I have a theory that, for many, many millions of years, mankind was an attic-dwelling species. We shunned the in-between and middle places. Basements, cellars, cupolas. These were our domain. We lived amongst mold and miscellanea. Kind of like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bumpkins, only without all the headcheese and bony furniture. But after a while, we wanted a taste of light and air. We built some Southern exposures, put up some French drapes, installed some gazebos, conjured Martha Stewart, our avatar of domesticana.
But the myth and mystique of the basement and attic, these peripheral places of cast-off clutter, have stayed with us. The Freudian concept of the sub- and unconscious self is nothing but an attic-lover’s take on the psyche. That’s why Quasimodo is our most enduring icon, a hero for the attic-less ages. He lived in the holiest attic of them all–the bell tower of Notre Dame.
Nowhere is our attic fixation more prevalent than in the horror genre. The Mysterious Place, the forgotten world, where time and physics stop and the imagination, that darkest and most devilish of attics, spills over into the waking world. Movies like "Wolf Creek" and "Jeepers Creepers," and leaping a few decades back, "Psycho" (the ultimate attic movie–the Bates mansion is just one big attic of percolating neuroses) and the Hammer Horror oddities all had a genius, both delicate and diabolical, for the attic archetype. Wolf Creek and the stalked corn stalks of "Creepers" are places of true terror, where people vanish into nothingness, where dreadful otherworlds merge with lonely stretches of sun-scorched highway and cobwebbed cabins. Places like these are the harshest hells, heartbreaking and empty (David Lynch tried to base an entire series around one of these Nowhere Lands: "Watch out for the woods. The woods in Twin Peaks are wondrous, but strange.")
So how does "Conjurer," the latest entry into the Mysterious Place sub-genre, fare? In the first few minutes, quite well. We have lingering pans over grimy jars and bottles of pickled viscera, sunlight splitting through them, cold and clinical, a wicked-looking workshop, a place where Freddy Kreuger might like to unwind and whet teeth and talons between slayings.
Then the camera jumps to the anti-attic, the art gallery show, where an artist’s loving depictions of the underworld of his unconscious is auctioned off like a time share for a Florida swamp. If Clint Hutchinson, the director, had been able to throw a parallel between the formaldehyde nightmare of the first scene and these armani raptors, it would’ve gotten some diabolical gears churning and "Conjurer" might’ve been about something other than reference and regurgitation.
As it is, it’s one of those secluded hell house movies that we’ve seen time and again, everywhere from "The Others" to "The Turn of the Screw," although it’s nice to see a horror flick where, when the ghoulish undead is advancing and the petrified protagonist is trying to load the shotgun, he doesn’t fumble the shells, but manages to lock and load quicker than Deadshot.
Speaking of the protagonist, you know a film is in trouble, acting-wise, when the dude from "Dukes of Hazzard" mops the floor with your cast of feisty unknowns. Mr. John Schneider has clearly cultivated his good-ole-boy routine since landing the role of the ultimate father figure, the righteous John Kent on "Smallville," although, it’s not hard to outact an Abercrombie & Fitch model so expressionless, he looks like he was carved from petrified wood.
Movies like these are mood pieces, equal parts memory and monster. Here, the monster is a memory, downloaded from a hundred other, fiercer, bloodier horror films.
I just saw "Them" and "High Tension," two French films and furious entries in the Mysterious Place subgenre. These are movies that know our deepest horrors are locked away in the attics of our brains. All they have to do is pick the padlock and fling wide the door.