One of my most prized Blu-ray possessions is the Universal Monsters box-set that features seminal horror movies such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more. Another is the 40th anniversary box-set of The Exorcist, probably the greatest Hollywood haunted house/possession movie ever made. These highly-influential movies are all great moments and cornerstones in the history of Hollywood horror.
But since more than 15 years ago, Hollywood horror started to take a tumble into dismal depths from which it has never fully resurfaced. Yes, recently there have been American films like It Follows (2014) that are genuinely disturbing, but Hollywood has largely gone the jump-scare way.
The fact that one of Hollywood’s most successful horror directors today is James Wan, with his The Conjuring and Insidious series, says it all. A friend recently dubbed Wan the “king of jump-scares”, and it really isn’t too far from the truth.
You see, the jump-scare was a device from perhaps 35 years ago. Before that, Hollywood horror movies – and most horror movies in general, in fact – went for slow dread and atmosphere. The jump-scare was originally used as a false-alarm device, to shock the viewer with a false scare, and then lull them into a complacency before the real scare comes. Thus, I called it the “Oh, it’s only the cat” trick. The common scenario was having the protagonist jump at a loud noise or object, to later realise it was nothing out of the ordinary. I named it so because there are many films with the Cat Moment, even the non-horror ones. In 2003’s Darkness Falls, there is a jump-scare scene where it is literally only the cat.
Sometime in the late 90s and early 2000s, I believe, the jump-scare started to be used as the main scare device. It became the main element in Hollywood horror, later with the accompaniment of loud sound effects and things jumping out at the camera. Pretty soon, it became annoying and terribly predictable.
The last American horror movie that I can remember, that still used atmosphere and dread was The Blair Witch Project (1999), which itself kickstarted another annoying trend, the found-footage horror film. (The found-footage style isn’t new. There was 1998’s The Last Broadcast, and even further back, 1980’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust.) It also influenced a lot of other films to try and create false realism with the “Based on true events” claim.
Which brings us to Wan’s The Conjuring (2013). Not only does it claim to be based on true events, it’s also packed with jump-scares. It has zero atmosphere, and comes across as more of a theme-park haunted-house attraction than a horror movie. In short, you get the shocks and jumps, but they’re all momentary jolts (not scares) that don’t leave much of an impression on the mind.
And The Conjuring is LOUD. It’s probably the noisiest horror movie I’ve ever encountered.
Here are five reasons why The Conjuring is the culmination of all that is awful about Hollywood horror today.
1. The “Based on true events” claim
The marketing gimmick for The Conjuring went all out to try and convince moviegoers that the events depicted in the movie all really happened. Notices were even put up at several cinemas claiming some people had felt something negative following them after they saw the movie, and a priest was on standby to bless them in case something demonic did possess them. Of course, we all know that’s a load of crock. The Exorcist is also based on a real-life case of possession, but the filmmakers never went out of their way to state such a claim. But the movie’s after-effects were real and documented, although they were nothing supernatural. It was the moviegoers themselves who claimed the movie had supernatural effects on them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the real power of an effective horror movie.
2. The 1.21 gigawatts of noise
If you play the DVD or Blu-ray of The Conjuring, you will notice that the dialogue is really low-volume. This is because the jump-scare sounds have been jacked up to Spinal Tap level, ie. up to 11. So, you will be forced to raise the volume to listen to the dialogue, and when the jump-scare comes, your speakers will be damaged, as will your eardrums. This is yet another false-scare tactic. Any sudden, loud noise will make a person jump. If Conan O’Brien were to jump out of the shadows in The Conjuring, accompanied by a loud sound, you’d jump, too. But would Conan O’Brien make the movie scary? Of course not.
3. The ridiculously “eerie” music score
The music score in The Conjuring is the kind that telegraphs everything way ahead of time. When the characters enter the haunted house, the music score tells you “This house is VERY scary, so beware”, with the music spliced with “eerie vocals.” This kind of thing gets annoying pretty fast, like a voice-over timed in places to tell you when to get scared. Compare this to The Exorcist. Much of the film is quiet, almost score-less. And when there is music, it’s Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Yes, TUBULAR BELLS, for heaven’s sake. The most un-scary, un-creepy piece of music ever. Yet, within the context of the movie, it does sound eerie. It’s no wonder that director William Friedkin threw Lalo Schifrin’s score into the garbage bin in total rage. You can hear the vehemently-rejected score here; it sounds pretty much like what Wan would use for one of his horror movies.
4. No feel or atmosphere whatsoever
A great horror movie immerses you in a world that is strange, dreadful and dangerous. A nightmare. This is done through cinematography and pacing mostly, helped on by the music score. Take, for example, movies like The Exorcist, Session 9 and the Japanese Ring. You get the feeling that the universe in which these stories take place is not quite right. You are taken almost inside the heads of the protagonists, feeling what they feel, perceiving what they perceive. This is one of the elements of horror detailed by Noel Carroll in his book The Philosophy of Horror. We experience by proxy; the characters are our stand-ins. We experience the world that the protagonist inhabit, the invisible threat that hangs over their off-kilter world. But there is none of this in The Conjuring. It’s chiefly because the entire movie is just one set-up after another, again, like a theme park attraction. The only feeling I got from the movie was the urgency to rush from one jump-scare to another.
5. The jump-scares, of course, and cartoonish effects
The only reason why I watched The Conjuring was because friends told me that it was different, that it didn’t rely on jump-scares and was very old-school horror. I thought, great, finally a good horror movie from Hollywood. But really, there’s no difference between The Conjuring and Jan De Bont’s awful remake of The Haunting. (Coincidentally both movies feature Lili Taylor.) Both rely on jump-scares and ridiculous effects. People get pulled around and thrown about by an invisible force, and that incongruously cartoonish scene with the washing flying off the clothesline. Also, it would seem James Wan is not able to extricate himself from jump-scares. The scene where one of the girls sees something standing behind her sister and tearfully tells her so, is a rather good scene. But what does Wan do? He immediately follows it with a jump-scare using a loud, slamming door.