In a rather perfect example of the Coen Brothers’ irreverent mischievousness, their 1996 masterpiece Fargo opens with the text ‘This is a true story‘. Mainly employed to set the tone for their story, which is at its heart a deeply cynical look at human greed and folly, it was a knowingly bogus claim that virtually everyone was aware of from the get-go. A blatant lie rather than a half true, it escapes genuine criticism mostly due to its audacity. Even so, it sparked an infamous urban legend that a woman went in hunt of the loot and froze to death, having seen the movie and the truthfulness claim and taking it that real money was buried somewhere in the snowfields of Minnesota. While it has since proven to be a false story, either fabricated or mis-attributing a real death to a fictional premise, the myth, like all good urban legends, holds at its heart a foreboding message, rather like a parable: the dangers of presenting fiction as fact and misleading an audience whose trust you hold in your quirky hands.
This is all rather meta, the idea of a film falsely claiming to be based on fact birthing a fable that is similarly fictional, but this sentiment does hold some water. Earlier this month, Sinister director Scott Derrickson’s latest horror outing Deliver Us From Evil was released. It tells the story of real life NYPD officer turned paranormal researcher/enforcer Ralph Sarchie as he evolves from skeptical beat cop to fully fledged demon hunter. It marches under a variant banner, the ‘Inspired by a True Story’ claim. It also happens to be an inferior, ludicrous and downright dishonest slice of forgettable pulp, composed of tired and predictable jump scares, over the top exorcisms, and heavy dialogue aiming at profound but instead turning out profoundly stupid. The method of taking a genuine person and putting them in an fictional story rather than telling their story is a questionable concept. The suggestion of truth behind an uninspired horror movie is an easy means to attract a bigger audience, after all. It is a double-edged sword when said audience discovers that the majority of what they have seen is inaccurate and, on occasion, almost slanderous. It is fortuitous that the real life Sarchie didn’t object more stringently to being depicted as a murderer.
All of these issues leads to one long debate about how best to depict fact when weaving a fictional film, an argument which has raged for some time. Ever since filmmakers began telling real stories in this format, there have been great and gouty pictures accused and condemned for their liberties. Though a rabble rousing heavyweight genre piece, Braveheart’s retelling of William Wallace’s fight for Scottish independence is rife with fiction and misdirection. Elsewhere, the real life account of The Amityville Horror has been thoroughly discredited over the years, and 2013 Best Picture winner Argo famously downplayed the part played in the Iran hostage crisis by Canadians, Kiwis and Brits. The reasons behind each respective remoulding of history varies from case to case, from narrative convenience to production necessity. And of course, when it comes to this particular medium, somebody will always be left upset.
Some are worse than others, however. Argo is far from the first retelling to leave out certain players in the real event. Similarly, Braveheart remoulds now ancient events in lieu of a better balanced story and a more likeable protagonist, a trademark of historical movies. For the most part, these films do not make a deliberate effort to hook the viewer with the notion that what they are watching is genuine, only to then misdirect, deceive and bluntly lie. In the interest of responsibility, a filmmaker must state their intention to their audience ahead of time and even before then make a choice as to how they will approach their story. Hence ‘Based on a True Story’ or ‘Inspired by a True Story’. There is a huge difference between the two proclamations, but it is one that is often forgotten. At times, it seems, the meaning of the words themselves is forgotten or misunderstood before appearing.
A great example of this would be last year’s American Hustle. A veritable smorgasbord of fact and fancy clothed in the real life Abscam scandal but otherwise making its own way as an often wacky, always fascinating caper movie, it sets the mood and declares its stance from the very first, with the chuckle-inducing informality of its opening claim ‘Some of this really happened‘. Here, David O Russell essentially protects himself as well as his audience, informing them that while he has used real events to bring about a larking story, he is well aware that much of it is from his own imagination, and wants us to be aware of the fact. Changing the names of the real people upon whom the story is based is another must. Yes, they may be based on real people, but we know they are not meant to be said people, merely inspired by them. He may have a genesis in the real world, but Irving Rosenfeld is a fictional character who can be used in any way the writer wishes.
This is the very essence of the ‘Inspired’ category. Like Unstoppable or Boogie Nights before it, American Hustle may use some fact, but not enough of it to present itself as a truthful account. Claiming otherwise would be misrepresentation and manipulative. They are made-up stories that have been ‘inspired‘ by something that, at some point, has really happened. Hence ‘Inspired by’. This sounds so routine and basic that it is almost insulting to highlight and emphasize the point so taciturnly. Yet, it can also be deemed as necessary. Deliver Us From Evil uses this banner, yet in its marketing and press releases, undoubted influences on the audience, informs the public that it is using real accounts from Ralph Sarchie’s life and reforming them into a cohesive narrative with a straightforward (read: fake) plot. Sarchie is depicted in the film as himself, not a fictional expy or counterpart, as are his family. Bits and pieces from his research are deployed. This isn’t ‘inspired by‘, it is ‘based on‘. Then the film introduces a truckload of facetious and unoriginal fiction. In essence, a real person’s experiences are depicted and then overblown and twisted. The result is that it it devalues the meaning of ‘inspired by’ while trying to avoid the dishonesty stigma of utilizing ‘based on’.
A crying shame, because Sarchie’s real life is an interesting fable and one that perhaps merited a more understated, less obnoxious treatment. Similarly, a Bronx cop who begins investigating the paranormal, an infusion of procedural noir and horror, is a great premise for a fictional genre piece. Sarchie’s accounts opened the way for two possible movies, and yet Derrickson aimed between them and delivered a mess that it is too silly to be taken seriously and yet too facts-driven to be seen as popcorn entertainment. Out of the two alternative options for how to handle this material, the former would take the ‘based on’ card and thus show respect for the source material, however questionable, while the latter would use the ‘inspired by’ motif and operate with free reign on the condition that it never tries to convince the viewer that what they are watching is entirely factual. Sadly, this principle is seldom respected and ‘Inspired by’ becomes a disclaimer, a means to attract buzz and ticket sales while avoiding potential legal ramifications. In short, a con. And the ultimate truth is that, were Deliver Us From Evil any good, such a discussion wouldn’t take place.
That point opens the door to another aspect of this issue, one of bare-faced hypocrisy. The unwritten rule would appear to be that the better a film, the more forgivable the lapses in accuracy. Fargo happened to be a superb film, otherwise it’s opening deception would have been a source of outrage rather than amusement. Deliver Us From Evil will be torn to shreds for its blatant exaggerations and exploitation of real people just as easily as it is mocked for its poor quality. Even when a film claims full fact, utilizing the dreaded ‘Based on a True Story’ text, it can avoid such persecution if sufficiently well-executed. Another horror film with a much warmer reception, last year’s The Conjuring, even went so far as to explain at its start that the tale it was about to tell was from the secret files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a case so horrifying it had never seen the light of day. There is no dancing around the subject of portrayal here; James Wan’s movie announces itself as, in essence, a reconstruction. And yet despite it’s certified fresh rating, it is barely any more credible than Deliver Us From Evil.
It is little wonder with its framing that so many people would be terrified by this ghost story, given that said audience knew that all of this really happened. It broke records, proved to be one of the biggest commercial hits of the year, and was easily the most successful genre flick of 2013 for this very reason. For all that it has some nicely executed scares, the most effective being slowly escalating set-pieces imbued with creepy malevolence and suggestion, The Conjuring would be little more than an enjoyable fright night flick were it not for the history. Even for skeptics quick to discredit the work of the Warrens (Lorraine was a consultant on the picture, as well as a character) and any such paranormal phenomenon, the substance of actual testimony always adds a certain gravitas where the supernatural is concerned. And it was all real testimony, regardless of how much credence one could give it…
Except it wasn’t. Not all. Although many of the events depicted in the film came from the real case files, a large portion, namely the overblown second half, were imagined up by the writing staff or so bloated with exaggeration that they barely resembled the truth. Capturing the oppression and terror suffered by the Perron family is one of the film’s strong suits. Jack in the Box scares by animated corpse variant ghosts not only have no place in the real accounts but destroy the tension built up. There was a real Annabelle doll that the Warrens dealt with, but it had no connection to the Perron case and was not the cliche sink hole that is the creepy, Chucky-esque version shown on screen. The real house is depicted as an old manse with a network of secret tunnels and crawl spaces, whereas the real building was a single story croft with a creepy basement. Various phenomena recorded or reported in real life are changed for dramatic effect, and a nail-biting, heaven and hell climax is heightened to hysterical levels of scale and depicting as the end of the tale. The ten-year span of the real case is reduced to what appears to be a few months at most, and a fictional emotional bond between the Warrens and Perrons is introduced. Most of the least scary, least interesting and downright lazy elements seen in the film are invented without due cause.
The worst offense, one which revokes the justification of creative license alongside factual retelling, is the black and white, dead to rights portrayal of Bathseba Sherman as a baby-killing witch and satanist spell-binder. Sherman was a real woman who lived at the real house in the nineteenth century, who was the subject of rumor and here-say and whom Lorraine Warren did identify as the cause of the haunting, albeit through scientifically dubious means. Unfortunately, there is no proof that Sherman was a witch beyond speculation, nothing to suggest that she ever killed any of her children, and, to top it off, the claim that she hung herself from a tree by the lake is entirely fictional. She died of old age, leaving a son who himself would also die an old man. The dark, dark list of deaths connected to the house does not stand out as particularly notable when put into the context of the time. You can almost forgive the film for taking huge liberties to ramp up the terror, but said leniency cannot apply to propagating hateful conjecture about real people in the most disrespectful, irresponsible manner possible and then presenting it as proven fact. It is beyond the pale.
When you throw in all the doubt that shrouds the case, including the most recent incumbents of the house going as far as to collect a dossier of evidence debunking the claims of the Perrons and Warrens, you realize that that this material is too ambiguous for such treatment even before you begin introducing fiction. A very fine line must be trodden, depicting documented events without chasing agendas or making conclusions that do not hold up. It could be a portrayal of the dark experiences of the Perrons, or a look at the work of the doubtlessly fascinating Warrens, but, either way, by sinking into convention it abandons its stance as a purveyor of the truth. How many members of the audience walked out of the film convinced that what they saw was true and without the gumption to do their own research and learn that actually it wasn’t? The answer is most. For an example of the right way to treat a true story and maintain a level of suspense, watch David Fincher’s Zodiac, which eschews formulaic narrative in favor of balance, and still frightens and enthralls one to their core. The Conjuring, by contrast, is deeply dishonest cinema and frankly exploitative.
Bringing us full circle, the correct way to handle the material would have been to opt for ‘Inspired by’ – in its correct usage – and make a ghost story with links to real events, but without the gall to claim absolute truth. This would assuage Wan’s desire to create a horror movie with the feel and aesthetic of the classic 70s era and also allow him to go full throttle with possessions, hidden nooses, and demonic influence, while also ensuring that historical balance was not disturbed and that the innocent (until proven guilty) were not harmed. Perhaps most relevantly, it would also avoid a situation whereby, intentionally or not, masses of trusting film-goers were lied to. The news that a sequel to the film based around another real life case, the Enfield Poltergeist, is incredibly worrying for this reason. This is why the term ‘Inspired by’ was coined, why it is used, and why it is necessary to maintain a gap between the facts and the fiction. As any writer will tell you, all good yarns come from good truth. But unless you intend to respect the facts, it must only be as inspiration and touchstone, not a means to twist reality to suit your purposes.
Then again, this would make your dross a little harder to sell, so why bother when nobody complains? It’s not like the dead can fight back, after all… not in real life at any rate. Now how’s that for irony?
This has been a Strange Interpretation
— Scott Patterson