– Summary –
Director : James Wan
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Patrick Wilson, Verga Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins, Joseph Bishara.
Approx Running Time : 112 Minutes
Synopsis: Two paranormal investigators take the case of a Rhode Island family terrorized by ghostly manifestations in their newly purchased home.
What we think : Heart-stopping ghost story is light on gore and bad CG, and heaped up with genuinely frightening moments of absolute terror. Although I’m not quite sure what the “conjuring” in the title refers to, the movie is an absolute ripper, right from the top scary shelf; okay, it’s no Exorcist, but it’s a far cry from most other horror films made these days. If you like good scares, and an atmosphere of dread, this is the one for you.
Conjuring up some great scares.
Is it just me, or are Based On A True Story scare-flicks just that little bit more frightening? The fact that something may have happened to real people, somewhere, is infinitely more chilling than a complete fictional construct (at least, in my eyes), so to discover the truth behind The Conjuring’s ostensibly crash-bang scare routine was that it’s based on actual living people (well, one of them is now deceased, but you get my point), makes the end result of this film only that much more potent. The Conjuring is directed by James Wan, the guy behind the Saw franchise, and more recently the Insidious double-act. While he’s since moved on to other types of projects – think Fast & Furious 7 – there’s little doubt that Wan has a gift for freaking people out. If, as Wan has stated, The Conjuring is his last “horror” film, then he’s delivered one for the ages. Not only is it spooky as all hell, it’s the “true” story of two actual paranormal investigators, Lorraine and Ed Warren. Anybody who has seen the film (or read the book) The Amityville Horror (and its grasping sequels) will likely have heard of them; the Amityville story was a real event (or, as real as ghosts are) that formed the basis for the book and film. The Conjuring is another file from their investigative cases; the sense of reality and matter-of-fact attitude the Warren’s exhibit via their proxies here (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) only adds to the tension and sense of “truth” to it all.
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, respectively) move into a dilapidated old house in Rhode Island, in 1971. Along with their five daughters and the family dog, they are struggling financially and Roger, a truck driver, spends a lot of time away from home. Soon after moving in, however, they begin to encounter strange occurrences – their dog is found dead, birds fly into the walls and snap their necks, whispers and sounds emanate from previously empty rooms or from behind locked doors. As the ghostly encounters begin to manifest in more frightening ways, the Perron’s call in psychic and paranormal investigators, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), who determine that the house is indeed haunted by a number of entities – none of whom seek to play nice. The Warrens determine than an exorcism on the house should be done as soon as possible, so they set about gathering proof for the Catholic Church to proceed with.
Look, it doesn’t matter what you think about psychics or the paranormal (me, I’m a little iffy on it all), there’s no denying that The Conjuring’s underlying supernatural conceit is damn electrifying. I always find stories about demonic possession and the more questionable elements of our existence to be fascinating, although I’ve never actually seen a ghost, nor been possessed by any kind of evil spirit – perhaps this fascination stems from Hollywood’s apparent preoccupation with them. I don’t know, but there’s one thing for certain: whether you’re a believer in this kind of thing or not, The Conjuring’s potent mix of old-school scares and polished, assured direction adds up to a thumping good time having the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. Regardless of what the films story is about, it’s essentially about people trying to survive, and in this regard I think The Conjuring works better than most other mainstream “horror” films these days.
James Wan’s work here is exceptional. Not only is the film set in 1971, but Wan appears to be channeling a very 70’s-style visual aesthetic to boot; his editing, crash zooms and sense of camerawork is impeccably modern, with an old-school twist. A good horror film is all about the build-up, not so much the blood and gore (if only Eli Roth would get the memo) and Wan certainly offers us plenty of solid, highly strung, building up. The tension in this film is palpable from almost the first frame, where we see a precursor sequence involving some young female nurses and a cursed doll (a la Chucky!), before getting into the Perron story itself. Wan uses shadow, light and sound to really amp up the creep factor in The Conjuring; nothing is as it seems right from the start, and if you’ve ever watched a scary film you’d have to be questioning the character’s motivations for not running to the hills at the first sign of trouble. This element is, naturally, explained (the Perrons have their money tied up in the house they’ve just brought, so moving out almost immediately – with five kids, no less – would be problematic) and adds a sense of authenticity to the overall story.
The scripting is by Chad and Carey Hayes, who have certainly stepped up from the odious Paris Hilton vehicle, House Of Wax, in terms of quality writing. While The Conjuring isn’t Shakespeare, the Hayes brothers strive to give both the Warren’s and the Perron’s equal development and time. The Warren’s daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins), is added to the mix as a bit of a red-herring sidebar to the main action. Judy becomes entangled with the Perron’s ghostly problems, even though she never goes with her parents to the “scene of the crime” so to speak, but I found this aspect of the film did stretch things out just a little too much. The film builds up the Warren’s potential portrayal as “kooks” with a glimpse at their lecturing circuit – they show case files to students and admit that they are often thought of as freaks – but it’s counterpointed nicely by the way the script doesn’t dwell on whether Lorraine’s apparent psychic ability is genuine or not, that’s up to us, the viewer.
The Perron family is a little more difficult to gauge. Roger Perron’s a blue-collar, hard working family man, who loves his wife and kids, and has dreams and fears like the rest of us. His wife Carolyn seems to be the devoted housewife, raising their five girls while he’s away working, and throughout The Conjuring there’s never any sense of them not being still deeply devoted to each other. It’s a pleasant change, actually, because in most modern takes on this kind of thing, Roger woulda been portrayed as a drunk, or worse, while Carolyn might have been a reclusive wife with insecurity issues – both Roger and Carolyn are normal, everyday folk who have to endure an unimaginable terror as best they can. Their daughters, played by a range of young actresses, become an indeterminate blur of faces, each one with limited development other than the eldest, Andrea, who’s the snootiest and most puberty-blues one of the lot. Mackenzie Foy (last seen as Bella and Edward’s kid in the Twilight films) plays one of the younger Perron girls, but like most of them becomes lost amongst the flying hair, same-same dresses and shadowy darkness.
Where The Conjuring deviates from being “just another horror film”, is that it treats its characters with respect. They aren’t stupid. It also treats the audience with respect. We’re not stupid either. The characters are all normal, they make normal, relatively rational decisions. They don’t do stupid things like walk into a room and suddenly forget that electricity has been invented. Nobody wanders through the dark being an idiot, at least not intentionally, nobody makes idiotic decisions the viewer will thrown the remote control at the screen for, and the whole way through you know just as much as the main characters – there’s no Last Gasp reveal that hits reset like a big red button, to save the day. It’s unique, especially in this day and age of rote, generic horror, for a film to be as honest as The Conjuring is.
That’s not to say Wan doesn’t pull out some nice cliches from time to time; characters facing the camera are unaware of the spectral vision wandering out of focus in the background, or the good old “there’s somebody there in the dark, watching me” routine which nobody else can see save one key character, and ethereal whispers and girly giggling keep the unsettling nature of the films’ darkened narrative swirling around the audience’s expectations. Where Wan has kept to some genre cliches, though, he’s also managed to keep things feeling fresh somehow, as if he’s only making the first scary movie ever, and that is his most impressive feat. By keeping the Big Reveals as sparse and as briefly hinted at as possible, and by minimizing gore and viscera, The Conjuring plays well into our fears of what we can’t see, rather than seeing everything.
Sometimes, less is more, said Spielberg to the shark.
The Conjuring is one of those films that comes along every so often that seems to refresh what can be achieved in any given genre. Horror films seem to require this refreshment more often than most, but if more film-makers tried to emulate (not imitate) Wan’s take on a BOATS horror film, and less time crafting dreck they dreamed up after a boozy night, the genre might be in a better state than that which it currently resides. Creepy, frightening, tense and stylish, The Conjuring will serve as a highly entertaining night in, with the lights down low and the sound up high.