2013 - 112 minutes
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Joey King, Shannon Kook
A couple basic rules we should all know to help avoid a horror-movie-house-haunting:
Thus is the standard setup that curses the fine Perron family in “The Conjuring.” Thankfully, the film takes this well-traveled premise and uses it to craft a truly haunting, effective experience. It could be considered an old-school ride along the lines of “The Exorcist” or “Rosemary’s Baby”; rather than the dopey and boring found footage “Paranormal Activity” films that are all about a few well-placed jump scares spread throughout 90 minutes of drivel.
Sure, “The Conjuring” has its share of moments designed to make you leap from your chair, but they all occur naturally within the confines of a taught and breezy spine-chilling plot that’s tone is one of general morose rather than cheap thrill.
The Perrons, including father Roger and mother Carolyn (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor – each with strong performances striking the difficult balance between rube and capable concerned parent) and their five daughters, move into their new home where troubling things begin to occur. Strange noises and young girls seeing figures in dark corners can be easily explained away as new home nerves. Bruises on Carolyn’s body are dismissed as an iron deficiency. But soon the bangings become louder, the clocks stop at 3:07 each night and distinct voices and out-of-tune chords from the piano in the once boarded-up cellar signal something more sinister. No wonder the farmhouse was a Really Good Deal at auction.
At a logical point early in the haunting the family seeks the counsel of Ed and Lorraine Warren – real-life paranormal investigators played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – to check out the strange goings-on.
We’re actually introduced to the Warrens in a brief prologue that shows them on another case involving young nurses and a demonic doll. The background helps establish their world and the world of the “based on a true story” film. They aren’t robotic ghost-hunting superstars, they are real people with real problems and complex beliefs. Their adventures take them away from the daughter more often than they would like and they have a roomful of possessed/haunted artifacts that need to be blessed by a priest each month. So, they got issues, too.
The four leads all blend well together – Wilson’s sturdy aura and Farmiga’s clairvoyant true believer contrasting, yet mirroring the salt of the earth (but unreligious) heads of the Perron family. There is a mutual respect and sense of collaboration that shows. The fact that there are five Perron daughters could be a bad thing in that they aren’t all defined as individual characters, but the good thing is that we aren’t just following around a single young child who Knows Something. As a collective, it works to see different daughters see different things and have episodes that all service the overarching story.
And the way the story is told is deft and refreshing. Director James Wan, who has come a long way since the first “Saw” film, captures the essence of his 70s setting with an astute 70s style that doesn’t feel forced. Wardrobe and song choices are era-appropriate without being over-the-top or obvious. The camera moves in a restrained way that gives us the necessary architecture of the home without standing out as overly stylistic. Only once during the climax when we follow a bird that circles and flies into a window does it feel showy. The technology used by the Warrens to capture the sights and sounds of the haunting add to the low-fi grittiness of the scares.
A strong cast, a story that builds a sense of dread through to a shocking, yet logical climax and steady direction from Wan make “The Conjuring” a gem of a horror film that entertains and scares without insulting.
© 2013 by Blake Crane