Film review: THE CONJURING, from Built For Speed

With films like Cabin In the Woods pulling apart horror movie tropes and the Scary Movie series lampooning the genre outright, it’s a much more difficult task for a filmmaker to scare audiences these days than it was in the past.  It’s a credit to James Wan, the director of the new supernatural horror movie The Conjuring, that, for at least half the film, he manages to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere and extract some visceral scares from a formula haunted house flick.

The Conjuring is based on the case files of real-life purported ghost hunters and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren hence the film’s now obligatory “based on a true story” tag.  In the early 1970’s they were called upon to investigate the strange and apparently supernatural events in the Rhode Island house belonging to the Perron family.

Adhering to the traditional haunted house movie format, these events begin innocuously with strange noises, foul smells and temperature fluctuations infesting the house.  The film then ratchets up the intensity showing increasingly violent attacks on the family by what seems to be an invisible menace.  Desperate, the family contact the Lorraines hoping they can eradicate the supernatural fiend.

This film is a veritable parade of horror movie references with scenes recalling The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Changeling, The Birds, Paranormal Activity, Wan’s previous haunted house film Insidious and The Amityville Horror, a film based on events the Warrens also investigated.  Consequently, The Conjuring comes very close to being an overly-derivative, fan-boy meta-movie.  Fortunately, Wan’s confident direction gives the film a potent and unique identity.  Through intelligent shot framing, atmospheric lighting and ominous music, Wan fashions some powerful and unnerving sequences.

The film’s first half is the most effective where the strange and threatening occurrences are placed in a realistic, matter of fact setting.  By doing this, the film taps into the primal fear of something powerful, sinister and unseen invading normal life.  Some of the scenarios depicted, such as people creeping around dark basements alone, are familiar and even clichéd but Wan still manages to invest them with palpable tension.  Wan is also to be commended for not succumbing to the temptation to festoon the film in 1970’s style as this would have made it a quirky retro pastiche rather than a horror movie.

The film also benefits from believable and nuanced performances from the cast, particularly the two female leads Vera Farmiga as Elaine Warren and Lili Taylor as Mother Carolyn Perron.  Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren is also effective in providing a calm if slightly quirky centre to the film.

The second half of the film is, unfortunately, much less effective than the first as Wan includes more pop-out scares paired with loud crashing music and replaces the film’s earlier subtlety and creepiness with elaborate, fanciful and violent CGI-infused horror sequences.  As in Mama the ghost reveal backfires badly and undoes a lot of the impressive work done in the early part of the film.

The Conjuring is as much about the Warrens as the Perron family and at times becomes a slightly cheesy story of the ghost-busting couple’s romance.  The film also clumsily tries to establish a supernatural link between strange occurrences at the Warren’s home and the events in the Perron house.  The focus on the Warrens does, however, allow the film to include references to some of their other cases including one involving the flat-out scariest thing in the whole movie, an absolutely wicked-looking antique doll.  As Poltergeist and Seinfeld showed, dolls are totally sinister.

The Conjuring is a flawed film but stylistically an impressive step forward for director Wan.  Let’s hope he turns his directing talents to a wide range of genres and continues his move away from torture porn.


Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: MA 15+

Director(s): James Wan.

Release date: 18th July 2013.

Running time:  112 mins.

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