Old horror tropes still frightening audiences.
While the film industry’s ability to churn out movies marketed as ‘terrifying’ is not in doubt, the ability of these films to genuinely frighten an audience is another matter.
Despite some entertaining releases, contemporary horror has yet to instil fear with the same intensity as earlier films, such as The Exorcist and The Shining. I must say here that fear is triggered differently in every viewer, making the subjective experience of terror difficult to elicit unanimously in a crowd. However, it is widely acknowledged that there are some methods more successful than others. The staples of the horror genre focus primarily on atmosphere and character to elicit a reaction, a technique skillfully executed by James Wan in his recent film The Conjuring, which defied my personal expectations as well as the cultural pattern by which it was preceded.
The trend of late relies primarily on gore or jump scares to elicit a response from audiences, which is a marked shift from the tropes of the traditional horror canon. These traditional tropes function primarily through manipulation of atmosphere in order to unnerve the spectators. Any modern releases that utilize these traditional methods are notable in the lingering apprehension they create. The downfall of gore is that it permits the viewer to look away in revulsion, while jump scares sever the delicate trust present between an audience and a film. That is not to say that both of these devices cannot be used effectively, but as with all things, they must be used in moderation. The characterizing feature of the past decade of horror has been excess, seen in movies such as theSaw and Final Destination franchises. Directors have been exploring the extremes of fear in an attempt to revolutionize the genre, when, in fact, it is a return to the traditional that has yielded exceptionality.
One outstanding exercise in moderation of this sort is James Wan’s film The Conjuring. The plot appears under the guise of a traditional haunting: the Perron family’s recent tenancy of an old country house is met with strange occurrences, prompting the arrival of renowned paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film sets itself in a fictional microcosm within the 1970s, whereby demons and ghosts are real and rooted in the religious discrepancy between heaven and hell. The crossing of these conventionally distinct boundaries results in hauntings, such as the one that threatens the Perrons.
What I believe sets The Conjuring apart from others of the present era is its unwavering resolve. Wan manages to both contrast and complement the harrowing atmosphere with bold and acrobatic camerawork. The cinematography is replete with sweeping shots, cross-section pans, and roller coaster jerks. The ambitious soundtrack guides the camerawork, as it oscillates between lively psychedelic rock tracks and ominous brassy drone themes. The dual framework of cinematography and sound manipulates the atmospheric tension of the entire piece, giving slack and pulling taut appropriately.
These core aspects serve as the foundational skeleton upon which the remainder of the film is constructed. This is in stark antithesis to the usual tendency of the horror genre to impose them retrospectively as an afterthought. Upon this groundwork, Wan erects a rewarding reciprocity of character in the interactions between the Perrons and the Warrens. The dialogue feels genuine, which gives way to emotional investment on the part of the audience. Also, it is impressive in its ability to seamlessly incorporate a wide variety of horror tropes, ranging from birds and dolls, to demons and witches.
The Conjuring is one of the few horror films I would describe as beautiful. My mouth remained ajar during the entire film, fluctuating between shock and awe. It asserts itself as relevant from the moment the title card ascends the screen, and then subsequently proves its significance. The Conjuring stands its ground amidst the rehashed horror of the past decade, and earns its R rating not from the presence of violence, language, or nudity, but from its sheer ability to terrify.