A widely circulated quote published by the Spanish entertainment news site PeliBlog finds Walter Hamada, an executive producer on the new horror film “The Conjuring”, claiming that the MPAA assigned the film an irrevocable R rating for a rather unusual reason. “When we asked them why”, Hamada relates, “they basically said, ‘It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.” This, of course, is precisely the sort of spurious assertion one expects a pre-release marketing campaign to seize upon—like an energy drink with a health warning emblazoned across the side of the bottle in size 40 font, it’s a faux-admission of “fault” meant to convey the illusion of a product’s boundary-obliterating extremeness. It’s like that old gimmick where William Castle or Alfred Hitchcock would introduce a film by advising the audience against watching it, only now the admonishment is more credibly institutional. And it does sounds very appealing: the MPAA, a body whose mandate requires them to watch every movie, thinks this particular movie is too scary. Who cares if it sounds made up? (read Film.com's review of "The Conjuring" here).
And yet, remarkably, it isn’t: “The Conjuring” is too scary. It's too scary to be seen by children, certainly, but it is also too scary for its own good even for an age-appropriate audience. Obviously “scary”, like “funny”, is one of the most subjective measures applied to the cinema, and what affects me personally may not affect others in the same way or to the same degree—which is why “scary” and “funny” are not particularly useful as critical terms and ought to be deployed with much hesitation. But even if this is strictly anecdotal, I think it is worth stressing that I found “The Conjuring” more consistently and thoroughly frightening than perhaps any other film I have seen. This requires a little unpacking. First, I should probably point out that I have been more frightened by specific moments in other films than I was by any one moment in this one; nothing in “The Conjuring” reaches the heights of fear set by, say, the image of Laura Dern running towards the camera in slow motion in David Lynch’s “INLAND EMPIRE”, which I consider a different class of horror filmmaking altogether.
But “The Conjuring” is structured as a series of miniature climaxes strung together without much in the way of connective tissue—niceties expected of traditional narrative cinema like character development and local texture have been excised entirely—and as a result it sustains a sense of terror from the moment it begins until the credits finally, mercifully roll. It is, in essence, a horror buffet: instead of building tension gradually and relieving the audience with pulled punches or false scares, “The Conjuring” makes every gesture a fatal blow, paying off each moment of suspense almost the second it is established. Its most radical quality isn’t the extremity of any of its single scares—not much here even qualifies as graphic or especially disturbing by contemporary horror standards—but rather its overall guiding principle, which is that no moment should go to waste.
There is a sequence in the film in which a worried mother hears a noise in the middle of the night and, rather than calling for help or simply going back to sleep, follows it into the basement—which, naturally, had been boarded up by previous tenants and contains spooky items covered in cobwebs. The scene is almost unbearable, not because we continue to anticipate something bad, but because bad things keep happening: family pictures hanging on the wall crash to the ground inexplicably, the mother is knocked down the stairs by a swinging door, and, finally, two ghost hands appear from behind her head and clap out her light. This scene would be terrifying enough on its own, but “The Conjuring”, in a movie typical of its general sensibility, follows it up immediately with an even more terrifying sequence, this time set in the bedroom of one of her daughters.
The movie goes on like this. Every shadow needs to have something lurking within. Every noise needs to have a source. You know that recurring horror gag where the first sudden jump scare turns out to be just the family cat? There’s no cat in this film—just demons. Hitchcock, no stranger to fear, famously said that there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. “The Conjuring” proposes that if the bang is loud enough, terror will come.
I imagine this all sounds very appealing, and in fact if the film had been described this way to me prior to seeing it, I would be eager to indulge in the nonstop terror. But “The Conjuring”, despite its commitment to delivering one forceful scare after another, amounts to little more than a noisy, flashy spectacle, a typical blockbuster in which ceaseless gunfire and explosions have been swapped out for gnarling witches and blistering exorcisms. The purpose is the same: the film hopes to bludgeon its audience into an unthinking stupor, proceeding under the assumption that the highest aspiration of the cinema is to make 90 minutes zip by fleetly. It’s no surprise that this is the first major studio horror film to be released during the summer season in nearly a decade; it’s one of the first horror movies to qualify as genuine blockbuster.
In other words, “The Conjuring” is too scary: as a filmgoing experience, I did indeed find it effectively terrifying, but I also found it exhausting to sit through. By the midway point, I was hoping for some relief—not only comic, which does come momentarily in the form of a bumbling police officer who appears during the second act, but just generally some time to stop and think about what I was watching rather than merely clenching my fists in anticipation of the next scare. Things jumped out of the dark and made a loud noise so often that I began to develop a headache, and if it’s to the film’s credit that I felt more anxious and uneasy than I had ever felt in a film before, it’s surely to its detriment that I would rather not feel that way again.
This raises an interesting question: should a film endeavor to scare its audience so intensely and so frequently that they no longer enjoy the experience? The horror genre is meant to upset its audience by design, hopefully cathartically, and fans are drawn to it in much the same way crowds are drawn to roller coasters or bungee jumping—there’s pleasure to be had in that kind of fear. Leaving aside the thornier question of whether there’s perhaps a difference between useful fear and the more superficial variety—the sort of fear Lynch trades in may be more valuable than the kind Oren Peli does—there is still the question of whether scaring an audience ought to be a horror film’s central goal or an ancillary one. “The Shining” might reasonably be described as one of the scariest films ever made, but there is significantly more going on in that film, not only formally but also psychologically and emotionally, than there is in “The Conjuring”, which frankly has a much higher scare-to-running time ratio.
It’s probably not a coincidence that “The Shining” spends far more time developing an emotional connection between its audience and its protagonists than it does merely offering up frightening images; in fact part of the reason that film is so deeply affecting is that the characters have been so fully realized. Imagine a version of “The Shining” which consisted of nothing but the old lady from Room 237 and the ballroom full of skeletons: those elements are important to the overall effect of the film, but it wouldn’t take long before we’d tire of seeing Wendy running through the halls.