2013, 112mins, 15
Director: James Wan
Writer (s): Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Cast includes: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King
UK Release Date: 2nd August 2013
Opening several weeks ago stateside, “The Conjuring” has proved to be both an unlikely hit with critics and audiences, a rarity for any summer film, much less one stemming from the horror genre. Directed by James Wan (last seen guiding 2011’s middling frightener “Insidious”), “The Conjuring” purports to be based on true events, the story of a family haunted by malevolent ghouls and the demonologist couple sought to protect them. It doesn't sound very original, and in truth very little about “The Conjuring” is, in fact it’s a picture that largely derives its kicks from adhering to familiar old school techniques. Yet like “Oblivion” earlier in the year, “The Conjuring” boasts an energy and artistry that helps absolve its devotion to genre convention. All the bumps and screams come in the expectant places, but Wan brings a regimented technical skillset to proceedings, forming a theme park ride of a movie rife with unusually intimate characterization. You won’t get much new out of this beast, but if intense fear-mongering theatrics are your bag, this definitely charts as one of 2013’s more polished examples.
Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) have moved themselves and their young daughters out to an idyllic country farmhouse, a dreamy abode for the promising family to kick-start a lifetime of domestic bliss. Things quickly go awry, their dog found slain in the garden, Carolyn reporting mysterious bruising in her sleep and the girls plagued by visions and disturbances during the night. As the spectral presence grows increasingly hostile toward the family, they seek the aid of ghostbusting duo Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) a husband and wife team with longstanding credentials in the field of supernatural banishment. It doesn’t take long for the Warrens to realise the Perron’s have been afflicted with a particularly nasty demonic burden, rallying a small team of devoted helpers to do battle with the spirit and absolve the family of nocturnal torment.
If “The Conjuring” does one thing right, it’s the treatment of character. I’m not suggesting the film provides a plethora of nuanced entities on which to hang the shrieks, but it does establish likable protagonists with distinctive vulnerabilities, and deploys decent actors to flesh them out. As with nearly anything in which she features, Farmiga is the standout as the compassionate but worn Lorraine Warren, a woman devoted to motherly pangs of her own and struggling with the extensive evils she has encountered over her storied career. Farmiga is a quiet, sympathetic and caring screen presence, graceful and reassuring, yet with enough doubts and troubles of her own to help the evolution of tension. The horror genre is not one the actress has traversed many times in the past, but she proves a predictable pro, dialling up the heart and humanity in Wan’s haunted house fracas. Wilson makes a solid counterpoint (they are both believably in love and crucially devoted to their own young daughter), but interestingly “The Conjuring” is more preoccupied with its female contingent. This is underlined by the attention provided to a game Lili Taylor, who also does fine work as a mother desperately attempting to shield her clan from terror, the interactions and narrative juxtapositions which flow between her and Farmiga serving some of the film’s more thematically engaging content. A horror flick observing facets of the maternal experience is hardly a revelatory concept, but “The Conjuring” conducts it with just enough emotional detail to amply fill the movie’s dramatic requirement. Wan definitely prioritises the FX and thrills, but just enough attention is applied to Farmiga and Taylor’s relationship throughout, and come the bombastic finale it pays-off rather acutely.
In the tradition of classic horror cinema “The Conjuring” starts slow, builds at a moderate pace before delivering a final act of frantic, nonstop chaos. The structure is adeptly handled, the movie indulging a wide sphere of horror influences and styles along the way. It would be hard to suggest Wan’s work here is visionary, but he does crib fantastically from more renowned film-makers including Sam Raimi, William Castle and even Steven Spielberg; blending pacey boo moments with slow-burn creepiness and gruesome prosthetic magic. The production design, cinematography and practical effects have all been tweaked to maximise their eerie allure, much like the narrative the mise-en-scene is a victory of craft over invention. The suspense is mounted with genuine delicacy, the movie creaking and whispering exactly when it should, never smothering the audience with too much carnage or action. Until the end that is. In its last 15 minutes “The Conjuring” turns into an inferno of possession and violence, placing just about every primary character in substantial peril. It’s a manic collection of whirring and screaming that earns its place, an appropriate parallel to the silent menace of the picture’s bulk.
The sound design and musical score are of phenomenal value, primed with hisses and unsettling bellows. Wan has a nice photographical sensibility and choreographs his frames with utmost competence, even if it does occasionally feel his precision comes at the expense of innovation. The director knows just when to strike a match or unleash a demon, lending the feature a thoroughly haunted aura, before delving into the visceral and macabre mechanics of demon baiting and exorcism. People say the best horror films have rich subtexts, a comment I tend to agree with, and it is here where “The Conjuring” perhaps disappoints. Genre landmarks like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Rosemary’s Baby” definitely boast a host of fertile ideas. I’m not sure Wan and his screenwriters have sunk much more than solid dramatic chops and hellishly enjoyable set-pieces into this humdinger, thusly failing the ultimate test of greatness. This probably seems like a harsh critique to lobby at a horror feature, especially with the genre in such a soggy state, but there are legitimately people out there praising “The Conjuring” as a future touchstone. In 10-years I honestly don’t see it hitting that mark.
It’s hard to predict how “The Conjuring” will stand the passing of years. In the moment it’s ridiculously entertaining and effortlessly watchable, but whether it packs enough inspiration to outlast its media approval and jovial viewing experience is another matter. Only time will tell. That said if there’s one way to see this thing it’s in a crammed theatre with a hungry audience, ready to purge their lungs of nervous laughter and hollers of shock. In those circumstances it’s impossible not to recommend this superior creepshow, a strong reminder that sometimes the old ways are the best.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013