I was in my Intro to Film Studies class when I got this question on a quiz:
What does it mean when a movie claims to be “Based on a true story?”
I was feeling cheeky and wrote, “It means it’s full of shit.” My professor wrote on the quiz when I got it back, “Not the way I would have phrased it, but that’s right.”
Ever since I saw the movie Ed Wood as a child and found out that a lot of the stuff didn’t happen in the film as in real life, I always approached these claims with trepidation.
Especially when it comes to horror films.
Ever since the 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was marketed as based on a true story, I called bullshit on ever horror film since then. Ethically, it’s fucking shitty to dupe people, even gullible ones, into believing something happened when it sure as hell didn’t even occur.
Now this brings me to The Conjuring film series, in particular the second installment. Not only is the whole marketing built on the true story claims, but it’s within the film itself. With that, it’s damn near impossible to put that shit out of your mind.
It really sucks because there’s a real good movie here.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the original when it came out. It was well made, but it was a little too formulaic for my tastes, especially when it takes itself so seriously. And that true story thing kept creeping in, keeping me from enjoying the film as, well, a film.
Now, I didn’t want that to happen with The Conjuring 2 but I knew it was going to. It’s in its cinematic DNA. Even the filmmakers realized this with a great opening calling into question the authenticity of the Warrens’ investigation into the Amityville Horror. Honestly, I wish the whole movie was about that, but ghosts are fine. I guess.
The sections of The Conjuring 2 that were downright uninteresting involved the Enfield Poltergeist. The family at the center of it were just boring. And since I read that the little girls made some of it up, it gave me pause. During this entire section the thought of, “Did this happen?” keep coming in like a flood, and I couldn’t shake it, to be honest.
But during the very rare moments that I was able to escape those thoughts, I saw a very well constructed, expertly shot horror film that one doesn’t really see nowadays; especially from a major studio.
But the best part of the movie are the performances, especially the chemistry between Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens. Man, I really felt for them as actual people (I know they’re real people, shut up). Every time the story focused on them, it was just gold. Easily the greatest improvement on the first film, actually fleshing out that relationship and it got me even thinking, how many horror films lately actually delves into the characters this well?
That’s where I feel conflicted about the ethical issue of its claims of truth; the movie presents the events as facts, but how can one be certain? The true story claims, certainly when it comes to horror films, are just a cheap marketing ploy to not only get audiences into the cinema, but it also causes the filmmakers to be lazy in creating a believable world that this could happen. Instead of creating skillful scares to make the audience believe, it uses the true story gimmick as a crutch.
I’m still at odds with myself over its claims, but I’d be lying if I didn’t care about the Warrens, and that it is a well crafted ghost story. It’s just a practice that needs to stop, and it overshadowed a good movie, all thanks to some assholes in marketing.