|"are you afraid of the dark?"|
It may have been just a coincidence of timing but I was taken back to the first time I went on the Aliens virtual ride at Universal Studios and my imagination went wild thinking about how cool a "4D" movie would be with subtle drops and increases in temperature dependant on what was going on on screen, then had to remind myself to pay attention to the movie instead of fantasizing over gimmicks and wondering why such an atmospheric haunting movie would be released in the summer, since no others were coming to mind.
If it wasn't obvious, I found it a little too easy to get distracted.
I saw a review just before watching this which said this movie has an atmosphere that we rarely see in modern horror and I was immediately reminded of how I felt about The Woman in Black and the whole time I was expecting it to bring about that same sense of looming dread. I mean, they're both period pieces (in their own way) and they both take place in an old house which was host to horrific tragedies ... but this is based on a true story you guys. I mean, the victims are still alive and helping promote the shit out of this movie, right? I fully admit that might have upped my expectations unrealistically.
It's a tale as old as time: a loving family buys an old house, ready to make a fresh start. An angsty teenaged daughter is grossly displeased about moving away from her friends, fully ignoring the awesome mansion and apartment-sized bedroom she's been bestowed. The family pet is mysteriously fearful of crossing the threshold. Then the haunting begins.
Strange noises, mysterious bruises, children seeing things that aren't there, finally leading to a full-on spectral assault. Confused, the parents connect with a fairly famous pair of paranormal researchers to help them make sense of what's going on in their new home ... and that's when shit gets real.
Unfortunately there's never much of a feeling of dread over their plight. I want to emphasize with the terrified family but it's nearly impossible since they rarely seem all that unhappy outside of the scenes where they're actively being harassed by invisible hands, and the fact that nearly every beat is formulaic of this type of movie. There's a solid possibility all the films that have done this before took their cues from the story of the Perron Family Haunting but I'm inclined to assume that's not the case.
There are two primary ghosts among apparently several that haunt the house: a Dark and Evil Darkness that wants to kill the family for some reason, and the ghost of a young boy named Rory.
Here's the thing about Rory.
|Freaking Rory, always leaving his shit laying around...|
An old toy of his is found by the youngest daughter, who immediately summons his spirit and doesn't think it's odd at all that she's the only one who can see and hear the "boy who lives here too," doing that thing all children in haunting stories do: accepting the hollow-eyed, monochrome, strangely-dressed invisible person as, literally, just another kid who lives in their house. I'm not saying every preschool-aged child should be aware of the difference between an imaginary friend and the hollow spectre of the violently murdered but goodness gracious, hasn't she been taught not to talk to strangers?
Rory interacts directly with two other members of the family after he's revealed to be a thing in the house. First he (accidentally?) terrifies the mother, Carolyn, in the formerly boarded-up cellar while trying to get her to play a game. It's an awesome scene, especially after you figure out Rory's a cool kid. Also he seems to be the cause behind a different daughter's resurgence of sleepwalking, as he, on numerous occasions, attempts to guide her into a hidden crawlspace to hide just before some serious spookiness starts up.
It seems almost like the writers heard stories of several apparitions interacting with the family and decided it would be easier on the casting director to mash them up into an single ghosts for the sake of easier storytelling.
My only problem with Rory, and the reason I'm lead to believe he's a mix of several ghostly occurrences, is probably something you're already asking yourself: why is Rory spending so much energy trying to protect the daughter that isn't his corporeal BFF? Of all the kids in the house he's capable of being seen by only the one, who accepts him unquestionably as a friend and playmate. But when the Dark and Evil Darkness comes kicking around he decides in his ghostly wisdom to grab and hide a different person?
In most ghost stories Rory is the kind of helpful spirit who would at least try to help and at most try to do battle in defense of his new friends, but once he's revealed to be the source behind the sleepwalking we never see the boy ghost again. I'm not about to suggest I know what should be going through a ghost's mind but that seems like a bit of a dick move on his part. "Oh hey, you guys figured out my secret? Cool, I'm out."
The rest of the movie is almost a paint-by-numbers haunting story, eventually leading to a foreshadowed possession and the family using the power of love to overcome the Dark and Evil Darkness, make a cute reference to the famous haunting they do next (sequel bait!) and roll credits.
It's not until the climatic exorcism scene where they move into more flashy visual effects, a characters' face literally morphing to reflect the Dark and Evil Darkness' for a little while. I suppose it's expected after so much build-up (because audiences won't understand she's possessed at this point without makeup effects?) but in a movie that appears to ignore the visual in place of atmospheric spookiness and how a "real" haunting/exorcism might play out, the face makeup seems really out of place.
Aside from all the storytelling flaws I found, they do a masterful job of playing with our expectations, setting up obvious jump scares and wholly ignoring them, and I'm a huge fan of that. It's how a haunting should be portrayed, hearing a sound and seeing nothing for the rest of the scene ... seeing hands reach out of a wardrobe only to have them not grab the character when they get right up in prime grabbin' range. Awesome stuff like that.
There are three groups of characters:
Ed and Lorraine Warren (and to a lesser extent, their daughter), Carolyn and Roger Perron (and to a lesser extent their daughters) ... and "the rest," a young tech guy named Drew who assists the Warrens with their investigations and a cop new to the group named Brad whose purpose I'm still unfamiliar with.
Roger and Carolyn are a loving couple who bought a haunted house at auction and are obviously in way over their heads. Further, they appear to have money problems which, in a way, is handled very well. They don't waste time discussing their troubles with one another for the sake of the audience, they just subtly reference it once or twice and move on, like a couple would do in a real private conversation. It was a really nice touch.
|"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized ... ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."|
They also have five lovely daughters whose names I couldn't tell you. Oh, I could look it up in a second, but I don't see a reason to. They're background characters at best, even though they're the ones with the most direct contact with the spirits roaming the house.
The Warrens are here to explain how all the supernatural stuff works and how ghost hunting went down in the 70's; however the story treats them with such familiarity I can't shake this feeling that this was meant as a sequel to an earlier film. Possibly one of the two other hauntings/possessions they keep referring to. They've got a side-story involving their own daughter back home that stops almost as quickly as it starts, and aside from it being probably something that happened during the time-frame it feels completely unrelated, and again references a earlier case they worked on.
There's an effort to showcase their relationship and the toll these investigations take on Lorraine (being clairvoyant and all) and the concern Ed has for his wife's safety. Now that I think about it, there are also subtle beats and actions that showed us that the pair are old pro's at paranormal situations. They're very subtle but very well handled and downright cool to catch ahead of time.
Meanwhile Drew and Brad dick around and share five seconds spouting banter about Brad's disbelief in the paranormal (twice) and disguise it as some kind of exposition about their characters' differing views on the subject, for a reason I can't really grasp. I suppose Brad the Cop doesn't believe in ghosts because he's new to the team and this is important to the story? (Why is Brad here again?)
While they're all supposed to be real people, they just come off as stock characters in a basic ghost story. They go to great lengths to make each of the five daughters look different and it's easy as hell to tell them apart but they're more or less interchangeable and don't seem to matter in the long-run until the climax.
"Based on a true story" is always a red flag for me, at least when it's a story of a paranormal experience. I've always had a enormous interest in the paranormal but whenever a movie about a real violent haunting or demonic possession is released, I spend most of the movie wondering things like, "Is that really how that went down? Is that really what they said at that point? Did they really solve the haunting that quickly?"
Obviously liberties have to be taken with these stories but I couldn't stop focusing on what they were or could be. Do Carolyn and Roger really have money troubles or is that a fabrication for the sake of explaining why they can't move to a new house? Did Rory the Ghost really do all those things? Did the priest really suggest the church might not be able to help because they're not a church-going family? These are the things that I focus on more than just being entertained, I can't help it.
I sat down prepared to explain some of the flaws I saw but admit that I ultimately liked the film. I know I've done nothing but the former but I can't really say I didn't like it. I didn't hate it, but maybe I didn't like it as much as I thought. It's 'average' and that isn't a bad thing when you get right down to it, just don't expect to be scared so much you can't sleep.