What makes a horror movie actually scary? Is it the villains who threaten the lives of the protagonists? Is it the knowledge that anyone could meet his/her demise at any second? Is it the gore and viscera that sprays across the screen? Or is it something else, something deeper?
For me, horror only affects me deeply when I can empathize with what I’m seeing. As an example, it’s the reason that Dr. Gordon’s racking sobs towards the end of Saw caused tears to spring in my own eyes. The fact that we know that his family is safe only amplifies the anguish of the climax. I was begging for him to find some way of finding out what had happened so that he could find some semblance of peace. When he finally grabs the saw, my horror is met in equal measure with a terrifying understanding. This man thinks his family is being killed, so how can I fault him for doing what he’s doing? I can’t blame him or mock his decision, like I can in so many other horror situations. His love for his family, the guilt that encompasses him, it all spills over in a flood of fear, terror, and desperation. To this day, I still find the 3rd act of Saw emotionally difficult to sit through.
So what does this have to do with The Conjuring 2? Well, everything! What director James Wan has done with both films is he’s created a world where we spend time with the characters in ways that build up who they are rather than the situation they’re in. By taking the time to make me care about the characters, I care about what actually happens to them. And no scene in The Conjuring 2 enforces that point more than when Ed spots a guitar and plays Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Here’s the scene I’m talking about:
I’m the kind of person who gets really uncomfortable with “cringe” videos and stories. If a comedy bases its humor on making fun of people rather than situations, I usually will hate it with every fiber of my being. I will pull my hood over my head and cover my eyes while putting my hands on my ears. I’ll do whatever I can to avoid the awkward uncomfortableness of the scene because it makes me feel like my entire body is crawling.
When Ed asks for the guitar, I originally thought, “Oh no, please don’t do this.” I was ready to curl up in the middle of the theater and suffer for the next few minutes. But what happened during that scene was quite possibly the most important part of the entire movie. After seeing the Hodgsons suffer without help and recognizing that each of them was basically at a breaking point, this interlude was a momentary, yet precious reprieve from seemingly unending fear. As an audience member, seeing those children smile and sing along with Ed Warren was, and still is, perhaps the best example of “heartwarming” I can think of.
But what’s more is what else is happening while Ed plays. It’s the sidelong glance he gives Lorraine that is full of love, a look reciprocated by her as we, the audience, see the love that these two have for each other only grow stronger. Because the film takes those few seconds to establish such a strong relationship, the later events are all the more dramatic. When Ed goes into the basement and the door locks behind him, the separation between him and Lorraine is heart-wrenching. Watching her pound on the door while crying his name between tears feels real because the story made it so.
It’s also seeing Peggy Hodgson as she sits behind her children, a huge smile on her face while she watches them sing along with Ed, brushing tears of happiness from her eyes occasionally. For all the struggles and horrors that they’ve endured, her love for her children has never waned and her want for them to have a wonderful, safe life is clearly apparent.
By building such strong relationships between the characters and, in turn, between the characters and the audience, any danger that they encounter feels all the more dramatic and threatening. Were I to not care about these characters, as I don’t in pretty much any Friday the 13th film or Amityville sequel*, then I would never be scared by the film. It’s because of my attachment to those on the screen that I feel terror.
To every aspiring filmmaker, I offer you my one piece of advice that I feel is the most important lesson of all: If you can make me care about your characters, you’ll make me care about your film.
*Not trying to bash these films. Just saying that they are definitely lacking when it comes to character development.
- One-Eye I had the game on the venerable Commodore64 and it was shit. I could just never figure out how to play it and I got killed every time.
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