Watching “The Conjuring”
I don’t scare easily, at least not at the movies, and I didn’t find the new horror film “The Conjuring” especially scary, despite all the hype about how terrifying it is.
But as a period piece, domestic drama, thriller and insightful depiction of an unusual profession — paranormal investigation — I found the film pretty compelling. This is a well-crafted, deeply involving movie that, in an age of irony and horror-comedy, is distinguished by a heartfelt sincerity. Unlike most horror films, “The Conjuring” doesn’t have a gratuitous bone in its body. You might not believe in the supernatural, but “The Conjuring” certainly does, and the film’s earnestness makes it surprisingly easy to buy into the idea that demonic possession is a real threat to the American way of life.
Supposedly based-on-true events, “The Conjuring” concerns real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married couple who believe they were brought together by God to help people plagued by evil spirits. Lorraine is a gifted clairvoyant who finds their work important, but taxing; Ed would like her to take a break, but she refuses. After giving a lecture, the couple is approached by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor). Perron, her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters are convinced that the old farmhouse they recently moved into is haunted; they hear footsteps at odd hours, birds fly into the side of the house and die, their clocks always stop at the same time — 3:07 — and one of the daughters is attacked by a hateful spirit who resembles an old woman. The Warrens are skeptical, but agree to visit the house. As soon as they set foot on the property, they sense that something is very wrong and agree to collect evidence to present to the Vatican so that an exorcism can be performed, if necessary.
There’s nothing particularly original about the plot of “The Conjuring.” What distinguishes the film is its style. Director James Wan made a name for himself with the 2004 horror film “Saw,” one of the first films in the so-called “torture porn” genre of horror, but switched gears in 2011 with the clever yet surprisingly straightforward haunted house film “Insidious.” Style-wise, “The Conjuring” is very similar to “Insidious” — it’s mostly free of gore, and fairly old-school in its approach to horror. Overall, it plays like an homage to the spare and creepy haunted house/possession films of the 1970s and 1980s, which raises questions about whether the film is too derivative: Does Wan have a directorial style of his own, or is he simply a very good mimic?
It’s tough to say, and the answer might not matter very much, because “The Conjuring” gives viewers plenty to chew on. For one thing, it’s the rare film that accepts the religious beliefs of its characters without winking at the audience. As portrayed by Wilson and Farmiga, the Warrens are not kooks — they are wise, gifted and compassionate, and they reminded me a bit of the wise, gifted and compassionate psychic played by Lin Shaye in “Insidious.” Wilson and Farmiga excel in their roles, managing to convey courage, belief and vulnerability simultaneously. Taylor and Livingston, as the Perron parents, are also quite good, though their characters are less interesting.
Wan manages to keep things interesting from beginning to end, dropping interesting, almost encyclopedic bits of information about the paranormal throughout the film, and juggling multiple storylines — personally, I would like to see an entire film about that creepy room in the Warren house with all the haunted artifacts. Visually, “The Conjuring” relies on jerky camera work, unusual camera angles and lots and lots of jump scares and strange noises to keep the audience on edge. The build-up is ultimately more rewarding than the payoff, which seems to wrap things up too quickly and lack the quiet punch of the earlier scenes. Although it’s possible Wan is just setting things up for “The Conjuring, Part 2.”
It will be interesting to see where Wan goes next. Will he continue making effective, old-school horror movies in a classical vein, or will he attempt something different? I’d like to see him try something new, because I think he has the directorial chops to create something really original and interesting. He’s come a long way since “Saw,” and I think he’ll continue to grow. Perhaps by making a movie about a room full of haunted artifacts.
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