Everybody loves The Conjuring.
As of last weekend, James Wan’s $20 million haunted house/exorcism thriller has made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. It's the first horror movie to do so since 2011’s Paranormal Activity 3. At the time of this post, it has an 86 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—acclaimed by any measure, but especially by the standards of horror films. It's “the next great shocker,” according to the New York Times and the “best horror film of 2013,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Virtuoso moviemaking,” says the New Yorker (online). “…It seemed the entire theater was holding its breath,” says The Atlantic. Even Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, despite his otherwise brutal criticism of what he perceives as the film’s misogyny, concedes it's “well-crafted." The film received an A- in its CineScore poll of ticket-buyers opening weekend (that’s really good) and it has a 7.9 rating on IMDb (the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a 7.5).
These days, it's rare that I miss any major movie release, but I skipped an advance Conjuring screening a few weeks before it came out. I had other work to do, and I figured that what I'd be missing was yet another haunted-house thriller in Hollywood's current long line of them. When The Conjuring exploded in popularity, I figured I was missing out on something special and unique to the sub-genre. It turns out I should have gone with my gut. The Conjuring is nothing more than a well-plated reheating of what horror cinema has been most successfully serving up us for a few years now. Like the ghosts that fill it, the horror genre is in a state of limbo.
As with so many ghosts haunting film houses, The Conjuring's central specter seems to have honed his or her craft at film school. The scares in this movie, like in January’s Mama, and in all four of the Paranormal Activity movies, trickle in slowly, growing in intensity as the movie goes on until they build to a climax. Every haunted-house movie builds and builds in the same way, which means nothing happens for so much of it, and the stakes remain low for frustratingly long: Generally no one dies in the ghost’s early playful phase (if at all), and you spend a lot of time waiting around.
That waiting time felt particularly brutal in The Conjuring because its characters are nothing people. Cardboard has more personality (at least you have a sense of cardboard’s history). For that matter, the tree on the movie's poster, which plays an important part in the film, has as much personality as any of its human characters— maybe more. And it remains inanimate the entire time. That some particularly great actors—Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor (and arguably Patrick Wilson)—have been hired to do absolutely nothing makes the nothingness the worst kind of time suck.
The Conjuring is at once a missed opportunity and more of the same. Plot-necessary willful ignorance by otherwise sharp adults at clear signs that something is amiss? Check. A creepy doll? Check. A scary basement full of possibly possessed antiques (a trope sufficiently mocked Cabin in the Woods already)? Check. Two of those basements? Check. A ghost that only kids can see and/or bond with? Check. Trite expositional misery that made the ghost what it vaguely is today? Check. A climactic exorcism (which is so overacted that, in a vastly different scenario than the one drawn in the Atlantic review quoted above, the theater I saw it in united through laughter)? Check.
Check. Check. Check. The list scrolls out mind-numbingly predictably over the excruciating course of the longest two hours in my recent memory. I'll admit that the movie has flair, mostly thanks Wan’s shots, angles and transitions (and Vera Farmiga’s character’s giant collars, with which I suspect, she conducts her clairvoyance). But if I wanted flair I'd visit a ladies' beauty salon.
Usually, I find myself forgiving so much of what I’m complaining about here. I love horror movies. Shitty characters, plodding suspense, a dearth of logic, the feeling that the movie could unravel at any second are all qualities I’ve written off as just part of the charm and fun of a genre that tends toward the endearingly crappy by nature. So why be so hard on The Conjuring?
To some extent, it comes down to taste and feeling. As with comedy, there is something ineffable about successful horror—either it works or it doesn't; either it moves people or it leaves them cold. Every positive review of The Conjuring that I’ve read calls it legitimately scary (and essentially leaves it at that), but I found it to be the very opposite.
But the other part is that have been so many ghost movies lately that I'm just sick of them. The cinematic ghosts of late have conditioned me to expect very little for at least an hour of their thumpy bullshit. Watching the jump scares and false starts that Wan regularly employs, I felt like I'd already read the script.
And to some extent, I already have. I've already seen this movie a dozen times in the last few years If zombies or slashers were the scare du jour, I'd probably feel similarly about the umpteenth stylish Xerox of those. Nothing is going to top the first season of American Horror Story in terms of ghost-story depth and insanity, so everything that has come in its wake has disappointed.
The truth is, I'm just not scared of ghosts. I don’t believe in them. I believe that everything that goes bump in the night has a reason for doing so and the scariest thing that could be going bump in the night is a maniac’s machete against the wall next to my bedroom—which is why I like my villains tangible as opposed to ephemeral. People are scarier than spiritual concepts (of which The Conjuring hosts several and practically proselytizes to provoke baptism so that the same thing doesn’t happen to you).
But even if they weren’t, these concepts are stale at this point. The only horror franchise with any box-office heft at this point is Paranormal Activity, and the aforementioned Mama was a sizable hit earlier this year. Ghosts are the elusive face of modern horror. There have been very good entries in other subgenres this year—Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake is the most artful slasher I’ve seen since John Carpenter’s original Halloween and Adam Wingard’s upcoming You’re Next is an incredibly fun and sharp riff on the home-invasion format. But the success of The Conjuring and its ghostly brethren mean that there will be more and more of movies like this until they just don’t make money anymore. I’m scared to think of how long it will take before it's all over.