The Conjuring Review
James Wan is fast establishing himself as the best horror director working in Hollywood today, but The Conjuring isn’t quite the well-oiled scare machine that the publicity and word-of-mouth would have you believe. Sandwiched between the rather more effective Insidious and its imminent sequel, the film is a reminder than a good ghost story well told remains an appealing proposition in the darkened depths of a cinema, and there are certainly several good jumps to be had. But there’s a lingering sense that we’ve seen all this before, many times; there just isn’t enough innovation to make The Conjuring anything more than a respectable entry in a genre crowded with inferior product.
Plot-wise, The Conjuring blends The Exorcist with The Amityville Horror in about equal parts, and, just as with those two films, it is allegedly based on a true story. Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, the latter atoning for 1999’s dismal remake of The Haunting) and their five daughters move in to a farmhouse in Rhode Island, and almost immediately strange things start happening to them: pictures fall off walls, doors open and close by themselves, and, even more terrifyingly, curious smells pop up in the middle of the night. After attending one of their lectures, a desperate Carolyn asks Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who have dealt with this sort of thing before, to try and help them.
It’s a story that has been done to death then, but Wan does his best to polish up some very musty clichés. Though he still subscribes to the Sudden Loud Bang school of scares, his sense of timing and use of camera perspectives do at least allow an unsettling atmosphere to build up onscreen. This is at its best during the middle act as revelations about the origins of the house’s supernatural inhabitants emerge, which leads to a sequence that recalls the BBC’s infamous Ghostwatch mockumentary with the Warrens trying to capture evidence of what’s going on. The extended moments of silence and misdirection are terrific, and as the action intensifies so does the fear factor. Wan clearly knows how this stuff works, and The Conjuring is ample proof of his ability to use every tool in the box.
So it’s a pity when the film resorts to simple “Boo!” tricks to pay off the build-up; after a while the creaky doors and loud noises become predictable, even tiresome. The story is pretty stale too, having been endlessly adapted before (whether directly or indirectly), so it’s a significant flaw that the script by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes fails to add anything new to it. A tacked-on prologue throws a supposedly possessed doll into the mix in a brave but futile attempt to find an original angle. Even the dialogue begins to sound a little like a spoof (a haunting is “like stepping on gum: sometimes you take it with you", explains Ed, without a hint of tongue in cheek).
In fairness, the cast are strong across the board: Farmiga and Wilson both inhabit their seemingly unflappable characters with admirable straight-facedness, while Taylor gets rather more to do towards the end, but they can only work with what they’re given. The Conjuring is a slightly frustrating experience, by turns creepy and hackneyed. Once the credits are rolling and the lights come up the only spooky sensation you’re left with is deja vu.