Sunday, April 15, 2018

Conjurer (2008)

After a stillbirth in the late stages of pregnancy, teacher Helen (Maxine Bahns) and her art photographer husband Shawn (Andrew Bowen) leave the Big City behind and move to the country. Helen’s self-declared rich-ass developer brother Frank (John Schneider) is going to build them a house somewhere in the deep south, and apparently make a handsome amount of bucks from the other houses he’s going to build on the property. For now, they move into an older house on the same property.

At first, the good country air is working wonders for Helen’s mental well-being, and even city boy Shawn seems to do very well indeed. Unfortunately, things soon take a turn for the unpleasant, when Shawn explores an empty old shack standing a hundred meters or so away from their house. He finds strange amulets with human teeth there, and cuts himself – a wound which will never heal and only get worse throughout the rest of the movie. Shawn starts hearing and seeing peculiar and disturbing things: mysterious lights at night in the shack, a crow that acts rather more sinister than these birds usually do, the shape of a woman staring at him.

Turns out there are tales about the shack reaching back to the end of the US Civil War basically everybody in the area knows. Apparently, it was home to a witch who didn’t take too kindly to anyone encroaching on her habitation. Further investigation provoked by increasing supernatural encounters for Shawn – Helen seems very much untouched by anything but the increasingly disturbed state of her husband’s mind – suggests a rather darker truth.

For a time, Clint Hutchison’s Conjurer is a very nice surprise. It may be cheap and look a bit like a TV movie – not a badly made TV movie, mind you – but it is also a more than decent attempt to make something like a US Southern folk horror film, a well of potential horror movie tales that still waits for more genre filmmakers to lower their buckets into. After all, as Conjurer in its own, pleasantly unspectacular, way demonstrates, there’s a whole, rich world of folk tales of conjure women, crow familiars and creepy little cabins to build your own movie mythology on; and if you want to say something about the world with your horror films, there’s this slavery thing you might have heard about, as well as the Jim Crow laws afterwards that would make a rather obvious entry point there which could also rather well be used in connection with Southern folk horror.

But even for a film like Conjurer that isn’t interested in the shadow of slavery, the use of a pseudo-folkloric background does wonders for its atmosphere, combining with the Georgia locations to create an actual sense of place – and that without the film ever trying to cart out the expected character clichés. Why, even the character mostly in tune with your typical movie yokel correctly believing in the supernatural isn’t drawn as crudely as all that, and so works very well as just a guy who believes in things he has learned to be true from his own experience, whereas the rest of the couple of locals we meet is just as unbelieving as anybody you’d meet anywhere else. Extra bonus points for the film not going overboard with the accents; there’s little that makes a film feel less taking place somewhere than attempts at really hammering it home.

This isn’t a film of big shocks or gore, but presents itself as a pretty traditional ghost story. Hutchison’s not really reaching great depths of horror there, either, yet the film has a general air of calm competence that simply works for what it does. Just because a film doesn’t really stare into the abyss doesn’t mean it is not delivering some pleasant chills, after all.

I am less satisfied with the climax of the plot, though, which goes for exactly the sort of double twist you’d expect and that really leaves the plot hanging in a rather dissatisfying way. I am usually a big fan of ambiguous and open endings in horror, but if a film is as straightforward as Conjurer is, it does demand an equally straightforward ending.

Nonetheless, given the relatively minor number of Southern folk horror movies, and the fact that the film works well for as long as its does, Conjurer is certainly worthy of more eyes – and kind words – than it seems to have gotten.

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