Suddenly, it’s Enfield time. The notorious 1970s poltergeist case recently got the TV treatment with The Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall, and hits the big screen with THE CONJURING 2. We watched both within days, reminded ourselves of the 2007 TV doc Interview with a Poltergeist and the 2008 one, The Enfield Poltergeist, and Fiona did a bunch of background reading on a story which had, ahem, haunted her since her teens.
Both fictional adaptations have their good points, but neither is wholly satisfactory. But one is a lot of fun.
The TV drama version of Enfield has an atmospheric title sequence and a reasonably effective period feel, though there are always stray bits of dialogue in these things that don’t feel right. It’s worst moment is early on, when a shrill, REPULSION-style telephone ring breaks in on a conversation to supposedly shocking effect. The phone is then answered, and proves to be a trimphone, a model which, as anyone alive at the time knows, made a gentle, trilling sound, not the old fashioned rotary phone jangle-shriek. Unforgivable!
None of the people in this show look like their real-life counterparts, which matters more than it normally would. Paranormal investigator Maurice Gross had huge comedy sideburns, and altering his appearance was probably a good idea. Spall’s hangdog look suits the character. But the afflicted family have been normalized — what we see in the photographs is a prematurely aged, careworn mother who looks like she should be the kids’ grandmother, and Janet, the child at the centre of the occurrences, is emaciated and sharp-featured, with prominent corpse-like teeth. The kids in the show are all really good, especially Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Janet, but they’re too cute and too posh. Not many hyphens in Enfield.
The show is totally uninterested in who the family were. The absent father is never discussed, the family’s income goes unexplained (they were constantly financially stressed) and they essentially seem to have come into existence without past histories the second the cameras started rolling.
The script, by Joshua St Johnson, invents lots of bogus haunting details, apparently unsatisfied with the rather peculiar and alarming true-life incidents. A kid looks through a Viewmaster-type slide viewer, and is startled by an apparition. Never happened — and mimics too obviously the BOO! YouTube videos of a few years back, further shredding the sense of period. To make room for these inventions, many authentic details are omitted.
This might be forgivable if the result was a balls-out thrill-ride, but the thing just isn’t scary. Slickly made, it nevertheless lacks any sense of how to generate terror, its most damaging weakness being the timing. It’s always in a hurry, so no suspense is generated. When something scary seems about to happen, it immediately happens. We aren’t forced to wait. There are no false build-ups without pay-off, and you can tell which scenes are going to have apparitions and which aren’t, so you can completely relax in between “shocks”. I’ve just made a scary movie which isn’t really scary (but it’s hopefully funny) so I know how difficult this is, especially when you’re trying to keep the pace up, but I was disappointed by all the supposedly creepy bits. I was never anxious that I was about to be unpleasantly surprised by something uncanny, and I never was. Some of it had to do with TV closeness, as there were moments when viewing little vulnerable figures from a distance would have helped. But mostly it was a problem of time, not space.
James Wan’s latest spookshow, THE CONJURING 2, hoes very close to the rut carved by his earlier works, but surprises in two ways. Firstly, it’s frequently quite a bit closer to the facts and “facts” of the Enfield case than the TV version (and, sub-surprise, it’s not notably less accurate in terms of period flavour nor Englishness). Of course, it departs wildly from history in order to have the expected POLTERGEIST style all-Hell-breaks-loose-but-in-a-localized-domestic-area ending, but it does surprising things like acknowledging the fact that little Janet was caught on camera faking manifestations. Some of the conversations with “Bill Wilkins,” the apparently malevolent departed spirit, are reproduced almost verbatim, and are scarier than anything the TV show created.
The real-life ghostbusters established in the first film, Lorraine & Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) visited the afflicted house, very briefly, out of the blue and uninvited, and this slender basis allows Wan and his throng of co-scenarists to shoehorn in most of the more evocative reported “facts” of the case.
Secondly, Wan shows slightly more interest in the family set-up and the characters, which ought to be where British telly excels. We hear about the absent dad and get more sense of the family’s financial impoverishment. The kind of pressures that could either lead to a psychic eruption, if you believe that sort of thing, or cause a little girl who is deprived in all sorts of ways to exercise her natural cleverness in an original and naughty way.
The only point where Wan’s film falls down in comparison to the TV show is in its depiction of the family home, realistically drab and cramped in the TV version (and its very mundane reality ought to make the unheimlich occurrences more chilling), implausibly cavernous in the movie, and equipped with a ridiculous flooded cellar from which one expects Karloff to emerge. In a vain attempt to make this haunted mansion seem working-class, Wan’s art department have distressed every surface to suggest centuries of neglect. They’ve made it look like a haunted house, in fact. This should be disastrous, and it’s certainly less intelligent than the low-key authenticity of the TV show’s look. But, rather annoyingly, Wan’s film is deeply frightening and tense where the TV version just isn’t.
Wan’s camerawork is brilliantly scary. It’s at the service of a slightly dumb plot that barely makes sense, and hardline Christian propaganda (which absolutely makes no sense), but his understanding of when to go wide and when to come in close, his timing of shocks, and his willingness to withhold the expected shocks and leave the audience panting, is absolutely first-rate. Scene by scene, there are terrific creepy gimmicks and visual devices: a creepy painting looming from the shadows so that it might be a real face (borrowed either from THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR or THE OTHERS’ borrowing of it) is spun into a terrifying sequence which takes the concept to giddy new heights of suspense — and then into ridiculous, FRIGHTENERS-type realms of crazy.
Best of all is a protracted single take in which Wilson is compelled to interrogate child actor Madison Wolfe as Janet, with his back to her. Janet remains well out of focus in the background, and we stay on Wilson’s face as he asks his questions with increasing trepidation. Meanwhile, we become aware that the blurry shape of Janet in the background has imperceptibly changed… no longer seems like a little girl, in fact.
Wan also repeats the most shocking shock from INSIDIOUS, by having the ghost/demon suddenly seen over somebody’s shoulder during a daylit conversation scene — the violent rupturing of normality made Fiona scream (“Damnit! He did it AGAIN! Fuck you, James Wan!”*) and makes every subsequent neutral scene fraught with tension, because the bastard could do it again any time he feels like it.
Wan’s kids aren’t as terrific as those he had in the first film, or those in the TV adaptation. But he has a superior Maurice Gross, the elaborately bewhiskered Brit investigator, here embodied by the beady-eyed Simon McBurney, a man who creates dramatic tension just by looking at things.
Anybody interested in the art of suspense and horror should see THE CONJURING 2, even though the content side of it is extremely frustrating. Watching both dramatizations of the case, and viewing some of the docs (an experienced enhanced by the fact in Interview with a Poltergeist, the reconstructions feature my friend Dylan Matthew in the role of a concerned neighbour) I formed some conclusions about what the perfect adaptation would look like — so I offer the following suggestions for anyone thinking of venturing into this terrain ~
- Embrace the uncertain. Both TV and movie versions are in a terrible hurry to confirm that, yes, there really is a haunting. Since doubt is scary, and the feeling of not-quite certainty animates and energizes the documentary treatments of the story, I would suggest maintaining some question in the audience’s mind about the reality of the various ghostly phenomena would be a good strategy for maintaining interest and augmenting fear. Since most commercial versions of this kind of thing are going to end up affirming the existence of the supernatural (from bitter experience I can say that producers today are deathly afraid of ambiguity), you also gain a turning point which can amp up the dramatic stakes midway through. All the makers of these things seem to admire THE HAUNTING and THE INNOCENTS, but few of them seem to understand those movies, or at any rate they lack the ambition to even try to achieve the same depth.
- Embrace the slow. Wan understands this and the TV team didn’t — terror is a slow-burn emotion. Slam-bang stuff has limited value, and scenes that are pace like normal telly just can’t be scary at all. There’s a sort of normalizing effect when things get shaped into slots between commercials which eliminates the frissons achievable when a scene is stretched to breaking point while nothing actually happens. Slow can be the opposite of boring.
- Embrace the bizarre. Little Janet would speak in a terrifying ghost-voice (she had studied ventriloquism, some say), but the ghost’s utterances had a peculiarly childlike sensibility, considering he was meant to be 77 years old at the time of his demise. Fiona recalls the extravagant claim “I’ve got a hundred dogs,” though she admits she may have imagined it. But it has an uncanny, demonic, yet stupid feeling about it. The Late Bill Wilkins was also partial to knock-knock jokes. This gets us into thrillingly Lynchian territory. Fear is frightening, but fear mixed with contradictory emotions is really disturbing. Fuses start to blow in the audience-brain.
- Scare yourself. There’s a dull BBC show right now called The Living and the Dead. It has a beautifully evoked early twentieth century look, copying the palette of Lumiere’s autochrome photographs. But Nothing. Scary. Ever. Happens. Again, the show’s haste is part of the problem. A girl turns up bloody, having apparently self-mutilated. And the show immediately cuts to the aftermath. An efficient ellipsis, but one which leaves out all the disturbing stuff of dealing with the demented, gory teenager. The horror writer has to find themself writing stuff that actually freaks them out. As with comedy, where you perform the schizoid trick of trying to crack yourself up, you can do this by either going further than you set out to go, or by attacking the situation from a weird, unexpected direction. And, worryingly, just as there’s not much scary on Brit TV just now, there’s not much that’s funny.
*She doesn’t really mean it. She rather likes James Wan.