Scott: Let’s start with the most fundamental question about any horror movie: Did The Conjuring scare you? For me, the answer is emphatically “yes.” In fact, I kept count of how many times I got actual goosebumps watching it: four. That means big shock, followed by a shiver down my spine, followed by the hairs on my arm standing up. And while that shouldn’t necessarily be the criteria for a good horror movie—bad horror movies can go “Boo!” and shock you repeatedly—in this case it was a pleasure.
Tasha: Oh sure, it scared me. I didn’t get goosebumps, as far as I noticed, but I jumped and gasped and spent an appropriate amount of time internally cringing, and dreading whatever was going to happen next. But here are two things about that. First: I’m an easy scare. Movies have to work overtime to sell me on complicated emotional entanglements like romance or interdependence, but “Boo!” works on me every time. Second…
When I saw The Orphanage in a private critics’ screening room before its 2007 release, the moment it was over, one of my fellow critics started loudly griping about how he’d heard the movie was really scary, but that it didn’t frighten him at all. Chicago Film Critics Association President Dann Gire gave him the world’s driest look and said, “I was sitting right next to you, and your butt startled out of your seat at least three times during that film.” Whereupon the critic sputtered indignantly (yes, real people actually do this), but eventually got out, “That’s just adrenaline and muscle reaction! That doesn’t count as being scared!” I laughed at his consternation at the time, because he’d been caught out, and because I thought he was wrong, and that The Orphanage is not only beautifully made, but really terrifying. (It’s still one of my top five horror movies of all time.) But watching The Conjuring, I sympathized with that critic. I started, I flinched, I anticipated… but I didn’t walk away satisfied. Did you?
Scott: Hugely satisfied, as it happens. Director James Wan started his career inauspiciously with the first Saw, a gimmicky piece of schlock (with memorably terrible performances by Cary Elwes and Danny Glover) that’s had its reputation somewhat burnished by a franchise that sunk to much lower depths. He whiffed again with Dead Silence, but even there, you could see him attempting to bring classic horror elements (in this case, Universal Monster movies) into the 21st century—and firmly establishing ventriloquist dolls as a signature touch. (His Twitter handle is @creepypuppet.) He continued to improve with the nasty revenge film Death Sentence, which had the 1970s flavor of Charles Bronson by way of Travis Bickle. But it was the 2010 sleeper hit Insidious that finally won me over completely to his canny mix of old-school haunted-house effects, geeky references and crowd-pleasing humor, and wonderfully unhinged third acts.
The Conjuring strikes me as his best film to date, a refinement of Insidious that combines many of the same very specific ingredients: The idea of hauntings being “sticky” like gum, which makes it futile to simply flee the house; the team of oft-amusing “professionals” (Ghostbuster types in the earlier film, demonologists here) who use jerry-rigged, analog gadgetry to commune with the spirits; and a Grand Guignol unleashing of flying objects, jump-scares, and all-out spookery in the third act. I had a blast with The Conjuring: It scared the hell out of me, but Wan wasn’t trying too hard to be dark or “edgy.” He seemed to want the audience to have a good time, first and foremost, and I was grateful for that. Where did it go wrong with you? Did it just fail to stick the landing? Or do its problems run deeper?
Tasha: I do think it failed to stick the landing, with an anticlimactic, abrupt ending that leaves a lot of questions—and not the thoughtful-mysterious kind, but, “Wait, after all that buildup and detail, the film is never going to address any of this stuff?”
But we can get into spoilers later. My dissatisfaction with the film isn’t limited to the end: It has profound structural issues. It starts with an absolutely killer first image, but then it turns out that we’re watching a 1968 interview with people targeted by a demon. Then we enter a flashback to their encounter. Then it turns out we’re actually watching a film of the interview with them, being shown to a college class by professional paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Then we cut from the college class to a series of consciously retro, 1970s-style titles introducing Ed and Lorraine and presenting The Conjuring as the story of their most “malevolent” case study, as if we were watching a vintage documentary. Then we cut out of all this to spend time in 1971, with the Perron family and the haunted house Ed and Lorraine ended up investigating. This elaborate series of narrative shells and fake-outs gets across relevant information, and it’s disorienting, which may be what Wan and his screenwriters (twin brothers Carey and Chad Hayes, who also scripted The Reaping and House Of Wax) intended. But it’s lumpy and distracting and silly as well, not at all conducive to the tone of the film, which in no other way comes across as self-referential, self-conscious, or disarming. And there’s no payoff for any of these shells; they don’t serve narrative functions past exposition, and none of them have any closure later, so why not use a more straightforward, less showy, less erratic introduction?
That “more is more is not enough” mentality extends to a lot of the film: It has so many horror tropes packed in that it reminded me strongly of the first season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story, which descended into deliberate camp via horror-movie trope overload. In The Conjuring, we have demons and possession, but also ghosts, and witchcraft, and the creepy-doll subplot (which could have been its own film, and felt like it was edited in from a separate project), and creepy children, and dead animals, and an entire Cabin In The Woods-style room full of haunted objects, and a psychic who sees visions of the future… It felt like watching eight horror films at once, and none of them were particularly well-served by the conceptual density. Was there any point during this film where you felt like enough was enough, or you wished Wan and the Hayeses would focus on one plotline or bit of business in particular?
Scott: Let’s my address your first paragraph above: You’re pulling a dastardly writer’s trick, Tasha, and I won’t stand for it! You’re making the opening of The Conjuring seem ridiculously convoluted, what with the nesting-doll effect of tucking a flashback into a film-within-a-film and all that jazz, but it’s all just a clever piece of misdirection. We get all this business about the creepy doll named Annabelle and the backstory about the Warrens, and then Wan and the Hayeses leave it behind to focus on the Perron family moving into a creepy new house and having problems completely unrelated to the creepy doll or anything else from the closet full of supernatural dynamite Ed Warren keeps in his house. So while we’re getting freaked out by all the spooky things happening to the Perrons, the filmmakers are making us wonder how Annabelle and the Warrens will figure into the story—and presumably amplify the scares in what is already a scary movie.
It sounds to me like the two of us had opposing reactions to the same narrative strategy. You’re saying, “Ugh. This movie is unfocused and overstuffed.” And I’m saying, “Woo, this movie is haywire!” Having all of these elements in play—the creepy doll, the demonology and exorcism, the clairvoyance, the sleepwalking, the witchcraft, the infanticide, the hidden rooms and passageways, the ghostbusters—was part of a deliberate strategy on Wan’s part to spook the audience from every direction, much like living inside a haunted house. The superb craft and performances make the difference here—and we can get into those particulars in a bit—but I fundamentally liked the pile-up of horror elements. The Conjuring pulls out all stops, so naturally it needs a lot of stops to pull out, no?
Tasha: No indeed. Here’s what I enjoyed and admired about The Conjuring: the scary stuff, where Wan and the Hayeses stop all the throat-clearing and opening bookends, and focus on the Perron family haunting. Once the film finally gets there, the tension builds fast, and the filmmakers are tremendously adept with foreshadowing in little ways, to the point where everything onscreen, no matter how innocuous, has to be gauged as a potential threat. Mom using a big, sharp pair of scissors? Uh-oh. Wardrobe in the corner looking a little ominous? That’s gonna be an issue. Little sister finds a music box that plays a slow, sad jangly tune? Kill it with fire! Dad finds a barely lit, cobwebby basement full of creepy items, and casually wonders why it was boarded up? Grab the hand of the person you’re sitting next to, even if you don’t know them, because things are about to get bad. I loved that aspect of The Conjuring’s overstuffedness: Past a certain point of tension, every object in the world is potentially scary, and Wan does a great job of highlighting those objects to build tension, without telegraphing too hard or too clumsily.
By contrast with that efficiency, the film’s trope overload just seems sloppy to me, like the filmmakers are throwing everything at the wall to see what works, especially in that opening. I’m “making it seem” ridiculously convoluted because I found it ridiculously convoluted. Annabelle and the Warrens do become important, but there’s no reason the information about them couldn’t have come later in the film, when it became necessary, and without the strange, unsupported bells and whistles—particularly that 1970s faux-doc text. For me, the whole opening of the film felt like a series of open-parentheses that never get closed, and a long, unnecessary delay before we get to the fireworks factory.
Scott: I completely disagree about the placement of Annabelle and the Warrens’ backstory. For one, the Annabelle threat would have seemed totally out of the blue if the film hadn’t teased us with it earlier, and beyond that, I think it’s fun to have that information in the back of your mind when there’s a disturbance at the Perron house. (Pun intended in that last phrase for R.E.M. fans.) And while I’ll grant you that much of the mythology is silly and seemingly made up on the fly, the overall strategy of dumping all that supernatural business into the script opens up the possibility for more scares (and more varied ones at that) and an explosion of paranormal activity in the third act.
But lest I give anyone the impression that The Conjuring is a careless piece of filmmaking, I think there’s evidence that Wan is in complete control. For one, he establishes the space extremely well, which is simple-seeming business that too few horror, suspense, or action films accomplish these days. Even now, days after seeing it, I know the layout of the Perron house as if it were my own, and the effect for viewers is that they know the danger areas, like the bedroom with the armoire of doom near the staircase, or the secret cellar of doom off the kitchen. This adds that extra layer of tension during those hide-and-go-clap games the Perrons like to play. Wan also gets fine contributions from his cast, particularly Wilson, who has a wonderful seen-it-all swagger, and Lili Taylor, who gets every beat right as the distressed Perron mother. These are just some of the differences between a mediocre haunted-house movie and a very good one like The Conjuring. Can I at least get you to concede that it’s above par? And when you’re ready, can we fight about the ending?
Tasha: Oh, it’s absolutely above par. Once it finally gets down to the meat of the story, it’s taut and effective. It completely evades the problems I often have with modern horror: the disposable, paper-thin characters; the sense that you’re rooting for them to die; the sick glee at blood and pain.
Before we talk about the ending, though, can we talk about the middle a bit? One other issue I had with The Conjuring was how familiar it all feels. There’s a little girl reminiscent of Carol Anne from Poltergeist, who has a special relationship with the haunting, and (spoiler!) at one point disappears into thin air, kidnapped into another place by a ghost, as in Poltergeist. The kids’ spooky “hide-and-go-clap” game provokes some great scares that would be scarier if I hadn’t seen a similar and more terrifying game in The Orphanage. The possession sequence at the end recalls any number of recent possession movies, the eerie music box recalls The Haunting, among other things, and the whole film feels a little Amityville Horror. That’s the problem with trope overload: The feeling that you’ve been there before. While many of these individual pieces worked fine for me, as they stacked up, I started feeling a paucity of creativity in the film. Did your familiarity with these story elements ever get in the way?
Scott: There’s a thin line between “homage” and “rip-off,” I guess. Insidious basically turned into Poltergeist in the final act, as a team of analog-equipment-armed supernatural experts trying to summon a kid from another dimension. Wan has never been shy about paying tribute (read: borrowing heavily from) 1970s and 1980s cinema, and he also isn’t being sneaky about it. I sat up in my chair when the title The Conjuring came scrolling up in big retro type, for example. But I can see, to some extent, what you mean about a “paucity of creativity”: If he’s going to do nothing but recycle tropes from past horror films, then what gives The Conjuring any distinction? Will future James Wans look to The Conjuring for inspiration, or will it seem like secondhand trash?
My defense, beyond arguing that Wan’s sheer exuberance is his stylistic signature, is that haunted-house movies have a classic cinematic language that hasn’t changed much since films like The Haunting, and probably shouldn’t be changed, either. Creaky floorboards and hinges, slamming doors, suspicious noises behind the wall: These are the ingredients to this particular genre stew, and what matters is how well a filmmaker exploits them. I’d say Wan does it exceptionally well. (That amazing shot of the laundered sheet landing over an invisible figure before the wind shoots it skyward strikes me as an instant classic, and a wonderful throwback to how we think of ghosts.) And if you want evidence of that, re-watch The Amityville Horror some time. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.
Tasha: I’d say it’s both. I mean, there’s nothing new under the sun and all. One of my favorite horror movies of the last 20 years, The Ring, is a remake and a repurposing of Asian horror tropes, and as innovative as I found The Orphanage, it uses the same language you’re talking about. But there’s a big difference between reconstituting and recycling. And there’s a big difference between using the language of horror, like creaky floors and mysterious boarded-up spaces and terrifying things glimpsed briefly in mirrors, and borrowing entire segments of a story, like the “little girl stolen by a ghost while other supernaturals distract the parents with mayhem” segment in The Conjuring. A lot of songs use the same chord progression, too, but The Conjuring isn’t just using familiar chords, it’s repurposing entire verses from previous hits.
To veer this back to the positive, since I did enjoy the film, even though I enjoyed it less than you: One of the things I appreciated most about The Conjuring was Ed and Lorraine’s partnership as the paranormal-investigator couple. That relationship is complicated in a way that exceeds the storytelling bounds of this movie—they have a pre-film history together that heavily affects their choices, including a recent personal setback that makes Ed extra-protective, and Lorraine fragile but particularly determined. When The Conjuring deals with them, it feel like this is just the latest installment in the Ed And Lorraine: Ghost Chasers TV series—maybe the movie that comes after the six-season run. I respect the way they push back and forth with each other about plans, like an old married couple would, but I also found one of the more innovative things about the film to be the way they get involved with the Perrons early, suggesting that they’re going to fix everything with their superior experience and knowledge. They quickly get in over their heads, but unlike their equivalents in films like Poltergeist or The Exorcist, they don’t make a hash of things, and they keep fighting. That was the freshest part of the film for me.
That ending, though. I know The Conjuring is meant to be based on a real-life story, and real life rarely wraps up everything neatly. But this was an awful lot of big, emotional, terrifying buildup… to a woman barfing, and a group hug. We’re not going to deal with the fact that the demon hasn’t been defeated, just driven out of its host? Or that the place is still full of restless, miserable ghosts? Why did Ed shut the little boy ghost’s magical music box into their chamber of evil devices, when the little boy was just a plaintive, lonely spirit and had nothing to do with the real problem? Watching Ed put the music box away as though signaling “Case closed!” was like seeing a paramedic deal with a gut-shot patient by putting a Band-Aid on his shoulder and saying, “We’re done here!”
Scott: I’ll have to remind you of the distinction between recycling and reconstituting the next time you object to a Brian De Palma movie. But I get what you mean about much of The Conjuring not seeming “fresh” and appreciate that you found some novelty in the Warrens’ relationship. What I don’t get is your objection to the ending, which I interpreted much differently than you did. Wan isn’t leaving us believing that everything’s tidily wrapped up now that the evil spirit has been driven out of its host. He’s simply leaving us, which is a gesture I appreciate. So many modern horror films have to exit on a stinger before the closing credits, where all seems well until… kablammo! (Cut to black. Wait for the sequel.) The Conjuring is content to let the audience remain unsettled, suspecting that things are far from okay. I think that’s more disturbing for the viewer, because the tension hangs in the air without being resolved. But even if you’re right and the film is giving the impression that everything’s hunky-dory, weren’t you relieved not to get that standard cheap jump-scare at the end? It’s the classy way to go out.
Tasha: Well, there we can agree. Hooray for no jump-scare, no nihilistic “You didn’t escape after all, screw you!” button at the end, no takebacks on what tiny little victory the characters can claim. I do enjoy bittersweet or open endings, but this one didn’t feel open so much as interrupted. If they were going to end with, “And the house is still haunted, and there’s nothing we can do to help these lost and lonely spirits,” I wish the characters had acknowledged the issue with a line or two. Or given us some reason to believe this “sticky” haunting won’t just keep following the Perrons. Or put a “Warning: Haunted” sign out front on behalf of the next helpless family to wander along. Or closed out any of the opening parentheses from the beginning, by returning to the “this is a documentary” frame or the classroom frame. Given all the borrowing from Poltergeist, I wish Wan had learned Poltergeist’s lesson that after a long, hard fight, the audience could use a little denouement, a moment to reflect before getting booted back into the real world. To paraphrase Bart Simpson on horror stories, “You know what’s more interesting than nothing? Anything!”