The Conjuring...echoes of my first experience with M. Night Shyamalan's work. Like many, that came in the form of The Sixth Sense, which was released in the UK almost simultaneously with the genre-redefining Blair Witch Project (the film was even marketed under the tag-line: “Scarier than the Blair Witch Project!”).
This was the first time I recall myself being consciously opposed to popular opinion; when it felt as though people were seeing something I could not, or that I perceived something that everyone else was blind to.
After being fully immersed in and completely besotted with the media experiment surrounding the Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense struck me as, at best, a fairly dull and disinteresting story, lacking in any of the intensity or atmosphere of the film it was being compared to, at worst, an example of profound ineptitude: the much-refered to “twist” of the film at least as absurd and incomprehensible as those within Shyamalan's more publicly lamented films; totally unworkable within the contexts and constraints of the film.
Yet, people loved it; the popular and critical opinion of the time being that Shyamalan was the next Hitchcock or Romero; the apex of a new generation of horror directors.
Later works would, of course, put paid to that, but what I increasingly perceived and insist upon to this day is that The Sixth Sense, barring an excellent performance from Bruce Willis, is no better than Signs, The Village or even The Happening, is, in point of fact, the same damn film, in terms of its narrative structure, its rhythms, its absurdity: Shyamalan endlessly recycles the same basic plot, changing only the imagery and subject matter; the characters are all the same archetypes with the same arcs and resolutions, the situations are always basically the same in terms of tone, narrative place and significance; only the language and imagery used to describe them changes.
But I digress.
The Conjuring seems to have excited a similar level of popular kudos, hence my lateness in viewing it; I wanted the furore to die down before I came to it, so as to do so with a degree of distance.
Once again, I find myself in that position of being faintly perplexed, not by the film, which is as by-the-numbers and standard as a “haunted house” horror film can be, but by the popular and critical reaction to it. If you have seen The Amittyville Horror, you've seen this film. If you've seen The Exorcist, you've seen this film. It could have been written using an algorithm into which was fed all of the “haunted house” and “possession” films of the last two or three decades. Nothing is surprising, nothing is even terribly interesting: from the instant characters occur or open their mouths, you know where they're going, if you have even surface experience of this particular sub-genre; items or locations of interest are overtly sign-posted so that, when the passable but far, far from original horror set-pieces occur, the audience already knows it's going to happen; they're just waiting for it to so we can get on with things. The plot is sedate and dull and entirely standard for what one could expect from a “haunted house” film: family ups sticks, moves into old, decrepit house where bad things happened, children get spooked, scary noises, odd, contrived statements from children who are not children, but are children as adults need them to be for narrative convenience, things escalate, people who know about such things brought in to resolve the situation, which they eventually do, and everything is all well and good. The innocent survive, the wicked are punished and so on and so forth. It's...not terrible, it's just not very good, either; it's made by committee, conceived by template, edited by test audience and is entirely inoffensive, not particularly engaging, intriguing or even that interesting. It says and does nothing new, nothing novel or witty or even that insightful. In point of fact, it's so standardised; so cookie-cutter, that I initially thought it was doing something far cleverer; I thought it was going to turn everything on its head and invert the stereotypical characters, situations and mythology it was presenting.
Nope. Nope, nope, nope; expect no wit, here; no subtlety, no metaphor: everything is in earnest, which makes the film frictionless, like teflon; there's nothing to graze, nothing to lend texture or accrual of flavour...it's just powerfully boring.
What fascinates me more than the film itself is the critical and audience reaction to it, which has been one of unambiguous and enthusiastic praise. Even from horror fans; even from people entirely familiar with this kind of material, which has led me to watch it again, twice, under the auspices that I missed something essential; that there's something I'm just not getting that makes this work more deviant, more interesting, more engaging than it otherwise is.
If so, I'm blind to it; I can't see it. It just does nothing for me. Once again, I find myself in that strange position of being thrust apart from popular opinion, not even understanding how or why people are reacting to the work in the way that they are. It's a strange, strange position to be in, but an interesting one: it allows for a step back from immersion within the cultures and genres in question; allows for a re-examination of the status quo:
Rather than any innate quality of the film itself, I feel that the response is largely one of starvation: in the same way that even the most filthy, polluted puddle can seem god-sent to one dying of thirst, even a merely competent product is cause for rapt celebration in a genre whose mainstream manifestation has been nothing but sewage for a number of years, now. Not original, not inspiring; not even particularly distressing, disturbing, deviant; merely...functional. That is where this film sits, what it exudes, yet it is being celebrated as a minor masterpiece. In that, it serves as a fairly distressing commentary on the dismally low expectations and requirements of fans of horror cinema, as it currently stands; expectations and requirements which are informed by the manner in which mainstream studios and production companies treat the genre, i.e. as nothing; as meaningless, adolescent, entirely anti-intellectual; as something of a joke.
Also, as a potential risk: a casual assessment of the independent markets (in all mediums) will provide ample demonstration that there is an enormous amount of material and subject matter that could be brought to cinema that has never been seen before. Pick up any random short story collection published in the last five years or so, and you'll find examples of that throughout.
But studios are terrified of it; they are afraid of material and subject matter that might potentially offend or distress or limit the demographics that they are attempting to appeal to. A bizarre situation when compared and contrasted to, for example, US network television, which seems to be exemplifying exactly the opposite, and succeeding disproportionately in doing so: The Strain, Breaking Bad, Hannibal, The Walking Dead, Gotham...all huge projects, all hugely successful and massively deviant, distressing...often highly uncomfortable to watch, comprised of the very deviance and ambiguity; the disturbance, the experimentation, that used to be the exclusive reserve of horror cinema.
The result is work like The Conjuring; competently put together, difficult to criticise on a technical level, but entirely without intrigue, without resonance, but also the audience reaction to it: celebration of the entirely mundane, in lieu of anything better.
GEORGE DANIEL LEA
THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FILM REVIEWS