Directed by James Wan
James Wan’s latest foray into supernatural horror is The Conjuring, a 70s throwback to haunted/possessed house flicks. The film is based on the personal accounts of the Perron family about experiences in their haunted farmhouse and the involvement of famous demonologist/medium couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, detailed in Andrea Perron’s memoir House of Darkness, House of Light.
Carolyn (Taylor) and Roger Perron (Livingston) move their five rambunctious daughters into a large farmhouse, hoping for a fresh start. Almost immediately, the family begins to have disturbing experiences – the family dog refuses to enter the house, they find a boarded up basement filled with the possessions of previous owners, and Carolyn wakes up with severe unexplained bruises. Eldest daughter Andrea smells something fetid in her room, but the odor dissipates by morning. All the clocks in the home stop at 3:07 AM and Christine feels someone tugging at her leg in the middle of the night, despite her sister Nancy being fast asleep in the bed beside her. It quickly becomes clear that a supernatural entity is terrifying the family and Carolyn seeks the help of renowned paranormal investigators Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga).
As he did with Insidious, Wan takes familiar horror tropes, particularly those dealing with ghost and exorcism movies, and pays them homage while adding his own clever twists. If Insidious can directly trace its lineage to Poltergeist, The Conjuring is reminiscent of The Amityville Horror. For good reason, actually. Not only are both touted as “true” stories, the Warrens also investigated the claims of George and Kathy Lutz, owners of the Amityville home. The marketing relies heavily on the “based on a true story” angle, but dwelling on it as a viewer can take you out of the film once you start to question the veracity (unless you’re firm in your belief of the supernatural). As a skeptic, the movie worked much better for me when I decided to watch it purely as a straightforward horror film and that’s how I’m exploring it for this review.
Wan immediately begins with terrifying visuals as the film opens on the cracked glass eye of the most terrifying doll I’ve ever seen. (This doll actually exists in the Warrens’ collection, but is decidedly less creepy in real life.) He intercuts the Warrens’ lectures and home life with scenes of the Perron family adjusting to their new home. Wan doesn’t waste time getting to the haunted house elements. From the minute the family dog, Sadie, won’t enter the house, we know something is up. The sense of dread increases as each night progresses, and Wan presents us with measured increasing steps of supernatural occurrences. Traditional ghost scares abound – the family hears strange noises in the night and shadows permeate the darkness, but they take on an especially sinister feel as the ghosts use the Perrons’ favorite game, Hide and Clap, against them. After the Warrens get involved, the scares move from familiar haunted house tropes to seriously disturbing visual frights. (I spent most of the film with my hand clapped firmly over my mouth to keep from screaming.)
The Conjuring has garnered a lot of positive reviews, but critics seem to be taking issues with the “unoriginal” elements in the film, which I think is a bit unfair. Wan and the other filmmakers are drawing from a source, an allegedly true account that happened to a real family. That account is the basic framework for the story and Wan builds from that. Many stories of “real” hauntings recall consistent elements. It’s also obvious, from this film and Insidious, that Wan is a huge horror fan and as a fellow horror fan, I really appreciate the nods to previous classics. Beyond the obvious connection to The Amityville Horror, I saw elements of The Haunting (1963), The Sixth Sense, and even The Evil Dead (1981). I also loved the throwback feeling of the flick. Everything, from the title card to the expert costuming, was pure 70s without feeling like a period piece.
Taylor does a wonderful job at conveying the absolute terror her character experiences. She is an amazing and underused actress who often gets relegated to the “quirky best friend” role (you may know her as Julia Roberts’ marriage-wary friend Jojo in Mystic Pizza or John Cusack’s boyfriend-obsessed best friend Corey in Say Anything), but she has great range and works really well in this film as a warm, loving mother. Farmiga is not as effective as Lin Shaye was in Insidious, but I always appreciate her ability to convey quiet fragility; she and Taylor had a great empathetic chemistry, even in their brief scenes together. The male figures are less defined. Livingston isn’t given much to do, mostly because the spirits focus on Carolyn and the girls, but it works for the most part because his job as a truck driver puts him on the fringes of the hauntings. Wilson is good, but is mainly used as the catalyst for Lorraine’s powers, so his character (and his relationship with Farmiga) doesn’t have the same kind of resonance portrayed in Insidious.
I definitely enjoyed the growing sense of impending dread created by the steadily ramped up scares, but the exorcism portion of the film felt a bit glossed over and unfinished. I got the impression that Wan was much more interested in the haunting aspect (as was I, actually) and not as fascinated with the possession. The things I enjoyed about Insidious are echoed in The Conjuring, and while I feel that the previous film was more consistent, Wan’s latest effort definitely delivers on the terror.