The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Conjuring (2013) & The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses. I also don’t believe in vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels, demons, Satan or God. Neither do I believe aliens have ever visited our planet, no matter what Eric Van Daniken or Tom Cruise says. That doesn’t stop me, however, from enjoying films about ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels and demons.

Ever since I was a kid, watching those old Universal monster movies starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains and the great Boris Karloff on our old black-and-white tube-driven monster of a telly, I have been fascinated by horror films. My formative years were spent in the 1960s and 70s, going to the cinema to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the marvellously Gothic Hammer Horrors. As much as I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) these films, they did introduce one thing to horror movies that was not present in those earlier Universal efforts – lots of blood and gore. And as the years went on that blood and gore came gushing out of virtually every horror film that was released until it reached its zenith in the Saw and Hostel franchises that revelled in sickening scenes of torture and sadism. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of blood and gore every now and again – zombie films wouldn’t seem right without those two essential elements – but a horror film to me is not about blood and gore but suspense, dread and shock. For years our screens have been filled with gorier and gorier films made by directors who seemed to have forgotten the basic rule of a really good horror movie – and that is: it’s not what you see that frightens you, it’s what you don’t see. Robert Wise knew this when he made The Haunting back in 1961 and James Wan knew this when he made The Conjuring in 2013.
Poster for The Conjuring

The Conjuring is, for me at least, a perfect horror film. It’s what going to see a horror film is all about – one hour and forty minutes of sustained fear and dread, punctuated by a few moments of humour, that is utterly unnerving and terrifying, despite the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts, haunted houses or demons. It starts as it means to go on and hardly lets up for a second and with hardly a drop of blood spilled. It’s supposedly a true story based on real-life ‘demonologists’ Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigation into the Perron family’s haunted farmhouse in 1971. As these are the same people who investigated the Amityville Horror, now known to be an elaborate and proven hoax, the ‘true story’ declaration has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Saying that, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a superior and stylish horror film, with beautiful cinematography that uses unsettling, prowling camerawork to perfectly time moments of genuinely scary shocks. The scene where the mother, blindfolded and playing a game of ‘Clap-Clap’ with her daughter is unbelievably frightening. It also has two terrific central performances from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson (one of my favourite actors at the moment, who was superb in the second season of Fargo and the fantastic western/horror Bone Tomahawk) as Lorraine and Ed Warren.

I watched this for the first time the other day with my son, who had seen it before and who took great delight in watching me jump out of my skin in fright at scenes which he knew were coming. He asked me to watch it with him because he wanted me to accompany him to the cinema to see The Conjuring 2, based on the ‘true story’ of the Enfield Haunting in 1977.

I was expecting great things from this sequel as it was produced, directed, photographed and written by the same team that brought us its predecessor. But, like most sequels, I was to be severely disappointed. Apart from the loving recreation of 70s England and its shoddy, run-down council estates, this effort didn’t hold a candle to the original. Starting with the Warren’s investigation into the Amityville Horror (a proven hoax, remember) this ‘true story’ didn’t possess anywhere near the sustained terror that the original Conjuring film delivered – in fact I was bored some of the time. It was slow and disjointed and relied too much on its exposition of religious mumbo-jumbo and (as Professor Richard Dawkins describes it) superstitious nonsense. The Warrens travel to England to assist Maurice Grosse (played by the marvellous character actor Simon McBurney) in his investigation into the paranormal activities occurring at the Enfield house. In the course of their investigation they discover that the house is not haunted at all but is the target of the very demon that was responsible for the Amityville Horror.

The two biggest faults of The Conjuring 2, though, was its reliance on CGI effects and the overtly manipulative way it tries to make you care for the Warrens, especially Ed. For example, there is one toe curling scene in which, in the absence of electricity to power the record player, Ed picks up a guitar and sings an Elvis number to make everyone feel better. It’s a blatant attempt to make you like him more because earlier in the film Lorraine had a premonition of his death. You were meant, at this point, to think ‘Ooh, I hope he doesn’t die’.

It didn’t work. I won’t tell you if he dies or not but the fact that he didn’t die until 2006 should give you some indication of the outcome.

In reality, the Warrens only spent one night in company of Peggy Hodgson and her four daughters in their Enfield council house and the ‘haunting’ was actually investigated by ‘paranormal experts’ Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair (the book This House is Haunted was Guy Playfair’s account of their investigation, which was adapted into the three-part mini series The Enfield Haunting with Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse and Matthew McFadyen as Guy Playfair in 2015). No demons were involved – in fact the Enfield haunting was supposedly the work of a poltergeist (or ‘noisy spirit’), which is believed to be the manifested physical energy from a living person (usually a teenage girl) and therefore, technically, not a ghost at all, which is fair enough, as there is no such thing as ghosts. If there was we would be overwhelmed by them – they would be all around us – and why has no one ever seen a ghost wearing an Eric Clapton is God T-shirt? 

Think about it.

No ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels, aliens, poltergeists or demons were harmed in the writing of this review.

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