Movies,

Review via Debate: The Conjuring

Bilge Ebiri
Here am I. Please imagine me pointing aggressively and silently in Simon’s direction.

Simon Abrams
How is this different from any other night?

Bilge Ebiri
Yes. Though we’ve studiously avoided discussing The Conjuring, precisely because we hoped this opportunity would come up.

Simon Abrams
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.

Bilge Ebiri
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?

Simon Abrams
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…

Bilge Ebiri
The idea that Wan, in The Conjuring, is over-reliant on jump scares is laughable to me. The problem of the jump-scare isn’t that it exists, it’s that it’s often unearned. It’s a tactic, sure—and since it plays on the average human’s fight-or-flight impulse, it’s usually effective on a simple, brutalist-biological level, and thus can be abused. But it can be used in an artful fashion, and that’s exactly what Wan does. In fact, Wan doesn’t really go for the jump scares until relatively later in The Conjuring. (Aside from that opening sequence, where he uses the loud knocking, but there he’s specifically depicting the very thing that is scaring the two nurses, so it doesn’t bother me.) In fact, one of the things that I find most impressive in The Conjuring is the patience with which he allows the tension and terror to play out. For example, the scene with the two girls in the bedroom at night. One of them is sitting up in bed, looking into the darkness behind their door. And she’s saying, to the other, “Do you see it? There’s someone over there. There’s someone behind the door. It’s staring straight at us.” Wan stays close on the girl’s face, and holds on her. And you can read the fear on her face—he gives the actress the space to terrify us. I mean, think about it, this is a scene that has pretty much no effects—it’s just two girls in bed, in a room. When I saw the film again, I was once again in awe of how well put together this scene is. And the fear it works is an incredibly elemental one. Actually, it’s several—the fear of not being in control, but also of not seeing and also of being watched. And it’s not a jump scare, it doesn’t rely on score or pyrotechnics, or even loud noises. It’s just a scared little girl in the dark. And it’s a beautiful, haunting scene.

As for a filmmaker using the same “tricks.” We all have things that scare us, and horror films can use those very well. I mean, we’re all afraid of the dark, and plenty of horror films have used the dark to scare us. Well, should we then retire the dark, because it’s been “done”? The same goes for things scurrying in corners. Or children’s games. Or, hell, the closet. I mean, closets are scary. I spent my entire childhood being afraid that there was somebody lurking in the closet, behind all those clothes, in the dark. And I think The Conjuring works the terror of the closet extremely well. (And so does Insidious 2, btw, which I’m pretty sure has the same closet.) The closet is a very familiar thing, but it can, in the right circumstances, be a very scary thing. That’s one of the joys of a good horror movie, I’d say. You and I obviously disagree on how “effectively” these elements are being used, and we’ll never agree on that. But the notion that he’s using familiar things — that doesn’t really bother me at all.

Simon Abrams
Generally speaking, being confronted in such a blunt, and distractingly abrupt way, whether it’s specifically a jump-scare or not, is only so effective. 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. The scene you’re alluding to, the one with the little girls? That starts off promising enough, but once the camera starts to orient our vision to the dark place we’re supposed to now be looking for something to jump out of, I start looking for something to jump out of that place. Again, it’s a strong-arm tactic, which if used sparingly, is fine. But Wan does not know how to do anything sparingly. I do take issue with the fact that the monsters leaping out of dark shadows, and the picture frames falling down the stairs are all essentially skin-deep scares. But I would not mind that so much if they were abused so consistently, or even just caught my imagination in some way. You say the scene with the little girl in the dark was “beautiful,” but I only remember being sucked in for a second, and then shoved right back out as soon as I was forcibly shown where to look. Again, in the context of the film, this is more annoying than it is when it’s considered as an individual scene. But when considered as part of a whole, that scene bothered me instead of bewitching me because it’s part-and-parcel with a blunt style of horror that I don’t think started with Insidious or The Conjuring. I think it is, after a fashion, a reaction to Saw and Paranormal Activity, but that’s a discussion for another time. You describe the scares in the film as being archetypal, or almost elemental, particularly in the way that you talk about scurrying, games, the dark. But again, I am not objecting to the fact that these elements are being futzed around with. Futz away, just don’t expect me to be impressed in the abstract unless the execution of those basic elements is not done in a satisfactory way.

Bilge Ebiri
When you talk about “strong-arm tactics,” I was immediately reminded of Pauline Kael’s review of The Exorcist, which I was reading the other day for another project. And, quite aside from her general moral outrage at the movie, she sounds a lot like you when she blasts Friedkin for his bluntness and for “confusing blatancy with power.” So, the “blunt” style of horror isn’t a response to anything recent. It’s been around forever. And everybody will have their own reactions to it—they’ll have their own idea of what’s too much, or cheap, or unimaginative. As Kael says, “The movie industry is such that men of no taste and no imagination can have an incalculable influence.” She’s talking about William Friedkin there. I actually think there is a certain brutality to The Conjuring— perhaps even a kind of brutishness, initially. But that’s something that the film uses very effectively. It does shake you up, but that’s because it’s depicting a possession that’s an extremely violent one. It’s not a misunderstood ghost. It’s a force that really does want to kill this family, and the scene with the pictures falling that you mention—it reminds me of a really important element in the film, which is the picture of the family at the beach, which triggers the mother’s flashback. And that’s the moment that saves her at the end—an incredibly tender memory to a day when she and her family were at their happiest, and felt so much love. And I think that makes for a very touching contrast to all that brutality. She’s not turned back or redeemed by prayers or priestly intervention, but by being reminded of a happy memory. And it’s an incredibly powerful scene for me. Both times I saw the film, I’ve teared up at this moment. And I almost never tear up at horror films.

Simon Abrams
The key difference between Kael’s objections to The Exorcist and my objections to The Conjuring is that I am not basing this on a moral panic so much as an aesthetic one. And again, you started off by saying that you don’t want to talk about anything beyond The Conjuring, but if you want to talk about a “blunt”-style, and general critical rejection of it, don’t conflate my argument with one that is based on entirely different reasoning. Friedkin is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers because he works extra-hard to make you see the characters as they are defined by their fears, and their actions, as an extension of their settings. They are their environments, and their environments are nothing if not consistently well-defined. I don’t think the same is true in The Conjuring at all. I see these major set pieces, and realize: I have no idea who these characters are, why the filmmaker thinks their spooky attackers are scary, or why the assault on their home means anything beyond generic, and negligibly-developed cues about protecting the nuclear family, believing in God, etc. I don’t see these as themes because I did not see them developed in any memorable or even coherent way. You mention this as being a motif in the film, one concerning photographs. But I am not convinced that’s true because, as is evidenced from screenwriter Leigh Whannell’s tendency of over-explaining EV-ER-Y-THING and doing it very poorly, too (seriously, the man needs to do a few more drafts or let somebody co-write his material…get a ghost writer, as it were). But I am convinced that if a character does not say what he is thinking in this film, he or she cannot be thinking it. If the film’s style, such as it is, is defined by a purposive lack of subtlety, and you expect me to believe Wan and/or Whannell have established a relatively subtle and/or thoughtful laundry-line to your film, I tend to believe that it’s accidental. But even still, I can practically hear you yelling at your computer, so what? It’s there, right? Well, again, in the context of the film, I don’t agree. I think it’s a thing we can see if we look really hard, but within the context of who the film’s main protagonists are, what they experience, and how it’s represented, I don’t think that matters beyond window-dressing. You are, of course, entitled to your reaction, and your evidence is not unreasonable. But we disagree on the importance you’ved placed on certain stylistic elements. I think it’s dumb, and inept, while you think it thoughtful, and well-crafted. And that is why we fail.

Bilge Ebiri
I’m not sure I’ve ever said this movie is “subtle,” but whatever. I clearly care more for these characters than you do. They’re obviously not defined by their environments in a Friedkinian way; they’re presented as fairly ordinary. I can identify with the fact that they’ve bought a house that’s probably a bit more than they can afford, with the fact that they feel a bit out of place here outside of the city. I can identify with the fact that once they realize there’s something wrong with the place (or think there’s something wrong with the place) there isn’t a whole hell of a lot they can do. I mean, simple elements like casting Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor help, too. But seriously, when I see the mom playing so joyfully with her daughters, I’m drawn to her. And I’m genuinely gripped by the way the film allows a character who is so loving to become so monstrous. It toys with our allegiances in that way. And these certainly are emotional cues—they’re not analytical ones. That’s the level on which The Conjuring works. In a way, that speaks to the film’s effectiveness for me. If I saw more of their environments, or if it gave me the kind of novelistic detail of an Exorcist or a Rosemary’s Baby, I’d feel less inclined to be moved by their predicament—or for that matter, scared by it. One of the great things about the film is that it doesn’t pigeonhole these characters. The film you’re arguing for— whatever that may be—actually sounds a lot less frightening to me.

Simon Abrams
None of the singular things that you’ve mentioned are, unto themselves, bad, objectionable ideas. Again, it’s a matter of execution. Just because I’m not a home-owner—hey, guy, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a recession on, and I’m young, and oh-so-fucked—does not mean I cannot, in theory, identify with being in your head and in dire monetary straits and stuck in a situation that cannot be solved by any means beyond ghostbu—ok, maybe not that last bit. But again, everything you’ve described is just set-up. Once you get beyond that into the way it’s expressed, that’s where we disagree strongly, and with a passion unrivaled. The film swings from one plot point to the next and it does not ultimately show me a singular family/situation/dilemma that I feel is distinct and/or complex enough to warrant the level of identification you’ve described. I look at The Conjuring and see stick figures shuffling from one formula-established conclusion to the next because there is nothing here I can sink my teeth into beyond that. You’ve seen the film three times, and that to me is unfathomable. Unfathomable, man! So these are actors that I like, too. But they’re not given much to do. If I had seen Livinston and Taylor interact with their children in ways that I didn’t feel were just by-the-book, and in scenes that were shot, scripted, and cut in such a way that I felt seeing Taylor’s eventual transformation from mother to monster? I might agree that the film has an emotional life to it. I don’t because I think the filmmakers had good ideas, but no good sense on how to follow through on them. I see their excitement, and the beginnings of something exciting here, but I don’t think Wan and Whannell ever settle down long enough to show me that they can follow-through on their ideas. I don’t think these characters are developed well enough to be pigeonholed! I’m not arguing that the film should be anything other than the one it’s trying to be: a scary film that centers on a singular happening. I’m not asking for a radical new kind of horror movie, but rather a generically effective one.

Bilge Ebiri
Again, these are all characterizations that we ultimately just don’t see eye to eye on. 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. We’re just not seeing the same film. Where you claim the film swings from one plot point to the next, I see a film that actually builds its tension quite effectively—from a basic sense of dread to something far more gruesome and horrific. Again, you say “stick figures” and I see very HUMAN figures here. I can identify with the fear in their faces, with their protectiveness, with their utter helplessness. It’s important to actually watch what’s happening onscreen. I don’t need these characters or situations to be “singular,” I need them to be alive and in the moment, and I need to establish a connection with what I’m seeing them do onscreen. Don’t discount these elements—these are things the vast majority of horror films absolutely fail to do, and which The Conjuring does extremely well. More importantly, that very human connection—devoid of the kind of over-determined detail that can actually smother a character, or a story—is very important to what the film is trying to do, given where it ultimately goes, and how it eventually redeems the character of the mother. That, to me, is a very important through-line in the film, and key to the journey it asks the audience to make. Sometimes, I think you’re getting hung up on the fact that a lot of the elements the film is trafficking in are elements you’ve seen before. And I guess it can be easy to shrug your shoulders at things like that, but I think it’s important to re-state the way that The Conjuring revitalizes the familiar. It’s not an “original” film, to be sure. And as much as I love originality, too, it can be overrated. Think of it this way: Fifty years from now, who will wonder who got somewhere first? I mean, The Shining was also accused of having stick figure characters and working with unoriginal, banal elements. But so many people were distracted by the fact that they’d seen these elements before, and were unable to see how well these elements were being used. And now this is YOUR turn to scream at the computer, because I’m sure you’re saying, “I don’t care about originality, I care about EFFECTIVENESS.” And I’m here to tell you, The Conjuring is an incredibly effective movie. When I see you talk about how ineffective it is, I’m left with two conclusions: Either you’re blinded to its effectiveness because you’ve seen these elements before and you’re looking for novelty. OR, you have an idea in your head of a specific type of film you want to see, and you’re frustrated that you’re not seeing it. The Conjuring that I saw is a film that actually got me so wound up the first time I saw it that I almost left the screening room, I was that frightened by it. It’s a film that I find inordinately powerful, in part BECAUSE of its simplicity.

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