Having recently moved into a rickety old house in downtown Wilmington, seeing “The Conjuring”—while both of my roommates were out of town—may not have been my best decision. It goes without saying that the following nights entailed shameless covers-to-nose action at even the smallest noise in the house.
Directed by James Wan, creator of “Saw” and “Insidious,” the locally shot horror hit of the summer succeeds and falters by the same strengths and weaknesses found in his previous installments of the genre. While the film is riddled with clichés and glossed-over plot points, Wan’s craftsmanship and blatant reverence for the genre saves it from being consumed by these pitfalls.
Like many “family moves into surprisingly cheap old house, and all hell breaks loose” films, “The Conjuring” advertises being inspired by true events. The film chronicles one of the case files of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). In the film, the Warrens must help Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) and their five children after they move into an old farmhouse inhabited by a dark force. Upon moving in, the family immediately discovers a basement sealed by a poorly crafted wall that even one of the youngest children in the family compromises with ease. Despite the previous owners’ desire to section off part of the house (it’s usually for good reason; heating and air purposes at the very least), they ignore this foreboding harbinger. As expected, in only a matter of time, the Perron’s five children turn into rag dolls, and get thrown about the house with ease.
Despite its run-of-the mill premise, Wan, like any good horror filmmaker, distracts viewers from the blatant clichés that, to some extent, all horror films must rely. He achieves this primarily as a result of his obvious familiarity with the genre. A clear distinction can be made between filmmakers who attempt to replicate previous installments in the horror genre, in order to make a quick buck off of a relatively reliable target audience, and filmmakers who pay homage to past horror films, while attempting to fix or at least mask shortcomings, which have been pointed out time and time again. Wan hangs in with the latter.
While most haunted-house films treat the jargon-spewing psychics as an afterthought, only serving to provide half-assed explanations and propel the story into the third act, “The Conjuring” gives the Warrens as much weight as the afflicted family. This helps the film in two ways. First and foremost: the Warren’s presence in “The Conjuring” creates the ability to cut away from tedious scenes of doors slamming and family members being clawed at, which make audiences scream, “Just move out of the house!” Secondly, it helps the film manage, albeit sometimes superficially, and create character development—a feat many horror films neglect.
That being said, “The Conjuring” resolutes the issue but not without the creation of a new flaw. Given that the film essentially focuses on two families, many elements introduced become bogged down or outright forgotten throughout the course of the film. It is explained that highly clairvoyant Lorraine Warren saw something during a past exorcism which permanently impacted her. This component bears enough significance in its flashback to merit a payoff and ties it into the rest of the film. After its initial introduction it’s only mentioned in passing.
The film also glosses over the eerie backstory of the house’s evil presence. Both of these elements only get mentioned as a means to further perpetuate the more sensational aspects—rather than capitalizing on their psychological aspects—which could aid the film in becoming less shallow.
However, “The Conjuring ” is primarily intended to be a white-knuckle thrill ride that could give the “Die Hard” series a run for its money—at which it succeeds. Wan’s craftsmanship and ability to show restraint generates intensity that keeps audiences on edge. He knows precisely, almost down to a science, when to assault the audience with a “jump moment” and how much spectacle he can get away with before numbing everyone.
“The Conjuring” also features two standout performances by its leading ladies, Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor. Farmiga brings wonderful energy to the very empathetic Lorraine Warren. Taylor emotes as the mother of the Perron family. The same can’t be said of their male counterparts, Wilson and Livingston. Their average performances seem to primarily stem from the lack of depth given to their roles by the script.
Overall, Wan’s direction more than masks some of the film’s more eye-roll worthy attributes. This locally shot horror flick will definitely haunt viewers for days and is worth seeing.
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Directed by James Wan