On Saturday night, I watched The Conjuring. It has its moments — if you’ve seen the original trailer, you’ve seen the best of them — but it also falls into a lot of the same traps as Insidious before it. That’s not surprising, in that it’s by the same director, but while James Wan gets a lot of things right, and he crafts some genuinely well-executed scares, the movie ultimately just grows a little tedious, and it’s bogged down in half-sketched mythology. Explaining a ghost almost always makes it less frightening. Like Insidious, this movie is both very smart and very dumb about what’s scary.
Part of the problem is that it’s framed somewhat as a biopic, of “paranormal investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren. They’re well cast — I don’t think any movie with Vera Farmiga in it can be totally bad — but as characters they’re a distraction more than anything else. Just once, I want a horror movie that says up front, “The following is based on total bullshit,” rather than, unconvincingly, “based on a real story.*” Not least of all because any story with the Warrens at the center would be immediately suspect even if I believed in ghosts. There’s a throw-away joke at the very end of the movie where Lorraine says, “There’s a case out on Long Island he wants us to check out” — a knowing wink to their most famous case, the one on which they built their reputation, the Amityville Horror house. What the film doesn’t hint at, of course, is how thoroughly that case has been debunked (despite the books and bad movies), and the reputation along with it. If anything, the Warrens are depicted in The Conjuring as saintly and selfless, with evidence so incredibly compelling and freely shared it’s amazing that anyone could possibly not believe what they say is true.
My real problem, though, was it just wasn’t scary.
After that, I spent a few hours capping, probably the closest I’ll come this year to a Halloween party.
On Sunday, I wrote this:
The subject was bound to the chair, had been for the past hour, unmoving and unresponsive. Had it been anyone else, Markov would have assumed the subject was dead, had expired sometime during the last battery of tests, and that the slow arrythmic blip blip blip that monitored its breathing and heart-rate were nothing except echoes, either of his own faulty hearing or of faulty, misreporting machines. But he knew this subject too well, had been warned about its behavior too many times to think this was anything but playing possum. It could control its reflexes, but not perfectly, could slow its pulse and breathing, but not stop them entirely. Markov knew that, if anything, the subject was just biding its time, hoping that he, Markov, would make a mistake, get too close, assume the possum had passed on, and not for the first time he was grateful for the force field that circled the chair and the subject both.
“You can’t trust anything they say,” Andrew had said. “Some of them, they’ve learned our language, adaptive behaviors. They even look human.” This was only a month before one of them had escaped, briefly, from its cell, had taken Andrew and a fellow researcher hostage and, in the final shoot-out, skinned both of the two men alive. That, even more than Andrew’s words of warning, had convinced Markov that simply looking human didn’t make them human; they were beasts, angry and violent and dangerous. Lying still for half an hour certainly didn’t change that.
Sometimes he wondered if death wasn’t too good for these mutants.
But there was so much to learn from their behavior, their anatomy, the strange tricks that nature had played to enable them to live, unassisted, on this backwater planet. It was an impossible jungle out there, deadly in ways that Markov and his team had not even begun to count, and yet they lived, these mutants; they thrived. Once they had been human — even Andrew, even Markov, would have admitted to that. The evidence was too great, the branches of their shared family tree too well laid out, even if the history, the actual events that had split those branches in such different directions, remained elusive and unclear. But that made the work they were doing here more important; it did not make the mutants any less expendable.
The subject began to stir, perhaps accepting, finally, that Markov was not going to lower the force field, that the scientist would offer it no means of escape. Markov smiled and returned to his work.
Then on Monday, I worked, moved a dresser across the room, and wrote this. That’s about it, really.
* My favorite recent example of this is the trailer for Nothing Left to Fear, which claims to be “Inspired by the legend of Stull, Kansas.” As near as I can tell, the movie isn’t actually about any of those urban legends, so the trailer could just as easily have said, “We read about a spooky thing and wrote a movie that’s spooky too.” Actually, I think more movies — non horror movies — should come with disclaimers or title cards that announce their loose basis: “Based on the author’s vague memories of a TV show she used to watch.” “Inspired by a pleasant walk the director took with his dog.”
That said, a friend has tried to convince me that Nothing Left to Fear is actually pretty good. And it has Clancy Brown in it, who we all know can do no wrong.