Putting aside for a minute the barrel-scraping title (which sounds like the name of a filler episode of Angel), the new movie from James Wan offers little inspiration up front. From the trailer, which has been doing the rounds rather heavily, it looks like a predictable mix of haunted house scares and stale riffs on The Exorcist. And yet, it appears to have whipped up quite some anticipation. The marketing and promotion of the movie have no doubt fed into this considerably, suggesting that there is something deeply harrowing about The Conjuring. Something… more than you’d usually bargain for. At a screening in Chicago there was even a priest present to provide ‘spiritual support’ to audience members. Nice touch, Warner Bros.
But it’s hard to imagine, in this age of over-exposure and gratuity, what could possibly rouse jaded audiences into such a fervor. I mean, nothing’s really shocking or surprising anymore, right? We’ve seen everything already, haven’t we? So is it all in the marketing, or is there something genuinely terrifying at work here? Something new to be afraid of?
The quick answer to that is a resounding No. The Conjuring offers nothing that you haven’t seen before in some variation elsewhere, neither does it particularly improve on any of the various horror tropes that it pilfers from the likes of Poltergeist, Child’s Play, The Shining or, yes, The Exorcist to name but a few. In fact this movie is so brazenly derivative that you have to call these thefts ‘homages’ to muster any respect for them at all. It’s as though screenwriters Chad and Cary Hayes drafted a checklist before opening their first empty Word document, then framed their story around each box as they ticked it off. There’s even a P.O.V. home-movie bit.
The story, lest I forget, is the (inevitably) true tale of the Perron family, and the demonic spirits they encounter upon moving into a newly acquired rustic country property in 1971. From day 1 some spooky shit starts going down. Parents Roger (Ron Livingstone – him from Office Space) and Carolyn (Lilli Taylor – her from Six Feet Under) ought to have enough to deal with given that they have five daughters. The last thing they need are mysterious thumps in the night, foreboding wardrobes, mysterious bruises and secret basements.
This first hour is actually rather well put together. The Conjuring works best when tapping into simple childhood fears we can all relate to; what’s under the bed, what’s in the dark corner. Wan makes merry hay toying with the viewer’s expectations, happily denying us the cheap jump we’re anticipating on more than one occasion. Instead he focuses on build-up and character development. One of the things I liked the most about this movie is the time it took to let us get to know the Perrons.
Once the paranormal activity becomes impossible to ignore and a pall draws over the house, Carolyn and Roger reach out to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) who have a reputation for resolving such kooky crises. Along with their crack team of token-sceptic-guy and token-Asian-guy, the Warrens are drawn into the dark events, deigning the house itself as possessed (though this theory is quickly forgotten once a person becomes possessed).
This leads us into The Conjuring‘s less successful second hour, in which Wan and the Hayes scribes start throwing anything and everything at the screen to see what sticks. It becomes a bit of a jumble (witches? ghosts? demons? all three?). After such a good build-up it feels somewhat anticlimactic. The more you think about it afterwards, the less it really works.
The end result, despite hopes to the contrary, is a sort of The Last Sinister Awakening Of The Insidious Silent House At The End Of The Street. A hodgepodge of increasingly predictable jumps and starts that begins to feel like a weary trip through an old fun-house more than a genuinely arresting horror experience. In terms of chills or scares, The Conjuring rarely quickens the pulse. Familiarity breeds contempt. As the film progresses, so the attempts to scare us increase in frequency, until they’re piling up and nullifying one another, or, worse still, they start to appear unintentionally funny. Plus one of the most promising elements in the film is frustratingly sidelined to a B-story which goes absolutely nowhere.
It isn’t all bad news though. The acting across the board is fairly even and fairly strong. Everyone’s playing this one with a straight face, with only Farmiga’s Lorraine occasionally lapsing into histrionics. And the aforementioned patience in the first hour allows us to feel at ease with these people and makes them feel real, setting The Conjuring apart from so many Hollywood horrors in which the concept of character doesn’t appear to have even been discussed. Props also to Wan, his director of photography John R Leonetti and the production design crew for crafting a film that looks gorgeous throughout.
All the gothic prettiness in the world can’t make up for how completely vacuous this all feels, how shrewd. A horror movie made by committee to work like a theme park attraction. The Conjuring is less like a movie, more like a business decision. It’s all a little too focus-grouped, a little too something-for-everyone. There’s no doubting it’ll romp it at the box office. The promotional campaign has already decided that this film will be a success. So confident is the marketing that I have no doubt seats will be filled. How many people leave the cinema feeling like they’ve genuinely encountered something extraordinary is another matter entirely.
Whilst its admirable to see a mainstream horror film attempting to align itself with the genre’s mightier classics, it invites the kind of comparisons it just can’t live up to. The only thing being conjured here is hype and a bankable return.