Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Horror: The only genre where originality doesn't matter

The most successful horror movie this year, and one of the most successful box office stories of the year, period, is James Wan's The Conjuring.

Which doesn't have an original bone in its body.

Which, as it turns out, is okay.

I saw The Conjuring last night, and had chills going down my spine for a good number of its 107 minutes. This despite the fact that there literally was not a single thing in the movie I hadn't already seen in another movie. Even star Patrick Wilson was in Wan's own Insidious -- another very enjoyable, very unoriginal horror movie, which in fact shares many thematic elements in common with The Conjuring.

It made me realize that horror is not a what genre, it's a how genre.

What happens in a horror movie is not nearly as important as how it happens. Why else could we sit through yet another movie where an evil spirit is haunting either a house or a person (the person angle answers the question "Why don't they just move?")? Yet another movie where you can see reflections of figures in mirrors who aren't really there? Yet another movie where an unseen force drags a character around a room?

I could name you ten films with these essential elements in them, and I wouldn't even have to go back three years. The entire Paranormal Activity series is basically this exact premise, served up somewhat fresh because it's done in the found footage genre.

See, found footage is a how, not a what.

However, a horror movie needn't even have a high concept how to set it apart. The Conjuring doesn't have a high concept how. If you were stretching, you'd say that it was based on a true story (the characters played by Wilson and Vera Farmiga were real people), or that it was set in the 1970s, which is a bit different. But it's really just the same stuff we're seeing in half the horror movies that get made these days.

So then why is The Conjuring, like, actually good?

Well, you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps. And while watching The Conjuring, I had 'em. It's as simple as that. Something Wan and company were doing was just right to give me those goosebumps, and that meant I was scared.

There's some good camera work in The Conjuring, but beyond that, there aren't even really any new techniques on display here. It's just the right proportions of all the familiar horror tropes, used in the right combination with each other. A little creepy music here, a little quiet there. A drawn-out sense of anticipation of what's going to fill the screen here, a startle scare there. None of it -- and I mean none of it -- is new. But it still works.

The thing I think is funny is that it makes a person wonder why the studio would have even greenlit the movie in the first place. On the one hand, it's easy to understand why a risk-averse studio would give something the go-ahead if it resembles other films that have been hits for that studio or other studios before. But on the other, conventional wisdom is that an idea for a movie needs to have some hook, some bit of originality that makes the pitched executive sit up in his or her seat a little bit.

Can you just imagine Wan pitching the idea? "It's about this family who moves into this old house, and strange things start happening to them. At first they dismiss the events as acts of nature or tricks on their mind, but before long they can no longer ignore the truth of their senses. They bring in a team of paranormal investigators, and things just get crazier from there. Oh, and it turns out that someone once killed themselves in this house, and then all the subsequent owners have suffered tragedies of one kind or another."

That is about the least distinctive idea you have ever heard in the history of Hollywood, yet that's The Conjuring, and it was a huge hit.

I'd blame dumb American audiences (or dumb Australian audiences, or dumb French audiences, etc.), except that I watched the movie and I liked it too. Even though one of the things I specifically ask for from movies is to show me something I haven't seen before.

The Conjuring shows me things I've seen before, lots of times before, in almost this exact combination. Yet it still works.

This wouldn't fly in a comedy. When was the last time you laughed hard at the exact same joke you'd seen in a different movie? This wouldn't fly in an action movie. When was the last time you oohed and ahhed at a set piece ripped straight from an older action movie?

The difference, I suppose, is that horror movies are all about creating a mood. And that mood makes us feel a certain way -- it gives us goosebumps, for example. And you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps.

Yet the ability to do this is so tricky that horror remains pretty much the least successful of any genre. Oh, I'm not talking about financial success, as most horror movies can achieve that without too much of a problem. I'm talking about really creating that mood, about really scaring its audience. I have so little faith in a horror movie's ability to do that, that I don't even watch many of them, even though being scared is one of the most exhilarating sensations I seek out from movies.

That how isn't there in the script. It's intangible. So maybe a studio just looks at someone like James Wan and says "You've done the how before. I've seen you do the how. So, I don't even care what your movie is about. Just get that how right and we'll be all set."

And in The Conjuring, by golly, Wan shows us how it's done.

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