When a movie essentially positions itself to be nothing more than an honest homage to a bygone style of filmmaking and it ends up being a cut above a great deal of the films it cribs from, that’s an event that should be celebrated. Probably a third place behind The Exorcist and The Changeling in terms of stories that deal in hauntings and possessions (and ahead of even the best films with Amityville in the title), James Wan’s unnerving effort The Conjuring is nothing if not genuine when it comes to wringing tension and scares from the audience.
The Perron family – consisting of long haul trucker father Roger (Ron Livingston), stay-at-home mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and five daughters – have just bought a fixer upper in small town Rhode Island circa 1971. Almost as soon as they arrive, they uncover a secret basement, their dog mysteriously dies on the first night there, one of the daughters starts sleepwalking, spooky noises start up, all the clocks mysteriously stop at 3:07am, spirits start messing with them, and Carolyn starts getting mysterious bruises all over her body. It would be enough to get any normal family to move, but Roger has sunk too much of his savings into repairs, and as he says later, no one in their right mind would put up a family of seven indefinitely for free.
The threatening of the family itself takes up the bulk of the opening hour of this well paced, and yet still almost two hour horror flick, but it’s intercut sparingly with the two people the audience is introduced to at the start: famed paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Mostly debunking a lot of the cases they come in contact with, they see something undeniably demonic going on at the Perron household and agree to come on to figure out why this unseen and inhuman creature has been preying on the family dwelling inside.
Wan clearly owes a huge debt to the films that came before his, and he’s not shy or coy about hiding it. The notion of a possessed house (and once again based on a true story) has been around for quite some time, and almost beat for beat it’s the best Amityville Horror film that one probably could have hoped for. But whereas Amityville was more of a victory for the Hollywood and publishing industry hype machine that created it, Wan’s version of similar events tones down the sensationalism in favour of beefing up the two major husband and wife relationships at the heart of it and maximizing the number of scares that come from watching loved ones put into perilous situations. It could be summarily dismissed as a film with a jump scare every few minutes, and while such lazy criticism wouldn’t exactly be wrong, there’s a lot more to enjoy and thing about here than just the ride itself.
While the marketing campaign emphasizes the roles of Wilson and Farmiga, Wan really gives Taylor and Livingston more than ample room to develop their own relationships. Their kids are pretty interchangeable and sometimes hard to keep straight with five of them running around, but the fear and helplessness their parents feel is palpable. Taylor gets the role of the one who has to be scared all the time by the spooky goings on and her kids fears are projected onto her in such a way that the events take their toll on her far more than anyone else by the third act. Livingston, on the other hand, might seem to have the lesser of these two roles, but he has plenty of quiet character moments that show him trying to balance fear and inner strength, not only with regard to the situation at home, but an also less than ideal occupation that’s not conducive to dealing with such major issues.
As for the spirit hunters, Wilson and Farmiga have an excellent chemistry both professionally and romantically. Devout believers in God and the Devil, Wan never lets the religious discussion come to the forefront aside from some discussion and set pieces detailing how hard it is to get the Catholic Church to okay an exorcism, but he instead humanizes them to a point where their faith based beliefs never cloud the film around it. Wilson has a considerable amount of charm and grace as the fatherly head of his own household; a smart man who can hold his own in any conversation with either a sceptic or a believer without ever raising his voice in anger or trying to browbeat someone into agreeing with him. It’s a role of considerable smoothness, but also one that requires him to make very emotional and personal decisions that take a toll. He clearly saves all of his own demons for the personal stuff, never the professional.
Farmiga handles the psychic medium half of the duo with an equal amount of respect for a role that could have very easily become a walking punchline. Her visions of impending doom are all the more difficult to watch when the film makes it know that her work has slowly been taking a pshychological and physical toll on her over the years. And yet, through Farmiga’s terrifically balanced performance she conveys a sense of weariness that’s balanced by a hope for mankind. Ed and Lorraine always say that God brought them together for a reason, and while that may or may not be true depending about your feelings on the subject, they have both have warmth that makes them some of the most likeable horror movie heroes in quite some time.
In terms of the scares, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before in other films, but that doesn’t mean that Wan’s film comes devoid of any artistic ambition. William Friedkin and Lucio Fulci spring to mind as immediate reference points for the style Wan looks to be going for. Despite the subdued and well recreated period aspect of the film, there’s definitely a quaint form of revisionist style going on. Elaborate pans, zooms, and 360 degree spins through the house might make the film a higher calibre haunted house experience than audiences normally get today. There’s an actual craft to Wan’s work here that wasn’t even evident in his previous efforts like Saw and Insidious.
Having said all that, the film really is just another example of people getting scared by things that go bump in the night, and those with a cynical and rigid hatred of those types of films (and from what I gathered after I said I like this movie, there are a lot of you), would be best advised to stay far, far away. But for those who miss the 1970s or are sick of the bad name the Paranormal Activity films have given to this type of thriller, The Conjuring is a welcome and well done bit of nostalgia.