Directed by James Wan
I’d like to call your attention to two words, words that are used (mutually exclusive from each other) when one goes to a film and sees certain things that they’ve seen in other films.
I’ll use each one in a sentence: The Cabin In The Woods is a comedic yet undeniably scary tribute to all those great teenage-in-the-woods films like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The Posession is a blatant rip-off of great films like The Exorcist, whose lowest moments it can not ever hope to aspire to.
Get the idea?
Horror is a well-worn genre and, while its fans always hope to find a film that strikes new ground, they also realize that such a prospect tends to be unrealistic and often settle in to tasting an old, appreciated vintage from a lovely new bottle. The two words are deployed exclusively on how well the wine has traveled down the gullet. A new film that tributes an older one means you liked it, a rip-off, not so much. So which word will I use to describe this film that, while apparently based on real events, borrows so much from The Exorcist and many other films.
I’ll probably use both. But I’ll be using the word “Tribute” more often.
The Conjuring focuses on two families, The Warrens, a small group who makes spirit-hunting a source of their living, and the Perrons, a mostly-female army that runs into big trouble when they move into a spooky house in Rhode Island in 1971. We the audience knows that there’s trouble the second that the Perrons’ dog Sadie refuses to cross its threshold, but we paid to see a horror film and the unfortunate Perrons haven’t. For the next forty minutes, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston & Lili Taylor) and their five (count ‘em) daughters are subjects to unseen phenomena, freezing rooms, poltergeist activity and things that go “bump” whenever the Hell they please. This is the point when seasoned horror fans will start to recognize elements from other films: the youngest child strikes up a friendship with an unseen playmate, the family discovers a boarded-up cellar, the second-youngest feels someone grabbing at her feet in the night (was it her sister, or was it…), and all the clocks in the house seem to stop at the same time each day. So there’s a lot to be seen here that’s been seen before by theatre ghouls like myself. So why am I reluctant to use the word “rip-off.”
Well, it has nothing to do with the claim that the film is based on real events. (The real life Ed & Loraine Warren were involved in authenticating the Lutz’s dingaling story about what happened at their house in Amityville, so make of that what you will.) No, The Conjuring feels more like a tribute to other great horror films because its got its heart in the right place (it never cheats the audience or plays cheap with its own facts) and it strikes into new territory. Takes the first few minutes, when we’re led to believe that we’re witnessing the beginning of the story that we are meant to watch (two nurses with a possessed, creepy-looking doll – who would buy a thing that horrific anyway?) only to discover that this is just a way to introduce us to the film’s ghost-busters, Ed & Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga). This is a bit of slight-of-hand that is meant to keep the audience alert. Although this is not the type of film that one could easily fall asleep at. At this point, I would like to introduce a term I use to describe a moment in horror film that is meant to startle the audience by taking them by surprise: Jumper. The Conjuring is a film chocked-full of jumpers. Personally, I prefer a film that uses suspense and atmosphere to give us our frights (The Others and The Orphanage come to mind), but The Conjuring is so damned good at making the audience jump that I can’t find it in my heart to condemn it. One of the best involves a sheet on a clothesline, and then there’s that moment with Lili Taylor locked in the cellar with a box of matches for illumination. There’s tons of them in this film. Jumpers may be an old hat tradition in horror films, but The Conjuring makes them seem fresh.
And then there’s the acting; not a rotten performance in sight (trust me, I was really looking). The five young actresses who play the Perron daughters are all full-fledged characters, you’ll learn all their names before the film’s half-over. Lili Taylor does well as the mother who becomes a pawn in the demon’s game, but the film really belongs to Farmiga and Wilson (particularly Farmiga). Unlike most other possession films, the Warrens are not weird people who talk in sing-song prose about piercing the veil or going into the light like Zelda Rubenstein. They’re real people with a daughter and battle-scars from dealing with demonic forces who are considering hanging it up after an unpleasant exorcism. Ed Warren not only wants to drive the evils spirits from the Perrons’ house, but he even labors to fix their car. How could you not like a guy like that? The film even ups the ante by having the demon mess with the Warrens’ personal life, so that they become wholly involved with the task of laying this ghost once and for all.
Yes, there is an exorcism scene, for those of you who love The Exorcist. For Hitchcock fans, we have a bird attack and a swinging light bulb straight out of Psycho. But these are merely moments that will either thrill the casual fans or distract the ghouls. What’s really going on is an interesting and engaging take on the old tale of what Stephen King called “The Bad Place.” I don’t think I’d own this film, but I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t recommend it. The Conjuring (and, like many horror films of the 70’s, the title makes little sense as nothing is conjured) is a good, scary film with plenty of jumpers and lots of good characters to feel worried about during those times when ghoulies are not leaping off the cupboard or peeking at you in the mirror, even if it lacks the spark of true originality. B+