Hope Lies At The Edinburgh Film Festival – Dispatches From The Field #4

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The  Edinburgh Film Festival might be over for another year but Rob Girvan still has a couple of loose ends to tie-up. First, this review of James Wan’s The Conjured. You can follow Rob on Twitter if you like.

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James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) follows up his 2010 horror hit Insidious with The Conjuring, another take on the haunted house film. Much like Insidious, it is a noble effort, let down by strange need to make turn the third act into an over the top funhouse.

Set in the 1970s, and supposedly based on a true story, the film stars Patrick Wilson (making his return from Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (who is also something of a horror veteran having previously starred in the magnificent Orphan) as a husband and wife paranormal investigation team. Called on to help a family being terrorised by an unseen entity, the pair soon encounter something far worse than they ever expected….

From House On Haunted Hill, to The Shining and The Amityville Horror, the haunted house story has provided some of the most effective moments in the horror genre. The Conjuring, with its 1970s setting and tale of a family being terrorised by an unseen spook (or demon in the case of the film), harks back to these golden ages of horror cinema.

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James Wan is a very talented director, and he knows how to effectively build moments of horror. Both Insidious and The Conjuring are terrific at building up tension. Quiet rooms. Flickering shadows. The sound of creaking wood. Noises in the distance. This is where both films are at their strongest. 

Unfortunately, Wan can’t help but let his films go off the rails in the final act, when the “mystery” is solved. It just isn’t scary. I haven’t yet looked up the true case that the film was based on, but I suspect that it didn’t quite end in the same way as the film, with its exorcisms and floating chairs.  

It is hard to not think of the famous BBC mockumentary Ghostwatch when watching The Conjuring. Both pieces share a family in peril (interestingly both sets of children are all girls), who come from a working class background. They are both excellent at building an internal mythology. But where they divert is that Ghostwatch only goes crazy in the final two minutes (namely a possessed Michael Parkinson) – a silly flourish to remind you, that yes, this was all made up. 

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The Conjuring is frustratingly close to be being an all-timer. But with comedy sidekicks, ghosts that appear far too often and a pretty anti-climactic conclusion, it falls short.  When I recall my favourite moments in Insidious I don’t think about the Darth Maul looking demon in the third act. I think about the ghost of a boy dancing to a creepy Tiny Tim song (is there any other kind of Tiny Tim song). Shivers.  

On a more positive note the acting across the board is very strong, with Lili Taylor (playing the mother of the family) in particular being a standout and reminding us what a talented actress she is. And it is refreshing to see a non-franchise horror film which doesn’t rely too heavily on special effects or gore. 

James Wan will next be taking on the challenge of directing Fast and Furious 7. On the back of The Conjuring, he certainly has the ability to create effective crowd pleasers. He just needs a stronger script and more confidence in his abilities to generate fear for the entire running time of a film. He is capable of delivering a great horror film. It is just a shame The Conjuring isn’t the one.

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