Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Off The Shelf: Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013)

Rose Byrne in James Wan's Insidious (2010)

Before this week I only knew James Wan as the director of Saw (and producer of almost every one of its sequels), which didn’t exactly bode well for the rest of his filmography. Though Saw (2004) functioned as a mostly-effective mystery-horror yarn, the sequels quickly descended into exploitative dreck, bringing the term “torture porn” into our pop culture lexicon. Is that really an achievement to celebrate? I can’t say – but it did leave me unprepared for the quality of two of his more recent directorial efforts, Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), films that veer away from serial-killer mind games into supernatural territory.

Insidious is set up as a run-of-the-mill haunting/possession flick, featuring a family (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) who move into a Victorian fixer-upper only to find their new lives interrupted by terrifying paranormal occurrences. In this case, their son Dalton ventures into the creepy attic and falls, hitting his head, which sends him into an inexplicable comatose state. Doctors scratch their heads and mommy Renai (Byrne) grieves while daddy Josh (Wilson) distances himself from the house, seemingly unable to handle the increasingly-intense visitations that plague his wife. It’s only later that we find out why: Josh was a victim of spirit molestation in the past due to his proficiency at astral projection, an ability he passed onto Dalton, and must cross into another dimension in order to retrieve his son’s trapped spirit, aided by paranormal expert Elise (Lin Shaye).

The film has an exceptionally strong first half, providing genuine creeps with the first few ghostly occurrences (including a very unnerving scene in which Josh searches the house for an intruder to the ringing klaxon of their security alarm), but unfortunately the script isn’t unique or strongly executed enough to carry the weight of the second half, which delves into more fantastical material.

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson in Insidious
Much of the film’s scares revolve around the central demon creature, but I think its design could have been a lot creepier – its appearance even came off as unintentionally comical in some scenes. Its reliance on the look of other cinematic demons (such as The Exorcist’s Pazuzu) is obvious, and despite it having cloven hoofs, a tail, a forked tongue, and claws, the film doesn’t tie into any religious iconography or Biblical background. I get the impression we were supposed to be terrified at the sight of the thing, but – unsurprisingly – it was scariest when we only had an impression of it, such as the scene in which its silhouette stands in the corner of the room and points a Nosferatu-like claw at Dalton. Showing the demon near the end of the film seated in its fully-lit toymaking room while a jaunty tune played was effective, but it also immediately humanized it – why would a demon enjoy happy music? Why would it create or collect toys? Does it have other hobbies? It seems as though there was a mythology or backstory for the creature that was left on the cutting room floor. Someone should have hired Guillermo del Toro to design this thing if it was going to move around in the light where we could see it clearly; he would have been able to create a more grotesque figure who inspires revulsion just by its appearance, like the famous “Pale Man” from Pan’s Labyrinth, instead of the painted-face pastiche we get.

Possibly the most skin-crawling scene in the film comes when Elise is invited into Dalton’s room and senses the demon perched on the ceiling above her. Horrified and transfixed, she dictates its appearance to one of two bumbling assistants, who frantically sketches the beast she describes. Her hushed muttering (of which only pieces are clearly audible) is very effective, and the scene works because it relies on our imagination to form the horrible visage she sees. Of course, when we actually see it, it dampens the effect considerably – and isn’t helped by the fact that the demon’s red and black face resembles a woebegone Darth Maul.

Shaye’s portrayal of Elise is the real selling point here, and hers is probably the strongest performance in the film. The inclusion of the squabbling technicians, played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, is an odd and welcome touch that brings some much-needed character to the film, but the main players – Renai and Josh – are curiously underdeveloped. There are setups that have no payoff: the rising marital tension between the pair, several scenes in which Renai plays piano and composes music, overt suggestions that Josh is a dishonest or disloyal husband, and, strangely, distinct representations of the characters’ vanity (Josh bemoans a grey hair, Renai applies liberal skin cream). These scenes hang loosely in the film with no purpose except to serve as clumsy character construction, but they hardly invest the film with any stakes or motivation. The only thing that seems to circle back around is Josh being camera-shy, which is explained by Elise as a way to dissuade the spirit which haunts him from entering our world.

Insidious delivers very solid scares in its first half and, despite the half-baked characterization and worldbuilding of the second half, coalesces into a satisfyingly creepy flick that could have been truly excellent with a stronger script and more risky creature design. I was therefore delighted to learn that after the release of Insidious, Wan took some time to learn these lessons.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring is a much more technically proficient film, with a stronger script, better camerawork, more affecting performances, and more convincing scares. Wan sticks to his guns, with a similar “family moves into a haunted house and experiences paranormal occurrences and demonic possessions” setup, but this time it’s “based on true events”, following the recorded cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson again, with his wife played by a much more believable Vera Farmiga). Wan takes a more measured approach to the pacing and cinematography here, and it pays off in spades – the film dials up the tension and holds it at maximum for extended sequences, and like the best Asian horror films creates a permeating sense of dread, where every gloomy sepia-tone shot creates unease, even when the film is busy building character or moving along the plot.

The “based on true events” selling point must always be taken with a generous dose of salt, but really works to the film’s advantage through the period setting (convincingly sold by Livingston’s “all-American, plaid-shirted seventies dad” performance and Wilson’s formidable sideburns) and the relative plausibility of the film’s events, especially when taken alongside the more outlandish Insidious. The story’s ties to real practices of exorcism and demonology are supported through exceptional performances by Farmiga and Wilson as the Warrens, who are portrayed as both a supportive young couple and a pair of formidable experts in a neglected field. Ed continually asks Lorraine to let him tackle each horrifying occurrence alone, as he knows her clairvoyance leaves her vulnerable to the corruptive influence of the spirits they chase, “taking a piece of her with them every time” – but she remains steadfast in her desire to help the Perrons, motivated by her sympathy for fellow mother Carolyn Perron. The script plays with this maternal theme throughout, beginning with the real-life assertion that an accused Salem witch named Bathsheba sacrificed her week-old newborn to Satan and cursed all those who would seek to claim her land, and extending to the central characters of Lorraine and Carolyn. The climax centres around the possessed Carolyn receiving an unauthorized exorcism from Ed, with Lorraine imploring Carolyn’s spirit to latch on to the memory of her children she had previously shared. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes are careful to include this thematic connection in a way that isn’t obtrusive, showing a remarkable amount of restraint for what might easily be considered another disposable genre flick.

Lili Taylor and Joey King in The Conjuring
And you could be forgiven for dismissing The Conjuring based on its fairly standard-issue genre elements. The mark of distinction separating the film from more vanilla horror entries is in that quality of restraint, in both the script and the work behind the camera. Every classic horror trick is pulled, from doors that creak open on their own and figures that stand in the shadows and disappear, to invisible forces that throw people around the room and shout in demonic voices. The difference is that these tricks are used in service of a story, and seldom repeated – and the effect, combined with the period setting, is more traditional than trite. The Conjuring feels like a forgotten classic from the seventies instead of a modern film.

Wan’s résumé doesn’t suggest that he can handle an ensemble cast with deftness, but he certainly does – the Perrons are convincingly portrayed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, and the film’s child actors excel, acting not simply as objects of interest or torment for the malevolent spirits in the house, but agents of the central plot as well. I was reminded of the Spanish film The Orphanage in the incorporation of childhood games into the paranormal happenings; in both films, a variant of hide-and-seek acts as a way for spirits to ingratiate themselves with living children and begin their infestation of the families living in their former homes. Even smaller roles, such as Shannon Kook and John Brotherton as hired hands who aid in setting up the Warrens’ equipment, are used effectively, with tiny character arcs of their own (Kook being the experienced teenage investigator who chides Brotherton’s tough-guy cop for his skepticism, both before and after the haunting).

Additionally, the film manages to find room for small details that help build character, and seemingly inconsequential setups that eventually provide satisfying payoffs. Lorraine’s daughter gives her a locket, for example, which is used later on as a token by which the witch can attack the girl in an effort to dissuade the Warrens from their investigation. Even the possessed doll Annabelle, who is used in the film’s opening sequence as a way to establish the characters of the Warrens and the general creepy tone of the film, becomes a part of the story later on (whether or not she deserves her own feature film is another matter, especially because she resembles a “horror movie doll” so much that it’s very hard to imagine anyone would be stupid enough to want to keep her around). The Conjuring proves that not all horror movies need cleave to either well-worn genre tropes or a completely outlandish story – it snuggles comfortably into a combined niche, where a well-written script portrayed by a strong cast can also perform as a genuinely frightening haunting movie. I’ll be craning my neck at every innocent knock and bump I hear for a good while.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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