CINEMA: News Weekly
The thinking Christian's horror film
, August 3, 2013
The Conjuring (rated MA 15+) is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
The devil will always cause a debate. Rational scoffers will dismiss him. Irrational artistes and the superstitious will have mixed feelings about him. But none will accept what simple folk know — that the devil exists, but can be beaten through the grace of God.
The Conjuring is an icily refreshing horror film. It does not rely on blood and gore, nor on characters so complicated, and comfortably uncommitted, that they seem to have walked out of a uni psychology class and onto a set to go on and on and on about “doubt”. The Conjuring is old-school, where the devil is discovered through rational means and then beaten by supra-rational ones. And it is based on a true story….
Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren are paranormal investigators. Ed is the only lay demonologist approved by the Catholic Church, and his wife has psychic sensitivities. Their mission is to examine strange happenings, and bring in the clergy if it’s proved there’s something amiss.
Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) Perron have moved into an isolated farmhouse with their five daughters. Strange happenings abound, and they go to the Warrens for help. And what the Warrens find is truly horrifying.
The Conjuring is garnering a “complicated” critical response. It’s already been called “the Scariest Film of 2013”, and watching it in a packed cinema confirms this. There was a lot of screaming and jumping and swearing when I went.
It is well-liked for its scare-quotient, which is shockingly high. But the critics have two problems.
The first is that — surprise, surprise — the film is not “original”, that it re-treads sequences from past masterworks like The Exorcist, Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. Yawn.
The second is that it is too conservative, with left-wing Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir going so far as to denounce it as the “most effective right-wing Christian film of the year”. It presents a rather too definite, anti-Enlightenment point of view for the liberal and lovely. O’Hehir admits that there was probably no such intention in the film, but he loathes it anyway.
It is almost certain that the director did not have a political agenda, but he did have an artistic one. James Wan is a Malaysian-Australian with a healthy and, sadly rare in the industry, respect for genre and craft. He is most famous for the Saw franchise.
The first Saw film was a restrained but relentless psychological thriller, a virtuosic masterpiece of plotting and absolutely not suitable for children. Sadly, its sequels, and the likes of Wolf Creek, led to one of the lowest breeds of horror, what’s charmingly referred to as “torture porn”.
Classic horror relies upon a keen understanding of the patterns that make up human nature, the parts we are supposed to have reasoned away, little things like morality and family.
They are morality tales hinging on sin and transgression. They tend not to be too complicated, as a narrative palette of greys — the Australian industry’s favourite colour scheme — tends to inspire depression rather than dread. They suggest rather than show.
The Conjuring follows this model expertly. Through clever constructions of images and a richly affective (sic) score, it assembles an eerie atmosphere upon a surface of normalcy. The clothes, the songs, the cars all hark back to a Brady Bunch 1970s; but the religious imagery harks back to older times.
The “conservative” Catholic commentary on this film has been surprisingly muted. For a start, there seems not to be that much, which is odd considering how explicitly pro-Catholic the film is. Sacramentals abound and the importance of sacraments is stressed throughout.
And one might have thought that Catholic reviewers would have been overjoyed at the blunt anti-abortion implications of the film — Satan likes mothers killing their children.
In all likelihood, they’ve not seen the movie… and yet those reviews that are out are less than enthusiastic. The film is accused of a slapdash respect for Church authority and of bad theology.
But The Conjuring is more theologically accurate than the acclaimed The Exorcist — a film with a disturbing approach to the demonic. Deliberate misrepresentations — claiming Ed was a sanctioned exorcist, when he was only a sanctioned demonologist; or that the laity cannot exorcise, which was only made canon law in 1985 — are cited against it.
This is not the place to examine the modern (mis)understandings of authority in the Catholic Church, but the Catholic critics seem more concerned with institutional procedures than for what purpose those procedures were instituted.
All these quibbles are minor. To conclude, it seems apt to quote the final title card of The Conjuring: “The fairy tale is true. The devil does exist. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
Symeon Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).