I’m on the record about demonology/possession-based horror films. They (usually) don’t do it for me. I’ve given positive reviews to The Babadook and Insidious and It Follows (which I guess is kind of a possession film), and there are others in the genre that I do like, but the thing about these films is that they don’t use the demon-possession angle as the sole point of the scare. The possession aspect is a metaphor for something else. This is the best way I can put it: if you make a horror film about possession, I want the movie to engender some kind of discussion about something deeper. Instead, films like The Conjuring are… just about demons possessing you. I find this too unreal to be scared of in the long run, and maybe I’m a masochist but I want my horror films to stick with me for a while.
Another way to make your possession-movie have staying power is to go the opposite route and make the film comic-book-like. I don’t necessarily mind straight narratives with little to no metaphorical sides to them if the film is billed as a sort of homage to the genre (The Cabin in the Woods), or if it’s billed as a kind of fantastical film that is aware of itself. Like, I’m not looking for some underlying thematic metaphors and conversation-engendering dialogue in a movie about Marvel superheroes. But those films know what they’re about, they get that there is a certain lack of seriousness even when the stakes are high in the narrative, and so I can watch them and enjoy the ride without having a gnawing sort of empty feeling about missing “punches” in the film. Here’s an example. I’m probably in the minority, but I remember enjoying Constantine (yeah, the one with Keanu Reeves) because, while it was about a demon-hunter like the Warrens of The Conjuring, the film was aware of its fantastical nature. It didn’t really try to take itself too seriously, even as the characters took the stakes seriously. The film itself didn’t try to puff itself up as more than it was. (Yeah, I understand this is easy to do when the film is based on a comic book, but whatever. You get my point).
In contrast, The Conjuring is about demons in the real world with no trace of comic-book-iness. It even tries to drive home the point by emphasizing that the narrative is based on the Warren’s account. It’s “based on a true story.” This repeated emphasis, both narratively and cinematically, has the opposite effect as intended—it draws me out of the movie. Sure, I get scared and jump in my seat when weird demon ladies pop up onto the screen out of nowhere, but at the end of the film I’m just left thinking “eh, that was okay.” When I watch horror, what I want is to be kept up at night thinking about what I just saw, still scared days later. That’s why I watch a horror film. I don’t want to turn off the movie and think “well, that’s silly.”
And yet that’s what continually informing me of the veracity of your film does. Instead of building a world into which I can submerse myself (like Constantine or Insidious do) or using the demon-possession as metaphors for other things (like The Babadook and It Follows), The Conjuring just sort of tries to get me to believe that the real world—my world, the world I live in everyday—is actually this other, scary way. I don’t buy it. If you’re going to scare me about things that could happen in the real world, give me a good home invasion movie (like The Strangers) or a film about eccentric, insane people (like Creep). Those are scenarios that actually do happen in the real world, and so seeing them on screen affects me strongly. Don’t try to change what I know about the real world in two hours of screen time, because what you’re attempting to do is convince someone of a new worldview in a ridiculously short time span. You’re trying to build up a worldview, which is a feat that takes a lifetime.
But anyway, the film was alright. The acting was good, the scenery was satisfyingly creepy (I mean, seriously, clean the freaking walls when you move into a house). The dialogue was often subpar, in my opinion but the narrative—while sometimes clunky and too insistent that I take the movie seriously—had some interesting twists. But would I watch it again? Probably not. Three stars.