This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, The Last Jedi.
The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.
The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why.
- The Conjuring is, first and foremost, extremely boring. I’m always a bit wary of calling something boring, and horror films most of all: too often people dismiss a horror film as boring if it doesn’t have the regulation number of scares doled out at the expected pace. There are lots of real people in the world who think The Exorcist is boring, despite being both the scariest film ever made and an engrossing character-driven drama besides. But The Conjuring is incredibly, seriously boring.
- And that’s not, for the record, because it’s an old-school slow-burn and a steady diet of modern jump-scare horror has dulled my palette. Quite the opposite. The Conjuring is as by-the-numbers as you can get. If you have ever, ever seen a haunted house movie, you have seen The Conjuring. I expected it to be elevated by some spark of life just by virtue of being the first in the series, but the whole thing is extremely rote, absolutely refusing to fuck with the formula. It’s one thing to follow genre formulas if you execute them in a particularly brilliant way, but The Conjuring feels like it doesn’t even understand the formula it’s following: it doesn’t understand why these parts are meant to slot together, what emotional reaction they’re supposed to evoke. It just follows the formula for its own sake, like it was made on a conveyor belt: here’s where the little girl gets spooked and her disbelieving parents try to calm her down, here’s the part where they foolishly go into the ominous basement alone, here’s the part where a scary witch will jump out, beat-for-beat when you expect her to.
- The film is based on a true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) helping the Perron family, whose house is haunted. (It is, of course, based on a true story in the way all “true story” horror films are, i.e. basically not at all.) We open on them interviewing some women about their experience with a demonic doll, which turns out to be footage they’re showing to a packed college class. There’s a couple of big problems right off the bat: The Conjuring is set in the 1970s, yet the footage they showed the class is shot in smooth, digital widescreen, apparently using the same cameras that shot the actual film in 2013. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, really, but it strikes me as the height of laziness to not even slap a vintage filter on it.
- That’s not to say the film lacks style. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but its camera moves with fluid ease and the effects generally look good. But, as in this opening sequence, there’s a kind of disconnect between content and form: they’re not in service of one another in a meaningful way. It’s a perfectly fine sequence, but it doesn’t make sense for it to look the way it does in the context of the story. It means that what could be quite a good horror sequence is, instead, really distracting.
- The second problem is… what kind of college is this? What kind of class is this? What is happening? There’s a similar scene later on, where Ed and Lorraine show footage of an exorcism to another packed lecture hall. (They do add a vintage filter this time.) Ed writes the “three stage of demonic activity” on the blackboard: INFESTATION, OPPRESSION, POSSESSION. If the first scene could be written off as Ed and Lorraine being invited to a college speak more or less as a goof – one of the students asks them who they are – this later scene makes it clear that they regularly teach a class. On demonology?
- The whole film is incredibly credulous in this respect. If you remember The Exorcist, which was made around the time that The Conjuring is set, exorcisms are by then incredibly rare and treated with scepticism even by church authorities. In The Conjuring, footage of exorcisms is shown in college classes about demonology, which are packed out with eager raised hands. On-screen text introduces Ed as “the only non-ordained Demonologist recognised by the Catholic church”, which is such a nonsense collection of words that I laughed out loud.
- It is, obviously, not a problem that ghosts and demons in The Conjuring are unambiguously real. It’s a movie. But it fundamentally misunderstands how to treat fantastical supernatural events in a way that makes them actually scary. The film operates on a presumption that to permit any scepticism will undermine the horror, but the opposite is true. Once Ed and Lorraine get to the Perrons’ house, nobody doubts for even half a second that demons and ghosts and witches are 1. real, 2. in this house, 3. responsible for all the strange goings on in the house. There’s one brief scene earlier in the film, in which Ed and Lorraine conduct an investigation and confirm that the supposed ghostly voice in a house was just the floorboards creaking, clearly meant to establish that they’re not cranks. But it’s a box-ticking exercise: now that the film has established that Ed and Lorraine look into logical explanations, we don’t need to see them do that ever again.
- The door in the Perrons’ house bangs during the night, so they have the doors tied closed with rope. Ed asks if it knocks in threes – Roger (Ron Livingston), the dad, says it does – and so Ed says it’s the demons mocking the trinity. They don’t check for a draught. Roger says there’s a bad smell, like rotten meat, and Ed immediately says that it’s a sign of the devil or whatever. No one checks if there might be a dead animal trapped somewhere. Literally everything is straight-away a sign that the house is haunted. The Ed and Lorraine who checked if the creaky attic floorboards echo through the old pipes are long gone, never to be seen again.
- The Perrons have no doubts, either. The lone voice of skepticism is, bizarrely, a police officer, who is, bizarrely, assisting with the investigation. I don’t think there is any explanation whatsoever as to why a police officer would be helping out some paranormal investigators. He’s in uniform, too, so it’s not like he’s doing this when he’s off-duty. So, off-screen, a police sergeant assigned him to work on this. With the paranormal investigators. Anyway, the cop basically goes “I don’t believe in ghosts” and Ed and Lorraine’s assistant is aghast. The pair of them are a comic relief double act, but every gag lands like a lead balloon. The cop eventually gets his face bitten by a ghost or something in the big final showdown, and the assistant jokingly asks if a draught did that to his face. He really got shown what’s what, is the tone, as if it was absurd for the cop to ever suggest that ghosts mightn’t be real and in the house right now.
- This all means that it’s very difficult to buy into the ghosts and demons. “Suspension of disbelief” is a dumb idea, because that’s just not how fiction actually works: I have never watched a film or read a novel and forgot that is what I was doing, and instead believed that true events were unfolding on screen or on the page. If The Conjuring took place in a universe where everyone more or less knows demons and ghosts are real, that would be fine. But it purports to take place in something closely resembling the real world, then has characters exclusively react in ways that no-one from the real world would react. A lot of critics drew comparisons between The Conjuring and The Exorcist or Poltergeist, but in those films, the characters cling to rationality until things escalate to such a degree that they can’t anymore. In The Conjuring, the family are all paper-thin characters who need virtually no convincing to believe they’re living in a haunted house.
- That’s to The Conjuring’s detriment in two ways: firstly, it makes it harder to engage with the horror because no-one reacts to it in a way that makes you buy in. Proper scares in movies come much less from seeing something scary than from what you don’t see – the shark in Jaws and all that – and a huge part of selling scares you don’t see is the actors’ reactions, so when the characters react in strange, unbelievable ways, it deflates the horror. This isn’t the actors’ fault: Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga turn in solid performances as Ed and Lorraine, if far from the best of their careers, and Lili Taylor is really good as Carolyn, mother of the Perron family and primary target of the demons’ ire. But they only have so much to work with. The characters are just types, waiting to be fleshed out, and despite its running time – it’s 112 minutes and could easily have been 85 – The Conjuring doesn’t spend any real time on those kind of character beats. What little there is, is probably the most effective stuff in the film: Ed worrying about Lorraine because she was previously injured in a botched exorcism, or Roger worrying about the marks developing on Carolyn’s back and arms, is about the only stuff that didn’t run straight through me. But that stuff’s threadbare, and there’s less and less of it as the film goes on.
- The second problem is that when you don’t care about the characters, you can’t engage with the film on any level other than horror. The scares in It: Chapter 1 are crap, but the kids are so likeable and interesting that it’s still a really fun movie. In The Conjuring, there’s nothing else going on there. If you’re not spooked by the demons, good luck, because there is not a single other level on which this film operates even momentarily. The characters in The Exorcist are among the most vivid in American cinema. Poltergeist is full of family melodrama, in a way that complements the horror. The Conjuring’s characters are so flat that it was forty minutes in before I realised how many daughters the Perrons had, and that was because Roger introduced them with “these are my five daughters”. Up until that point, they were so poorly differentiated that even when I was actively trying to work out how many daughters there were, I maxed out at four. And I was sure I’d counted one twice.
- There’s no proper escalation in The Conjuring. It seems like there is if you squint, because it’s got a big overblown showdown with the demons at the end, but that’s less “escalation” than “nearly two hours of shallow jump scares – quiet quiet quiet, loud noise – and then a big showdown at the end”. It’s insane to me that so many critics wrote about it specifically as if it was not a jump-scare-driven film, when the whole thing is full of jump scares. And that’s not necessarily a problem in itself – I don’t like jump scares, but they’re not necessarily actively to a film’s detriment – but it is a problem when the film has nothing else going on. Jump scares are a way to mimic the experience of being frightened without actually doing any frightening: you jump from the loud noise, because you’re startled. But startled isn’t scared. The problem is when a film thinks startled means scared, and thinks that’s all a horror film needs to accomplish. The whole film feels rote and by-formula, but its scares most of all.
- The big battle at the end, in which Carolyn has been possessed and is trying to kill her daughters, is a case in point. It should be the big exciting ending. Instead, it’s the most boring part. Big final battles are actually pretty hard to pull off in a way that isn’t boring – in so many modern blockbusters, the final battle feels like an interruption, like whatever interesting stuff was happening must abruptly end so we can watch twenty minutes of CGI punching – but it’s even worse for The Conjuring, because I’d already checked out. Because I don’t care about these people. So we’ve got a format that’s hard to make interesting with characters I care about, populated by characters I don’t care about. I remember almost nothing about it.
- Even immediately after watching it, I remembered very little about The Conjuring. Nothing in it is remotely scary. That would be one thing, but it’s also not funny, or fun, or gross, or anything that would imply it prompts any emotional reaction whatsoever. This is what I mean when I say it’s boring: not that it was slow or even that it wasn’t scary, but that it wasn’t anything. It is a blank template where a film could be.
- Yet Variety’s review says “Wan’s command of horror technique isn’t just virtuosic; it’s borderline rhapsodic, playing the audience like Hitchcock’s proverbial piano”. The Hollywood Reporter said it “has the polish and the cast to draw older audiences who grew up on shockers built from performances rather than CGI.” Entertainment Weekly said, “Wan masterfully tightens the vise on the audience’s nerves, using mood and sound effects for shocks that never feel cheap”. Even a more negative review, like IndieWire’s, mostly just criticise the film for being derivative, still praising it as a classy, atmospheric thriller.
- I think this speaks to the long tradition of critical condescension towards horror films. Horror has always been the most disreputable genre in cinema, regularly locked out of awards competitions by snobbery alone and prompting all kinds of weird asterisks to elevate good films out of the genre: it’s not a horror, it’s a thriller, it’s elevated horror, it can’t be a horror film because it’s art. But the critical reaction to The Conjuring reveals a more insidious side to the same snobbery. The quiet part that doesn’t get said out loud is that The Conjuring is being graded on a curve.
- The Conjuring’s glowing reviews only make sense if your expectations for horror films – at least, horror films made after 1984 or so – are automatically at rock bottom. Variety says The Conjuring is “relatively gore-free” as implicit praise, rather than a neutral statement of the film’s style. The Hollywood Reporter says it “opts for old-school restraint over gore” in much the same manner. But to treat a film not having gore in it as inherently positive means you somehow don’t know or care that many of the best films ever made have loads of gore, from The Evil Dead to Dawn of the Dead to The Thing. It means acting like the less horror elements a horror film has, the better. Even if, like The Conjuring, there’s nothing else there instead.
- Also, in the big final battle, Ed performs an exorcism, and aside from the efficacy problem – can an exorcism performed by a lay man, you know, exorcise a demon? – he’s 100% going to get excommunicated for this. Weird he’s not concerned about it. He is the only lay demonologist on the Catholic Church’s Official Register of Demonologists or something.
One thought on “Notes on The Conjuring”
Ugh thanks for writing this. Maybe it was better in 2013? But I’m completely baffled that this movie is certified fresh when it just.. sucks! I hate this stupid movie! I hate the stupid family! They could have been replaced with cardboard boxes that just said “mom” “dad” “child”. Not a SHRED of personality from any of them. And I love horror! I love that anticipation when you can feel a scare coming on. But here they all came out of NOWHERE in a sunny well-lit garden so you just go “Oh” without ever building any tension or anything! Everything falls flat, no suspense ever, Hitchcock is rotating in his grave. Also at the thing with the birds, presumably.
There’s not even a CONJURING in this stupid movie!?!! “The Exorcist” was taken I guess?
BTW I love this idea that the pope has to sign off on every exorcism or whatever. Is that what he does?
Anyways my roommates and I just watched it for the second time because we had forgotten that we’d already seen it. I kinda thought we’d seen it, but couldn’t remember anything about it that wasn’t in the trailer so they didn’t believe me.
Certified fresh… I’m so mad. I’m gonna watch the Babadook again. Imagine monsters representing things. Imagine a movie having another ending besides “a witch did it.”