United States. 112 minutes. Directed by James Wan, 2013. Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston.
1971: Carolyn and Roger Perron and their five daughters move into an old farmhouse in the Rhode Island countryside. Almost immediately, strange things begin happening. The clocks all stop at just after 3:07am…every night. Carolyn finds mysterious bruises all over her body when she wakes up. One daughter begins sleepwalking; another develops an imaginary friend; another feels her leg being pulled in the middle of the night. As the strange happenings escalate, the Perrons call upon Ed and Lorraine Warren–a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators–for help. The Warrens are disturbed by what they find: a demonic presence who appears to desire nothing less than the deaths of the Perron family…and who may have the Warrens and their young daughter in its sights as well.
Publicity claims that The Conjuring is based on a true story, and for once that’s not complete bullshit: Ed and Lorraine Warren are real people (in Ed’s case it may be more accurate to say he was a real person, as he passed away in 2006), as are the Perron family; the Warrens really did investigate a possible haunting at the Perron residence in the early ’70s.
It’s a bit of a shame, then, that The Conjuring’s screenplay feels like so much typical Hollywood hack-work. I’m not sure how much of either the Warrens’ or the Perrons’ accounts of what happened (Andrea Perron, the youngest daughter, has written several books and maintains a website) match what we see in the film, but a lot–too much–of the story feels like the product of a writer or writers who are putting too much effort into evoking all the right tropes and hitting all the right beats. The first fifteen to twenty or so minutes is dedicated to ticking off all the items of a list of haunted-house necessities straight out of The Amityville Horror (incidentally, the High Hopes haunting is the most famous case the Warrens ever investigated, and is the source of an in-joke during the film’s final moments), right down to the family who’s bitten off more than it can chew and the kid whose imaginary friend isn’t so imaginary after all.
As familiar as the haunted-house plot seems, it’s at least fairly engaging. That’s not something you can say about part of the story that doesn’t focus on the Perrons’ plight. Two minor subplots involving the Warrens’ past cases (an exorcism that had some sort of detrimental effect on Lorraine and a creepy doll which figures in the Perrons’ spirit attempt to strike at the Warrens) attempt to provide a sense of escalating stakes but come off as emotionally manipulative. To be honest, the film weakens whenever it sifts focus away from the Perrons.
Yet as weak as the writing is–and there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t gone into–the overall production shines in a few areas, redeeming it. The first is in the visual aspects. There’s a lot of great design work here, and despite a little bit of obvious CGI the effects are solid. Director James Wan (who also made Insidious, another film The Conjuring is somewhat reminiscent of) wrings a lot of suspense out of the plot, knows how to frame the creepy shit in relation to the normal shit, and makes the most of his scares. If you absolutely must have jump-scares in your film, Wan is the guy you want doing them. This may not be the best film he’s ever made, but it’s definitely the best directing job I’ve seen him put in. Not even Joseph Bishara’s horrible score–a too-loud slab of sonic nonsense that’s even worse than the slab of sonic nonsense he provided for Insidious, if you can believe that–can detract from Wan’s talent in making the audience flinch and squirm.
The second strong aspect of the production is the cast, with Vera Farmiga (of Bates Motel and, less impressively, Joshua) and indie darling Lily Taylor shining as Lorraine Warren and Carolyn Perron, respectively. Office Space’s Ron Livingston also does great as the bewildered Roger Perron, while Shannon Kook and John Brotherton are memorable as the Warrens’ ghostbuster interns. The actresses playing the middle Perron sisters do a fantastic job of making their characters distinct, something the film’s screenwriters couldn’t be bothered to do. The only weak link is Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren; he doesn’t really do enough to flesh out a somewhat thinly-drawn character. (And is it just me, or does he seem to be channeling Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman way too often? It’s probably just me.)
Despite a few flaws–it’s not particularly deep or thought-provoking, and it relies a little too much on jump-scares, and…okay, maybe I should have said “a lot of flaws”–The Conjuring manages to make up for its shortcomings and be a damn fine summer-season, mainstream, decent-budget horror flick. I’d say see this one in the theater, not because it’s a classic in the making, but because its particular charms might work better with a larger audience.