The Conjuring

The Conjuring ★★★★

It's 1971. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) are paranormal investigators. Lorraine has powers of clairvoyancy. Ed is a self-taught author and lecturer in Demonology. Following one of their lectures, they are approached by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under), a woman clearly at her wit's end. She's terrified. Something's happening in her new house. Something bad.

Carolyn, her husband Roger (Ron Livingston, Sex & the City) and their five daughters had not long moved into a farm house in Rhode Island. Almost immediately, things start going south. The family dog refuses to enter the property and is found dead outside. Birds frequently crash violently into the house, killing themselves in the process. Clocks stop at 3.07 every night. Pictures fall from their positions on the walls. The daughters are sure there's someone in their room with them. Can these paranormal investigators help? They seem to think they can. Upon visiting the Perron's home, Lorraine feels a dreadful presence all around the family, and the house generally. She feels that it has attached itself to them, and that simply upping sticks and moving isn't going to help at this stage. Ed digs into the history of the place and finds that the house and surrounding lands were once owned in the mid-19th century by a witch who tried to kill her children as an offering to Satan before cursing anyone who lives on her lands, and killing herself. It's decided that an exorcism on the house itself is what's required, but to do that they'll really need approval from the Vatican (even though Ed knows how to perform the exorcism ritual), and to get that approval they'll need to start gathering evidence, building proof. As they do so, whatever it is that's terrorizing the Perrons decides to take it up a few notches. "Infestation, Oppression, Possession" are the stages of haunting by demonic creatures according to Ed, and at this point we're definitely up to stage three.

The Conjuring, directed by James Wan (Insidious, Saw) is a movie that's been touted around for over twenty years now, and is based on the supposedly true account of what happened in Harrisville, Rhode Island to the very real Perron family, as reported by the equally real Ed and Lorraine Warren, an already famous couple in the US thanks to their 1975 investigation of a house in Amityville in New York, site of the mass killing of the DeFeo family at the hand of patriarch Ronald DeFeo and subsequent site of ghostly shenanigans at the expense of new owners George and Kathy Lutz and their children; a tale that inspired the Jay Anson novel The Amityville Horror: A True Story and which spawned a number of movies and sequels. But is it any good?

Well, yes, it is. There seem to be a slew of decently budgeted, taken seriously ghostly haunted house/possession flicks pumping out of the US in the 2010s, the most prominent of which I guess beyond The Conjuring would be Sinister, which deserves to be right up there among the best of this current crop, and James Wan's other baby Insidious, which in my humble opinion doesn't. The Conjuring hits very similar notes to both of those movies but you can feel that James Wan has honed his craft for this type of movie. There is nothing whatsoever groundbreaking here but it's a lot of old-school scares, cut/shot very old-school with an absolute minimum of cgi, all delivered with heavyweight performances (Lili Taylor as Carolyn Perron is particularly outstanding) and with impeccable timing, with Mr. Wan ratcheting up the tension throughout the movie, carefully building his way to his finale. It's not entirely faultless; these big studio horror numbers seem to be SO polished, SO accomplished, that they develop a sheen which keeps the audience at arm's length, away from true, visceral terror. In that regard, The Conjuring is no different from its peers. Annoyingly similar might be more appropriate. Also, Mr. Wan has tried to splice another Warren investigation - the case of the "Annabelle" doll - into the proceedings (no doubt from Mr. Wan at one point wanting the film to be called The Warren Files and be a bit more general) and, while this does make for a couple of creepy sequences, the simple fact is that it feels very tacked on, and could've easily been dropped altogether. But largely speaking, this is a scary flick if you're in the mood to work with it a little, and a significant step up for the director over his previous outing.

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