Tag Archives: ghost stories

The Conjuring

The Conjuring1
The Conjuring

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 August 2013

Distributor: Warner Bros

Director: James Wan

Writers: Chad Hayes and Cary W. Hayes

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell

USA 2013

111 mins

James Wan’s Insidious (2010) showed the Saw director (with regular screenwriter Leigh Whannell) branching out from the mayhem thriller to the more subtle domain of the ghost story, albeit a very pumped-up version, with many more shocks per half hour than classical iterations of that genre, and a real talent for suspense, misdirection and sudden scares in evidence.

Now Wan has partnered with different writers to give us, well, the same film, with a little 1970s period detail (although analogue tape decks are not fetishized here as much as in Berberian Sound Studio) and two parallel hauntings that kind of join forces in the middle.

As with Insidious, there is much to quibble about, but as with that film, it’s all mad fun, and so quibbling remains what it is. But how else can you fill a review, except by guaranteeing the audience will levitate from their seats with fright at least five times during the 111 minutes?

While Insidious had its own, not entirely convincing mythic backstory, laid out by funny parapsychologists, the story world of The Conjuring (nobody conjures anything in it, another quibble) is more openly religious. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t turn into a pure born-again Christian reactionary paranoid fantasy, like Eduardo Sanchez’s Lovely Molly a couple of years ago, but there’s still some discomfort from the uncritical presentation of religious crackpots as heroes. And in particular, the scenario’s drafting in of the Salem witch trials as backstory, with all the haunting caused by one evil witch, is tasteless and tacky. The movie wants its audience to have vaguely heard of Salem as some kind of thing, but not to be aware that the men and women tortured and killed were innocent. Wan wouldn’t, I hope, treat Auschwitz that way, so why should another historical tragedy be exploited and distorted?

Fortunately, this is a lone misstep, and the movie actually earns points for not being too nasty: there’s a lot of child endangerment and terror, but relatively little violence, and no exploitation of sexuality. The movie wants to be good-natured, which makes the Salem thing disturbing evidence of dumbness in high places. Wan is super-talented at delivering frissons and jumps, he just needs to take himself a bit more seriously.

On that note, it would be nice if the film had some kind of subtext. As the filmmakers evidently don’t have any particular conviction regarding the supernatural (which is part of what makes the movie so agreeably lightweight: you’ll scream, then go home and sleep like a baby), it would be nice if Wan’s movies could refer to something real outside themselves. Insidious, with its insistent and enervating burglar alarms, did at least call into play modern fears of domestic intrusion, but The Conjuring’s period setting robs it of even that.

Wan continues the upward movement in production values here, but the movie is bigger mainly in terms of cast: one of the great things about his previous movie was the relative conviction of the nice, everyday family. By bringing in Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, along with an excellent troupe of juvenile performers (why so many daughters, though?), Wan builds on his evident gift of harnessing strong performances to the thrill ride.

Wan is young, successful, and having fun: he probably wasn’t even thinking of making a great film, but he should try. With a little attention to meaning, he could.

David Cairns

Watch a clip from The Conjuring:



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 24 June 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Kaneto Shind&#333

Writer: Kaneto Shind&#333

Based on the Japanese folktale: The Cat’s Return

Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, Kichiemon Nakamura

Original title: Yabu no naka no kuroneko

Japan 1968

95 mins

Along with 1964’s Onibaba, Kuroneko (1968) is one of two horror films directed by Kaneto Shind&#333 in the mid-1960s. Although they were the prolific director’s only forays into horror, both are now considered to be genre classics. Like its predecessor, Kuroneko recounts the tale of women struggling to survive by themselves during a period of chaos and civil war. Since her husband was dragged off to join a samurai band three years earlier (at this point in Japanese history the samurai were essentially mercenaries, rather than the powerful hereditary caste they would later become), a wife and her mother-in-law have been left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the women are found by another gang of samurai who rape them, steal their food and leave them for dead. When we next see them, the women have become vengeful spirits, luring stray samurai into their house with offers of alcohol, comfort and sex, only to tear out their victims’ throats and drink their blood. After a number of similar deaths, a local samurai leader sends one of his bravest men to track down the killers. Unbeknown to the women, the samurai sent is the same husband and son taken away from them three years before.

Kuroneko is probably the most famous example of the bakeneko (also known as a kaiby&#333) or ‘ghost cat’ story), one of the more popular variations on the standard kaidan, or ghost story. According to folklore, a cat who drinks human blood can gain magical powers, including the ability to talk, to fly and to assume human form. In horror stories the bakeneko is often a pet whose master is murdered; when the cat drinks its master’s blood, it also inherits their memories, including the identity of the murderer. As a bakeneko, the cat exacts revenge on the guilty party, usually by infiltrating their home and killing off – and consuming – the entire household. In Kuroneko the spirits of the murdered woman and her mother-in-law have become bakeneko, allowing them to continue taking revenge on the samurai they blame for their deaths. Although less well-known in the West, ghost-cat films were very popular in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, attracting a number of key directors, including Nobuo Nakagawa, Kenji Misumi, Tokuz&#333 Tanaka and Teruo Ishii.

Unlike in the majority of bakeneko films, in Kuroneko Shind&#333 is less interested in plotting out the creatures’ revenge than in following the samurai’s relationship to his dead wife and mother, and underlining the political and social changes taking place, in particular the rise of the samurai class. With the exception of the hero, the samurai in Kuroneko are nothing more than thugs whose primary interests lie in money, women and alcohol. The men that the women lure back to their house are finely dressed and dignified, but after a few bowls of sake, they become little different to the ragged crowd who raped and murdered the women. The samurai’s leader describes his men as the nation’s heroes – a claim that might well have resonated with post-war Japanese audiences – but the majority of them seem to be peasants who found a way out of the punishing life of a farmer, mainly at the expense of their less fortunate neighbours.

The returning husband and father is different, however. For one thing, he’s quite willing to acknowledge that his deeds were motivated by nothing more than a survival instinct, while he’s far from the picture of nobility and battlefield glory that the other samurai believe themselves to be. In reality, he simply wants to find his wife and mother, and when he does find them his urge to spend time with the women overrides any sense of duty he might be feeling from his new-found samurai status. These scenes are reminiscent of similar moments in the various versions of another traditional Japanese ghost story, the kaidan botan d&#333r&#333, ‘the ghost story of peony lanterns’, in which a man continues to visit a ghostly woman he has fallen in love with, even though he knows she will eventually kill him. It also prefigures Nobuhiko Obayashi’s award-winning 1988 version of the story, Ijintachi to no Natsu (The Discarnates), with a businessman electing to spend time with his deceased mother and father, despite the risk to his own life.

Beyond the political concerns, Kuroneko works exceptionally well as a ghost story, not least because of the sense of the tragic and bittersweet that colours many similar Japanese tales. For much of its running time the film is an exercise in restraint, creating a tangible atmosphere of dread and unease without resorting to unnecessary shock tactics. Shindé has a fine eye for the grotesque and eye-catching, with one of Kuroneko’s key images – a close-up shot of one of the ghosts with its own severed paw between its teeth – gracing the cover of almost every home video release of the film. The rapid transformation of the hero from half-naked, filthy creature (bearing a severed head!) to dignified, clean-shaven and impeccably dressed aristocrat is another memorable sequence. Like most Japanese horror films of the period, Kuroneko unfolds at a stately pace, but it’s rewarding viewing, and one that will stay with the audience long after it reaches its inevitable climax.

Jim Harper

Watch the original theatrical trailer:

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

This year the BFI is making all 12 of the classic BBC films from A Ghost Story for Christmas series finally available on DVD. The first two volumes, each containing a double bill of chilling tales, including Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968), were released on 20 August.

Two more volumes - each containing three tales - are released on 17 September. The films are: Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975) - all directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and all containing newly filmed introductions by him; The Signalman (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1976) Stigma (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977) and The Ice House (Derek Lister, 1978) - with new introductions to The Signalman and Stigma by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

Comic Strip Review by Tony Hitchman
For more information on Tony Hitchman’s book Using Comic Art to Improve Speaking, Reading and Writing, please go to Amazon.