Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Jul 27, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

by Will Ross

I admire James Wan for his wrongness: his off-kilter compositions, his distracting POV swaps, his drunken long takes, his often counter-intuitive editing. Wan closely follows the adage that if an image is unbalanced, we expect it to be rebalanced. When it is balanced, we are off-guard. This may be a bit reductive, but we can think of the former state as one of “mood-building,” and the former as the optimal condition for jump scares. Wan has a brilliant contextual grasp of these mechanics and their applications, which is what makes his direction the best part of most everything he does. His material, however, has never been up to his level; three of his first four films were written by Leigh Whannell, and bless Whannell for thinking big, but his scripts tend to take his ideas in a lot of misguided and directions (especially Saw, their most famous and worst collaboration to date). So it’s delightful to see Wan working with other screenwriters, and though Chad and Carey Hayes’s scripting for The Conjuring isn’t about to win any awards, it is competent through and through, and provides a more-than-adequate platform for Wan to get his scare on without distractions. (And thank god Wan didn’t get his way with retitling it "The Warren Files", because seriously. The Conjuring.) The Conjuring is the “true” (cough, cough) story of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), world-famous paranormal investigators who are called to help a family of seven, whose recently purchased backwoods farmhouse has turned out to be haunted to shit. They turn to Ed and Lorraine, the latter of whom had a traumatic experience with an exorcism months before, and the former of whom would rather she not take the risk of that happening again. You can probably work out the story from there. The characters are by and large functional and the story beats fairly familiar. But Wan wrings out every ounce of tension he can from each beat, thriving with unconventional camera placement, and drawing strong performances from his actors. Farmiga and Wilson are real-deal actors, and afford their characters more performative respect than they perhaps deserved on paper, rewarding them with a sense of duty and experience, and of being scared to hell. But the soundtrack is all-important in horror, and happily sound designer Joe Dzuban and composer Joseph Bizara have crafted an extremely effective sonic scare-zone that expertly paces its creaks and warbles and screeches. Bishara’s score, whose primary motif is a clustering of brass instruments wavering in the space of a semitone, certainly musically complex, but there is consistent textural respect for each scene, and frankly, those brass clusters are creepy as hell. Most thankfully, neither the score nor the general sound mix suffer from the extreme loud-quiet-loud dynamics that plague modern horror films (though it has its share of jump scares). Some scenes take the POV of a 16mm camera, and the best of these — a flashback to the disastrous exorcism that traumatized Lorraine — may have been my favourite scene in the film, intercutting between a nervous-looking Wilson and the cramped, grubby footage, where Lorraine senses a force of darkness that wrecks her into a screaming mess. There’s a sense of real dread there, a sense that even though this case is the worst they have ever seen, there is something worse out there, something she sees that is unfathomably, unbearably evil. We never find out what that is.


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