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Surprisingly scary

The Conjuring
DIRECTED BY: James Wan
STARRING: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
CERT: 15A

A great horror film is a hard thing to come by. An original horror is a very rare beast indeed. The Conjuring is neither, but this big US box office hit has enough going for it to make it worth the while.

Set in the early 1970s, it’s an interesting blend of old and new – the style and pacing and themes of a ’70s flick like The Amityville Horror, mixed with the newer (though already over-familiar) spook techniques of a Paranormal Activity.

Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) sets the story up nicely, if a little too slowly. The Perron family – Roger (Livingston), Carolyn (Taylor), and several bouncy, happy kids – move into a big new house. On the first day, they stumble upon a walled-up cellar, and we all know nothing good happens when you go messing around in a place that somebody else clearly felt should be hidden away forever. These horror movie characters will never learn.

Sure enough, it starts to get weird around the place. Mom starts waking up with bruises, the kids get spooked in their rooms, one of the girls starts headbanging a wardrobe, and all the clocks stop at 3:08am. A little too close to the 3:15 of Amityville for my liking, but hey, maybe this is a designated play time for ghosts.

Rather than do the sensible thing and run for their lives, the family calls in the Warrens – a real-life pair of paranormal investigators, who famously worked on the Amityville case. Ed (Wilson) has since passed on to the great beyond, but wife Lorraine is still with us, popping up from time to time on those amusingly bad haunted house shows on TV.

Lorraine apparently has “the gift”. She’s seen terrible things and within seconds of stepping inside the Perron house, she smells the brimstone. There’s nothing for it only to call in the ghost hunter crew and their fancy equipment. Rather than, oh I don’t know, tell everyone to run for their lives and never look back.

Mr Wan has a fine talent for building up real tension, bringing terror to a slow boil. He does it most memorably in a family clapping game, in another scene involving a dark basement and matches, and in a scenario that plays on every child’s fear of what’s under the bed, or what that shadow is there in the corner of the room. When he wants to,

Wan can pull off a very good jump-fright, too.

But he stumbles in some of the more basic stuff. It’s nice to see that a filmmaker takes the time to create actual characters and to give you time enough to care about them, but there’s such a thing as taking too long about it – and Wan’s pacing is far too ponderous. Some of the writing is dodgy, too (“I don’t want to lose you!” brought a collective groan from the audience, a groan that was almost drowned out by the sound of many foreheads being slapped), and at times the acting is a tad too melodramatic. As Lorraine, the usually excellent Vera Farmiga is particularly guilty.

My biggest problem, though, is that far too many scenes take place away from the house – taking us out of what should the heart of the action, sometimes just when the fun is ramping up. It’s a strange and frustrating thing to do in what is supposed to be a haunted house movie.

I suppose the wider story (and apparently it’s true) had to be told, and I suppose that silly doll had to have her part too. But with a bit of imagination and restructuring, it could have been told better. And faster.

All the same, it’s worth catching. If nothing else, it’s a breath of fresh air in another disappointing summer of mega-budget rubbish.

The Heat
DIRECTED BY: Paul Feig
STARRING: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock
CERT: 15A

A buddy cop movie, but the cops are girls. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, not an awful lot, unless excessive vulgarity gets on your goat. I wouldn’t be a fan of it myself, but overall The Heat is entertaining enough to make up for it.

Sandra Bullock is prim and proper FBI agent Ashburn, a loser in love and nobody’s favourite colleague, but top of her game at work and heading for promotion. It’s just a matter of bringing down a Boston drug lord.

To pull it off, she has to team up with scruffy city cop Mullins (McCarthy), a maneater with a fridge full of powerful weaponry and a Dirty Harry approach to police work to go with it.

Not that any of the police work is important to Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. All that matters here is the clash of personalities, and the number of laughs these two fine comic actors can wring from the situation.
It’s a fair amount of laughs, too. But maybe for the sequel, all that cursing and swearing might be toned down a notch?

Agent Ashburn would agree.

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