Near the end of Monsters University, the recent Monsters Inc. prequel, Mike and Sully must, for some reason, scare some adults in a cabin. Sully (spoilers -- not really) is not scary himself, but he's a genius at "setting up" a scare. As the adults enter they cabin, they are exposed to one horror cliché after another: doors creak, a wind-up doll walks across the floor, a warped record plays on an antique record player, etc. It's a pretty funny scene.
It also could have been almost any scene in The Conjuring.
This is the story of the Warrens, a husband and wife who apparently are famous ghost/demon hunters in real life, for a very forgiving version of "real." Basically they go to houses where things are possessed by demons, investigate, summon a priest to do an exorcism, and then keep the possessed thing in a storage room of spooky things. Somehow the things are all still possessed, even though they had the exorcism.
The first thing that we see possessed is a doll. Really. The doll has a mean-looking face that appears to be scowling at you, which means it's not scary at all. Possessed dolls are scary because of the contrast between their apparent innocence and the terror inside them, so a doll that's already scary defeats the purpose. This doll is found by the dumbest couple of nurses on Earth, who for some reason not only take the horrible-looking thing home but then invite a ghost to live in it. The doll leaves them scary notes ("Miss me?") and makes loud banging noises on the door, until the nurses are rescued by the Warrens.
This was just the opening of the movie, a film-in-a-film played by the Warrens at one of their apparently popular university appearances. I and my date both assumed that it was set up as contrast toward the real scary stuff to come. We weren't the only ones: the audience was laughing their heads off.
The main story involves a family, the Perrins, moving into an old house out in the middle of the country. Really. We've been warned this story is so scary the Warrens haven't revealed it until now. (Why now?)
Eddie Murphy had a funny riff once about how dumb white people are in horror movies, and wonders why they stay in houses like this. But of course the Perrins sank all of their money into the house, so they can't move out when it turns out to a bigger batch of horror clichés than The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
First, the dog won't go into the house (It doesn't help him; he's dead in the morning.). Doors creak and slam, rocking chairs rock with no one in them, invisible hands grab the children's feet in the night, and there is an old basement full of antique stuff and a ball that rolls by itself. Birds fly into the windows and break their necks. Of course there's a kid who had a sleepwalking problem, and she starts sleepwalking again. She keeps trying to sleepwalk into an old wardrobe. (Spoiler: it doesn't lead to Narnia.) Another kid starts having conversations with an "invisible friend" who she sees in the mirrored lid of a music box.
Really. A music box.
I was reminded of The Shining, which was another collection of scary movie clichés. But The Shining was driven by the genius of Stanley Kubrick and the manic energy of Jack Nicholson. There is no one involved in this movie with the talent to make these tropes fresh, not even Lilly Taylor, who plays Carolyn Perrin, the mother.
Carolyn finds the Warrens at one of their sold-out speeches and begs them to come out. Mr. Warren is reluctant, for mysterious reasons, but Mrs. Warren agrees. Mrs. Warren immediately sees spirits around every corner (she's the one that's "sensitive" to them), including a body hanging from one of the trees. Really.
Research quickly reveals that the house was the location of a ridiculous number of demonic rituals, suicidal witches and child murders. If they'd looked another fifty years back, they'd no doubt have found it was also an Indian burial ground.
Nevertheless the Warrens must investigate with a whole rig of what was then (early 70s, I think) top-of-the-line technology: microphones in every room, video cameras, camera traps, and a UV light for revealing fingerprints. I guess ghosts have fingerprints?
This documentation is necessary in order to convince the Church to get an exorcist out. Mr. Warren can't do the exorcism himself because he's not "qualified." I thought only priests could do exorcisms because of their special relationship with God. But apparently it's just a licensing issue, like being a barber.
They've also brought a young intern (I wonder if he's getting college credit?) and the stupidest sheriff's deputy since The Dukes of Hazzard, who at least provides some comic relief. The deputy was probably sent by the sheriff just to get the idiot out of his hair. I don't know what else he was supposed to be good for since, as the intern quickly points out, "you can't shoot ghosts."
What follows is every scene you've ever seen in any movie about a ghost, a demon, an exorcism or a haunted house. There isn't a single thing that happens in this movie I haven't seen in at least three other films, and I don't even watch that many horror flicks. I kept waiting for one of the Wayans brothers to make an appearance. The Warrens' daughter gets dragged into it and Scary (not) Doll gets involved, too.
Nevertheless, this movie has more than five stars and an 80+% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What's going on, movie critics? Are you trying to trick me into seeing The Lone Ranger?
The movie closes with a quote from Mr. Warren about how God is real and we have to be careful of demons. Was this whole thing a setup by evangelicals to scare us into converting? That would explain a lot. Using dumb scary stories to spook people into believing claptrap is basically what they've been doing for as long as I can remember. But with all the money they have, couldn't they have gotten a decent screenwriter?