James Wan’s career as a horror filmmaker kicked off with a considerable bang with the release of the then-quite original Saw almost a decade ago. While Saw gave birth to a parade of mediocre sequels, Wan avoided directing any himself. His follow-up, Dead Silence, didn’t appear until a few years later and quickly vanished after failing to even come close to matching Saw’s success, critically or commercially. He promptly left the genre and made the dull, Kevin Bacon-starring vigilante thriller Death Sentence, again making little impact, before finally bouncing back with Insidious in 2011. He’s decided to follow that haunted-house horror with a similarly-themed effort, The Conjuring, and found himself with another absolute smash hit on his hands; it’s currently one of the year’s most profitable films.
The Conjuring adopts an early seventies setting and introduces us first to a pair of paranormal investigators, or ‘demonologists’ or whatever you want to call them, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farminga), as they give a presentation to an intrigued audience. It then takes us to Rhode Island where Carolyn and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) are about to move in to a large, creepy old farmhouse with their five daughters. They soon discover a dark, boarded-up cellar filled with old junk and of course, spooky things start happening in the night, eventually leading them to call on the Warrens.
The film knowingly plays up many a haunted-house movie troupe, banging noises, chill winds, inanimate objects that appear to behave on their own and so on, but for the most part, it works. Wan crafts the atmosphere of the place skilfully, creating a looming sense of dread in all the night-time scenes. A lot of these moments are building up to the eventual jump-scare but again, most of them hit, and it gets a couple of unexpected ones in too.
It its early stages, the film cuts between the two couples, adding character but potentially taking away some suspense, as the Warrens’ scenes are, at this point, not trying to be scary or related to the goings on in the house, some viewers could find these parts relieving in that sense though too. The film is played quite seriously, a fact helped by having quality actors in the main roles. Having some characters who are aware of what they’re up against, and not as visibly afraid as the others, adds another element to proceedings, requiring the stakes to be raised if they’re to be convincingly scared by something.
As enjoyable it is as a horror film, there is one glaring issue with The Conjuring. At the beginning (and on the posters), text proudly boasts the story to be true, the film rams this in again at the end, and throughout the credits by interspersing real photos and newspaper clippings. Now there is some fact to this, the Perrons, and the Warrens, are/were real people. Indeed the Warrens served as the inspiration for The Amityville Horror, another supposedly fact-based horror story that, according to what little internet research I did before writing this, seems to now be an admitted hoax. The Warrens certainly are presented as God-believing, Hell-fearing people, and probably were, but really, do the filmmakers honestly expect us to buy into this all being true? If it was true, then I guess Catholicism, along with certain other infamous historical events I won’t reveal here, and ‘clairvoyance’ would have to be too.
There is also a mostly unrelated story involving a ‘possessed’ doll that looks so ludicrously menacing you can’t imagine any girl buying it for a toy that, while effectively creepy, could probably have been removed without losing much.
Horror movie clichés often have become such because at first, they worked well when it came to chilling and startling audiences. The Conjuring serves to remind us that when properly handled, many can still prove effectively scary, it’s just best not to take its professions of truth too seriously.