Projectile vomiting? Check. Bodies and furniture levitating? Check. Traumatized children? Check. Scarred flesh and creepy contact lenses? Check. Catholic priest? Check. Like most contemporary horror movies, The Conjuring fulfills all the requisite genre expectations established decades ago by The Exorcist. If 1939’s Gone With the Wind stood as the mother of all Hollywood costume dramas through the 1940s and 50s, then William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster continues to be the model for every subsequent shocker up to today. The Exorcist‘s cinematic legacy is huge; too bad.
From 2013, The Conjuring was favorably reviewed as an old-school fright flick, distinct from the repellent wave of “torture porn” pictures like Cabin In the Woods and Saw (even though it had the same director, James Wan, as the latter). The Conjuring, hyped as “inspired by true events” – take that as you will – is about a house possessed by the spirit of a Seventeenth-Century witch and the haunting of the happy family who’ve unsuspectingly moved in. It thus joins the ranks of numerous latter-day exorcism films, including Lost Souls, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism and The Devil Inside, all of which purport to show authentic details of demonic infestation within people and/or places.
The problem is that those authentic details, codified by The Exorcist, are in fact almost completely made up. It’s the same in modern depictions of zombies (e.g. The Walking Dead), which reference George A. Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead as if it was a pioneering documentary rather than a low-budget fictional feature. Likewise, The Conjuring strains to be “realistic” when it is really only hewing closely to earlier storytelling conventions: invading demons usually target old houses; they have elaborate back stories which go back hundreds of years; they abuse kids; they have growly voices and are gross; and they have a long-running grudge against the Catholic church. We’re meant to accept all these clichés as credible evidence of supernatural phenomena – the movie’s “paranormal researchers,” played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, certainly do – yet no one ventures any alternative diagnoses (say, fraud, religious mania, or seeing too many derivative horror pictures). In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, framed around a murder trial after the title character dies in the course of the ritual, the notion of malevolent spirits was at least put to an objective legal test – not here. The Conjuring will most appeal to people who love scary movies, rather than people who appreciate intelligent ones.
What made The Exorcist so effective was how gradually its characters were forced to accept the outmoded Christian tenet of demonic possession. Other explanations for Regan MacNeil’s behavior – medical, pharmaceutical, psychiatric – were first offered and then disproved, until the horrifying truth could no longer be avoided. That plot may have been far-fetched, in the end, but the filmmakers skilfully distracted the audience from its skepticism. The Conjuring, on the other hand, is credulous from the start; the basic unlikelihood of witches, demons, poltergeists and possession is never acknowledged. The next generation of directors and screenwriters would do well to reinvent the horror category by dropping the staples of the past and challenging rational viewers to truly believe the unbelievable, rather than once again satisfying them with stereotypes.
Postscript: I see The Conjuring 2, also directed by James Wan, will be out in June 2016. Judging from the trailer, it looks like more of the same: spooked kids in their bedrooms, malevolent spirits, households in turmoil, et cetera. Oh, and inverted crosses. Can’t forget those.