Sunday, 7 July 2013

THE CONJURING - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Audiences and critics desperate for non-formula summer fare settle for the dull formula of haunted house horror distinguished only by a fine cast working valiantly with middle of the road material that feels, on the surface, more original than the usual fare, but isn't.

The Conjuring (2013) **
Dir: James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston

Review By Greg Klymkiw

A working class family moves into a dream home in the country. Once they've loaded all their worldly goods into the spacious, but decidedly creaky old manor, Dad (Patrick Wilson) notices that their uncharacteristically-whimpering dog refuses to enter.

Gee, what could this mean? Might there be a problem?

"Ya think?" we answer with another question, in the parlance and manner of Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana.

Well, once all the bumps in the night start making themselves known, once a mysterious room in the cellar is found crammed with all manner of odd, creepy items (which in and of itself screams, "Get the fuck out of here!"), once Mom (Lili Taylor) keeps finding huge, painful bruises all over her body, once the kiddies are being grasped and pulled out of their beds by an unseen force, once Mom is home alone with a servant of Satan clumping about on its cloven hooves whilst hubby hits the road (he's a truck drivin' man, good buddy), it's pretty clear as crystal that there indeed might be some sort of a problem. Enter a couple of ghost hunters (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson) and before you know it, all hell breaks loose - literally - because the malevolent presence is not ghostly at all - but, wait for it, kiddies... you betcha! You got it! You win the Kewpie Doll! It's demonic - a presence as mighty as Satan himself.

Oh, and it's a true story.

Luckily, for us, The Conjuring presents another presence within its competently dull framework - one that's neither ghostly nor demonic, but is in fact that nice Ukrainian girl from New Jersey who's garnered a fair number of nominations and awards for some good films, but has, more often than not, appeared in a huge swath of mediocre and downright dreadful pictures. As per usual, though, she's riveting in everything and her performance here is just as terrific as one expects her work to be. This lady is never just cashing a paycheque.

In fact, I always hope with every movie she appears in, that Vera Farmiga, a beautiful, expressive and intense actress if there ever was one, will have finally nabbed a role to propel her to the kind of stardom earned by Meryl Streep at a similar stage in her career. In fact, Farmiga strikes me as having all the potential in the world to be the Streep of her generation. Alas, aside from always being so much better than the vast majority of films she's actually in, Farmiga still hasn't been blessed with a role in a movie equivalent to the likes of early Streep roles in The Deer Hunter or Kramer Vs. Kramer and as she's grown by leaps and bounds with every year, there's been a dearth of decent movies to match her formidable talent. The few good films she's been in (The Departed, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Farmiga takes a back seat to the male pyrotechnics (in the former) and, uh, the Holocaust and those cute little boys (in the latter). Her one genuinely great picture, Down to the Bone, was a few years ago now and relegated to indie status. Even her acclaimed and much-deserved Oscar-nominated performance in Jason Reitman's competently and almost agonizingly glib Up in the Air soars well above his picture which she elevated with her presence.

That The Conjuring is a big hit, fat with inexplicably ecstatic critical notices, might signal to the uninitiated that this is, indeed, IT. Well, her performance is unquestionably great, but once again, Farmiga is doing stellar work in an artistically cellar-dwelling picture. What might be the most positive outcome of this picture is that she'll now get a flurry of fine Streep-worthy roles in a passel o' decent pictures and possibly even gain more credibility for her burgeoning directing career.

As Lorraine Warren, the better half of the famous, real-life married couple who presided over a vast assortment of hauntings and demonic possessions, including the notorious Amityville Horror case, Farmiga stabs deeply into the role of the spiritual medium with a quietly nerve-jangled fervour. Like many great actors, she slices through flesh, fat, muscle and sinew, then hacks into the bone to reach the marrow. Here, though, it feels like Farmiga is doing more work than the connect-the-dots screenplay by twin brothers Chad and Cory Haynes who are responsible for writing some of the worst contemporary horror and suspense films including Whiteout, The Reaping and the utter dreck that is the House of Wax remake.

In fairness, while the screenplay for The Conjuring leaves a whole lot to be desired, it's practically a masterpiece compared to their previous efforts. For me, the most offensive story element is that the root of evil in the film is a demonic curse placed upon the land the home rests upon (and the surrounding areas) by a witch who murdered her children and committed suicide - resulting in a couple of centuries worth of hauntings, possessions and mysterious, often violent deaths. Look, I love horror movies - including several classics involving witches, but this is the 21st Century, folks, and we all acknowledge that women were abused, tortured and murdered by Christian zealots and the male patriarchy they represented to keep them in their place. The misogynistic aspects of the "evil" permeating the film is simply appalling.

I can deal with demons or Satan - though I'm usually more fond of ghosts - but using the female-hating trope of witchcraft as the origin of Satan's work is so boneheaded and frankly, given the film's popularity - especially, I suspect, amongst right-wing, God-Squad organized religion nuts - is tantamount to being little more than an insidious form of propaganda. This might not have been the intent of the screenwriting twins and director James Wan, but ignorance is frankly NEVER an acceptable defence. I'm all for bringing God and faith BACK into the equation of fighting evil in horror films, but the movie feels vaguely like Christian propaganda without the obsessive artistry of, for example, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Wan (Saw, Insidious) has never been an exciting director and frankly, to pull off demonic possession so that it REALLY knocks the wind out of you requires directors with some panache (Friedkin, Raimi, et al).

Wan's direction is certainly competent and he gets a few nods for attempting to create suspense via atmospheric horror rather than the usual pyrotechnics, but the screenplay is so boringly unoriginal that all we're finally left with IS Farmiga's richly layered performance. It's impossible to take one's eyes off her to such an extent that when she's not onscreen, the movie suffers immeasurably. Not that the other performances are bad, mind you - far from it - but the underlying material is so grocery-list-like that anyone surrounding the 110% served up by Farmiga is virtually blown away by her considerable gifts. Watson, Taylor and Livingston (as well as the rest of the cast) all acquit themselves admirably, but it's Farmiga who elevates her role and the material to stratospheric heights.

"The Conjuring" premiered at the FanTasia 2013 Film Festival in Montreal and opened to worldwide release via Warner Bros.