t know if we see the same films when we watch The Conjuring or Insidious or Saw. The technique, effect, and emphasis we respectively put on the same films…I don’t know, man. The Conjuring specifically did not do much for me because its creators kept getting in their own way, and inexpertly trying to achieve an effect that I simply don’t think they achieve well. I get the temptation to make a film that approximates a kind of haunted house attraction feel. But like Insidious, The Conjuring is so under-done on basic details and so over-done in other regards that I can never feel comfortable enough to want to be scared. That’s my basic problem: it’s not just thin, and amateurish, it’s distractingly thin, and amateurish, and persistently so.
There are a bunch of things there. First of all, re: “Old school.” That’s a fairly broad descriptor that I use for The Conjuring, specifically. (And for the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to talk about The Conjuring, as opposed to “Wan’s films,” because I’m not actually that big a fan of his other films, until we get to Insidious. And while I do like Insidious 1 &2, The Conjuring is on an entirely different level for me.) Anyway, back to “old school.” First of all, it’s a way to distinguish between films like these and the other, more recent strands, like found footage, torture-porn, etc. So, old school, in the Amityville Horror, The Haunting tradition. That’s not necessarily a value judgment. But a lot of the descriptors you’re using here I simply don’t agree with. I mean, if you don’t personally find it effective, then sorry. But I find it enormously effective—that is to say, it’s a film that scares the bejesus out of me, every time I see it. And clearly does so for much of the rest of its audience as well. (I don’t usually like to trot out the argument-from-popular-appeal, but sometimes, when I see a film that has clearly had an effect on millions be described as “ineffective,” I can’t help myself.) I find it absurd—ABSURD—that you would describe a film like The Conjuring as not being atmospheric. I mean, from the orchestral swoons that open the damned thing, to the way it uses the dark, to the fluidity of its camerawork—the way that Wan follows his characters (I used the word “stalks” in my review) in a way that is somehow both very discomfiting and also very elegant and controlled—I find this film to be incredibly atmospheric, incredibly tense, and, yes, incredibly well-made. There are a lot of things I can say, but I don’t want to just soapbox, so maybe I should say this. When you say, “Its creators kept getting in their own way, and inexpertly trying to achieve an effect that I simply don’t think they achieve well”…what exactly do you mean?
But you have used “old-school” in the past without qualifying it. This was true in both your The Conjuring and Insidious 2 reviews, in which you describe the film as having “old-school scares.” You didn’t qualify it, so it confused, and aggravated me, like some kind of old person that watches horror films just to yell at the screen when they aren’t to his liking. But I don’t think The Conjuring is particularly “old-school” because its aesthetic is just as much a shortcut-reliant attempt at minimalistic (ie: not gory/torture porn-y) shocks as the “Paranormal” movies. In fact, they share the same producers. But let’s keep this discussion focused on why we felt the way we felt and not drag the film’s audience into (are the people that disliked this film somehow /not/ the film’s audience? Because you have, in the past, implied that I expect too much from these films.). When I said that the creators get in their own way, I mean in terms of establishing the characters, and their dilemma. This is partly a matter of grating expository dialogue, which is used throughout the film, like when one character says that a ghost knocks three times to mock the Holy Trinity: “You know, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?” Gee, really, you think we thought it was the Hamburglar, Ronald, and Grimace? There’s also a matter of the film’s repetitive use of jump-scares, and the way Wan draws out certain non-jump-scare-related images to achieve an effect that ultimately just does not work because it’s so inexpertly paced. For example, the scene with a ghost in a lace dress darting behind a door. I don’t care that chasing a ghost in a house you know is haunted is just a generically stupid idea. I care that the way that scene was shot is not only laughable—it’s like being stuck in a haunted house with actors that put you in a headlock and orient your vision by way of shaking you while they pull you around, and then scream in your face—but it’s just monotonous. How many times should I expect the filmmaker to use the same tricks over and over again? Loud noises, and things jumping out of corners that the camera slowly, but inexorably pushes into only works so many times. After one or two times, it’s a gimmick, and it becomes nerve-shreddingly annoying…