Title: The Conjuring
Do You Believe In UFOs, Astral Projection, Mental Telepathy, ESP, Clairvoyance, Spirit Photography, Telekinetic Movement, Full Trance Mediums, The Loch Ness Monster And The Theory Of Atlantis? Uh, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film Three-and-a-half sets of muttonchops out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Family of seven move into haunted house, almost immediately regrets decision.
Tagline: "Based on the true case files of the Warrens."
Better Tagline: "If your dog doesn't want to go into your new home, you might want to reconsider that mortgage."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: It's enough to make you not want to test the housing market. When the Perrons move from New Jersey to a unique fixer-upper opportunity in Rhode Island, things start off well. So what if trucker dad Roger (Ron Livingston) isn't pulling the more profitable routes? Or if mysterious bruises keep popping up on mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor)? Or if shadowy figures are threatening the kids? Wait, that last one is no good. Better get in touch with famed "demonologist" Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) to get to the bottom of things.
"Critical" Analysis: It's to the credit of just about everyone involved in The Conjuring that they've managed to take two of the hoariest horror tropes in existence -- haunted houses and exorcism -- and present them in a way that doesn't make you feel like you're watching a Poltergeist remake.
And if we're being completely honest, that's pretty much what The Conjuring is: family moves into new (to them) house; odd yet mostly harmless shit starts happening, then escalates; ghostbuster types show up; the evil is diagnosed, and everybody tries to save the youngest daughter from a horrible fate. Maybe this time around it's a descendant of Salem witches and not the pissed off inhabitants of desecrated graves, but you've got creepy dolls, colorful paranormal investigators, and even a sinister tree. All that's missing is JoBeth Williams in a bathtub. Something we can all agree most movies could use.
These characteristics are familiar to the point of being trite, and I confess I didn't think Saw creator James Wan would be the one to bring a fresh take (after all, he made a remarkably similar movie just three years ago), but this time around he has a few things working in his favor.
The first is the setting. The Conjuring, like The Amitville Horror, is based on the allegedly true case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Perron family haunting takes place in 1971 Rhode Island, two years before William Friedkin's classic horror movie about a young girl turning her head 360 degrees introduced the word "exorcist" to modern pop culture. To the Perrons, exorcism is an obscure horrific Dark Ages ritual, not something to be discussed in the cold light of 20th century day. Its atmospheric nature stands in direct contrast to Saw's hamfisted orgies of gore. Wan keeps the blood to a minimum, but uses it effectively when needed, and even addresses some of the persisting annoyances of modern horror movies. Namely, why don't these people GET OUT OF THE HOUSE? [Non-spoilery answer: it would't matter if they did.]
Second, there's the cast. Horror movies are often regarded as the heavily scarred, psychologically damaged red-headed stepchildren of cinema, and as such they sometimes have to settle for Paris Hilton or Chad Michael Murray or both. Here, Wan lands Oscar nominee Farmiga and indie darling Taylor, both of whom have serious cred and minimal horror experience. Meanwhile, Wilson and Wan worked together on Insidious, and I've wanted Livingston to be huge ever since Office Space. The script, by Chad and Carey Hayes (The Reaping, House of Wax), doesn't carve out a lot of new ground, but the ensemble delivers the material convincingly. Perhaps more so than it deserves.
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Finally, it's a true story. No, just kidding, that's completely meaningless. A "true story?" Oh, okay. I'd remind the Warrens that The Amityville Horror was presented as verifiable once as well.
The third act's predictability is mitigated by the deft build-up, including some legitimate scares. Sure, we know as soon as the Warrens' young daughter Judy is introduced she's going to be in danger. Especially since -- did I forget to mention -- they keep evil relics of their past cases IN THEIR OWN GODDAMNED HOUSE. I actually laughed out loud when Ed told his daughter she must never, ever go into his locked room full of cool, creepy shit. He might as well have asked, "What is your fascination with my Forbidden Closet of Mystery?"
I liked The Conjuring. It doesn't rely overtly on "jump" scares, builds dread effectively, and doesn't cheapen everything that came before with a gotcha ending. Best horror movie of 2013 so far.
The Conjuring is in theaters today. Hey, what's that behind you?