Movie Review: “The Conjuring”

Starring
Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, John Brotherton
Director
James Wan

The strange thing about horror movies of the last 10 years is that they’ve rarely been scary. They’ve been grotesque – take, please, “Evil Dead” from earlier this year – but few of them have been legitimately frightening. “The Conjuring,” on the other hand, understands that violence is not horror, and delivers a truly disturbing viewing experience. It may use a little Hollywood pixie dust to make it to the finish line, but the pre-Hollywood psychodrama is positively chilling, and the use of old-school techniques only adds to the creep factor.

It’s the fall of 1971, and Roger and Carolyn Petton (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters, are moving into an old farm house in Rhode Island. From the very beginning, the place seems a little off (the dog won’t go in the house, the basement is boarded up), but the family puts up with all of the seemingly unrelated annoyances (cold, the occasional foul stench, youngest daughter April’s new imaginary friend) and attributes it to, well, something rational, something explainable. It is not long, though, before the “house” ramps up the offensive, and an exasperated Carolyn asks local paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to come to the house and evaluate their problem. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, gets bad vibes from the very beginning, and after doing a little research on the former homeowners, she is fearful for the lives of the entire Perron family, Carolyn in particular.

Screenwriting twins Chad and Carey Hayes wrote the script of their lives here – though to be fair, one look at their IMDb profile and you’ll see that that is a backhanded compliment – by framing the ‘A’ story (the Perrons) and the ‘B’ story (the Warrens) side by side until such time that the families can come together organically. It’s a shrewd move, because it gives the audience the occasional, much-needed break from the terror that the Perrons are suffering, while slowly allowing the audience to get to know the Warrens and the, um, ghosts of their past that they bring with them to this case. That, plus Wan’s refusal to resort to the cheap ‘boo’ scare, gets the audience emotionally invested early, and never lets them go.

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The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.’”

bates-motel

True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

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