With Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell. Written by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes. Directed by James Wan. Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror. 112 minutes.
THE CONJURING is a good old-fashioned haunted house story. It is told with sufficient style and intelligence that it provides a number of scares while not leaving you feeling stupid for going along for the ride. With it, those looking for some midsummer chills that don’t involve splattering the screen with blood should find some relief from the heat.
The movie begins by introducing us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) who investigate paranormal activity. While we see them debunking some instances with mundane explanations, they also believe that some of their cases involve demons and other spirits attacking humans. A prologue shows one case involving a possession of a doll haunting two roommates in the late ‘60s. The action then shifts to 1971 when Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into an old house and start to have problems.
The problems will be familiar to those who have seen other haunted house movies. The youngest girl has a new “invisible friend.” Clocks stop at the same time. Pictures fall off the wall. The other girls wake up sensing an unseen presence in their rooms. As it escalates the parents realize they have a problem that they can’t handle and they have nowhere to go. Enter the Warrens.
Having already introduced the characters, the movie makes a point of making them protagonists as well. They’re not merely plot devices to help the Perrons. Lorraine has suffered from their previous work, as the film slowly reveals, and their young daughter is also a target of evil forces, perhaps trying to prevent the Warrens from succeeding in helping the Perron family. As the film heads towards its climax, both families have something at stake.
The film works by not trying to hit viewers over the head with shock effects. Things are slowly revealed but rather than making it dull it increases the tension. It helps that the four adult leads are credible actors who play the material straight. It’s important that we see that the investigators don’t just assume the supernatural explanation for something but need proof. We might not accept that proof in the real world, but in the world of the movie it means they need to be convinced as much as we do.
That turns out to be the key to the film. Viewers need to suspend their disbelief. When the supernatural forces come front and center in the third act, we’re ready to play along. The film has earned sufficient credibility that we’re willing to do so. The film is cannily set in 1971–two years before the movie version of “The Exorcist” came out–allowing them to not only use period props and styles, but avoid turning it into a parody of the key film in the genre.
Perhaps what’s truly incredible is that the movie was directed by James Wan, whose credits include the repulsive “Saw” and the moronic “Insidious,” the latter a haunted house movie that was hilariously bad. It’s as if he finally realized that horror is most effective when played straight. As a result, “The Conjuring” is easily his best film to date, and a truly creepy exercise. You may not believe in haunted houses, but you will while watching the movie.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.