Its trailer has made clapping the new “I see dead people.” But is the screenplay just a catch phrase and a few scares? Or does it offer more?
Premise: Based on a true story, a family moves into a farmhouse, only to realize that it’s haunted by a demon.
About: This is Saw (and Insidious) director James Wan’s new film. It’s apparently been getting great reviews from preview audiences, prompting the studio to move it up from a fall to a summer slot. It is loosely based on the exploits of renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes have written the remake of House Of Wax, The Reaping, and Whiteout. Before that they worked in TV for more than a decade, specializing on TV movies.
Writers: Chad and Carey Hayes
Details: 106 pages (Nov. 8, 2011 draft)
What is it about families moving into houses that’s led to so many horror movies? In the past couple of months, I’ve seen Sinister and Dark Skies and Mama, all movies about families living in (or moving into) houses where bad shit starts happening. You’d think that we’d get bored of it at some point. But for whatever reason, an undead entity violating the place where we’re supposed to feel safest gets us every time.
And therein lies the problem for us writers. Since this kind of story has been written about ad nausea, how in the world do you make it fresh? What can you possibly do to make it original? Which is why when I picked up The Conjuring, I was (ironically) skeptical. Even if the previews are getting everyone excited. Even if the studio thinks they have something special. How do you make a story like this different? I wanted to believe. But could The Conjuring make me?
Conjuring conjures up real-life “Demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren. These guys were the Lebron James of paranormal investigation back in the 70s. If you were like, “Yo Karen, I just saw a ghost in my closet.” It’s very likely the response would be, “Guess we better call the Warrens!” But the Warrens are getting tired of what they do. They’ve checked out thousands of these “hauntings” and they typically turn out to be someone stepping on a loose floor board while snacking on Fro Yo in the middle of the night. They want to start spending more time with their daughter, so they plan on exiting the paranormal business.
That is until they hear about the Perrons. The Perrons (Roger, Carolyn, and FIVE daughters), besides not being active participants of birth control, aren’t too happy with the new house they’ve purchased. One of their daughters is getting pulled by her feet while she sleeps. Another has an imaginary friend named ‘Rory.’ Another sees a creepy looking chick sitting on top of the armoire all the time. Oh, and when they play “Hide and Clap,” a game that’s not nearly as disgusting as it sounds, the spirits in the house end up playing too. That’s what really pisses them off. Haunting is fine. But when you start participating in games uninvited, that’s when we draw the line!!
So they bring the Warrens in (who strangely forget all that talk about retiring), who immediately agree there’s some bad shit going on in the house. But in order to get the house “officially” exorcised, they’re going to need approval from the Vatican. And the Vatican doesn’t do that shit unless you’ve got proof. Now they didn’t have fancy-schmancy video cameras back then, so they set up a bunch of bells on doors and still cameras.
What they learn is not good. They find out that the first owner of the house was a woman who was a witch condemned in the Salem Witch trials. But she was, like, a real one! She killed her child, saying the Devil wanted her to do it or something. This is why the spirit in the house is so powerful. She’s a damn witch! The Warrens, who once again, are used to dealing with loud plumbing as the source of people’s haunting, aren’t really prepared to deal with this, and soon find themselves, along with the Perrons, fighting for their lives.
Like I said, you need to come at the haunted house genre with something different or else it’s really hard to stand out in the spec market (and the movie market). The Hayes do so by focusing not on the haunted family, but the paranormal investigators tasked with solving the haunting. This approach had mixed results.
It’s definitely “different” to focus on the investigator side, but I thought what made a situation scary was characters being confronted with something they couldn’t understand and didn’t know how to deal with. Once the Warrens walk in, they calmly listen to all the problems and nonchalantly reply, “Oh yeah, that. That’s blah blah blah. It happens all the time.” I just got this feeling of safeness when they appeared and was no longer scared. And isn’t the point of a scary movie to be scared?
If you’re going to go that route, don’t you want your investigators to quickly learn they’re in way over their head so that once again, you have the classic scenario, “characters being confronted with something they can’t understand and don’t know how to deal with it?” That DOES end up happening, but not until the very end.
Luckily, the script has a few really good scares. I don’t want to spoil them but let’s just say that you’ll never pull at a rope to see what’s at the end of it ever again after this film. And there’s a scene towards the end here that gives Chucky a run for his money.
Another thing that caught my attention were the kids. Presumably they based enough of this on a true story that they had to include all five girls. FIVE GIRLS. I found this interesting because writing five kids into any movie is a nightmare for a screenwriter. You not only have to keep track of where they are all the time (even during mundane moments) but how the hell are you going to build five girls, ages 8-18, and make all of them unique and interesting and memorable? You can’t. Which is why none of the girls here are memorable outside of their own unique haunting experience. It’s why you typically only see one or two kids in a story like this. Much easier to manage and build the character(s). Having said that, the five kids contributed to The Conjuring feeling slightly more unique than other haunted house flicks.
Structurally, the script was a mixed bag. The Hayes don’t seem to agree with Scriptshadow’s philosophy of adding urgency. There are lots of cuts of “1 month later” and “2 months later” that happen here, which unfortunately give the impression that the family isn’t in that much danger. If you can just wait two months for the Vatican’s permission to get an exorcism, then things can’t be THAT BAD, can they?
With that said, it’s okay to create a slow build in a haunted house flick, as long as the urgency jumps up for the final act. (spoiler) In this case, Carolyn gets possessed, and the fear is that she’ll murder her children. Obviously, at that point, characters have to act immediately. Still, they didn’t make this plot point as convincing as it could’ve been. So the ending didn’t have the punch that it could’ve had.
But when you put everything together, this script is better than the average horror script on the market. It has just enough originality to separate it from the competition, and the execution in most areas is strong. And it IS scary. You can see a lot of these scenes playing well in the theater, especially when things get ramped up in the third act. One final criticism though. I didn’t like the title card at the end that said, “The Warrens would become famous with their next case, the Amityville home.” That made me feel like I just watched the “second rate” version of their investigations. It’s cool to find out these two are more familiar to us than we know, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you don’t have some new scares, don’t bother writing a horror script. If all you’ve got is someone at the edge of the bed, an imaginary friend for the young child, or your character seeing someone in the mirror behind them, don’t bother. I was surprised then, that all of these things were present here. Luckily, there were some impressive original scares to help us forget them. But if I were you, I’d challenge yourself on every single scare. Ask if you can do something differently, something new, something better. Push yourself dammit. Not enough writers push themselves anymore.