I was left disappointed by James Wan’s (nearly – he fast and furiously got Insidious 2 out there a couple of months later) latest scare-fest. While I admire the director’s choice to tread a path of good old-fashioned frights rather than wallowing in grizzly dismemberments and arterial spray, one can still only go so far when distinctive content is beholden to formulaic scripting. Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes have in their possession ideal horror fodder in the shape of a tale ripped from the annals of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but they do almost nothing interesting with it. Wan has made an effectively creepy movie based on a possession theme and unseen forces lurking in dark corners of haunted houses, but he’s already done one of those with Insidious.
The Conjuring is a better movie than Insidious, chiefly because it has more compelling protagonists. The spooky games are almost interchangeable (Wan’s reliance on an accompaniment of over-enthusiastic strings was evident in Insidious; here it isn’t so much doffing its hat to horror movie history as plain clichéd), and the possession material is over-familiar. Some particularly schematic twists are thrown into the last third that aren’t so much calculated as shameless. This is also a more problematic movie than Insidious, for what it leaves unexplored.
Unsurprisingly, given its avowal of Christian theology, The Conjuring was marketed towards faith-based audiences as well as the usual horror crowd. Which would be fine, if it wanted to say something about the polarised mechanism of good and evil, angels and demons, it posits. What we get is angled more towards Hammer’s simplistic extremes than the post-William Peter Blatty philosophical debate of The Exorcist. As such, it feels like an opportunity has been missed. These are devout demon-busters, and the real Lorraine Warren has testified to the accuracy of the picture (one has to be a little cynical about this, unless her encounters really played out like the movies; after all, The Conjuring couldn’t be a better shock advertisement for the veracity of her belief system), yet, leaving aside for a moment the existence or otherwise of demonic possession, Wan and the Hayes have zero interest in examining the couple’s ideas. “God brought us together for a reason. This is it,” says Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine at one point, and that’s about the extent of it. The accompanying publicity material feeds into the makers’ Christianity-focused theme. If it’s not God, it must be the devil. But you’re left wondering why God-fearing folk, let alone responsible parents, would allow their young daughter access to a room full of possessed artefacts. Other than because it’s a Hollywood movie, that is.
The Hayes twins are to be commended for recognising the hook for a project that had been knocking around for more than a decade was to bring the Warrens to the centre. Otherwise, no wonder studios were passing on yet another indistinct possession/haunting storyline. With the duo leading the attention shifts to what sets this case apart to those experienced with the matters unknown; when the family were the focus, its just a sub-Poltergeist, sub-Amityville affair (of course, the Warrens inspired that latter movie too). Several articles have been written suggesting The Conjuring taps a vein of misogyny through setting up the antagonist as former witch now house and body-haunter. Worse still, it’s a slap in the face to the unjustly accused at the Salem trials. This is a ludicrous argument, given the broad canvas of possible subjects of evil in the annals of horror. Indeed, any crimes of The Conjuring with regard to the depiction of women seem quite innocuous in the context of the genre’s history The Salem connection makes a grand leap; that the Salem “witches” were innocent, therefore in horror movies all witches should be treated as innocent. But it is, perhaps, surprising – and underlines the movie’s Christian undercurrent – that no qualification is made for the “evil witch” in a post-Wiccan environment. The word has undergone rehabilitation in recent decades, and one only has to watch an episode of Buffy to know that care is generally taken to differentiate between the good (white witch) and the dark path.
Where the Hayes boys misfire isn’t really with the standard trop of the evil witch and the haunted family, it’s in the lack of insight into the Warrens themselves. They’ve affirmed that they wrote the script as believers, so I guess an unbiased approach would be too much to ask. Blatty managed spirited theological debate in Exorcist III: Legion, and didn’t short-change the scares either. The Conjuring has its protagonists give regular lectures at universities and use cutting-edge techniques with respect to recording devices and analysis of supernatural presences.
So this is really a no-frills scary movie masquerading as one with a bit more substance. It boasts the importance of a “true story” and leads Patrick Wilson (as Ed) and Farmiga deliver intelligent, low-key performances (with magnificent wardrobes and hair) that encourage you to forget the clunky dialogue. But this is a cheat. The couple’s beliefs amount to a couple of sentences, and there’s no interest in viewing their assumptions, methods or background (no doubt that dark encounter Lorraine has will be included in a sequel at some point) with a critical eye. None of this is essential to a skilfully made fear-fest but, like I say, it is settling for fast food when there was an opportunity to take in a first-class restaurant.
There’s little that won’t be familiar to the least seasoned horror veteran; untoward goings on in darkened cellars, things on top of wardrobes, wall hangings suddenly smashing to the floor, pets meeting inappropriate ends. However, when Lorraine recounts her initial entrance into the Perron house and we see it from her point-of-view (“I’ve been seeing the dark entity that haunts your house and your land”) we’re treated to one of the movie’s few genuinely stirring moments; it is narratively imaginative rather than nuts-and-bolts shock tactics. Another effective touch comes with the bureaucracy of a church reluctant to grant an immediate exorcism, and even less keen to be involved with an unbaptised family.
Generally, though, Wan is more interested in tried-and-tested scares than nods towards narrative surprises or notions of authenticity. His establishing shots of the house are wonderfully atmospheric, approaching it with a nice ominous slow zoom. And he relishes the promise of the scare. Telling the audience there’s something there and leaving it dangling as the dread spirals. So there’s the Perron daughter who can see something in the corner of the room while her sister cannot (“Oh my God. It’s standing right behind you!”) Then there’s the possessed doll, which forms a rather dissatisfying subplot (it makes for a great prologue and scene-setter, but it should have been left there). And the instruction with a music box that “When the music stops you see him standing in the mirror behind you”.
As such, the director can’t resist over-egging the pudding. Instead of one force, there’s a menagerie of victims poised to show up and scare someone, anyone, silly. The crucial film footage delivered to a priest as evidence just happens to involve a wild ride derby of hair pulling across a kitchen floor (impressively staged, nevertheless, but also not a little silly). When Ed decides to administer the exorcism, the results are a model lack of restraint, with the bound subject et chair flying ceiling-wards and a rather laboured (and curiously tension-diffusing) attempt to ratchet up the ante by cutting away to one of the entity’s would be victims. I can’t help feeling this would have been more satisfying if a less flashy, more sober approach had been taken; does each new exorcism have to outdo the last movie exorcism in terms of dazzle? We know Wan can make a movie like this, but can he make one with a brain too?
Perhaps The Conjuring’s greatest asset is its cast; ironic that the best spell it can cast is in the form of flesh and blood performers. Besides Wilson and Farmiga, Lili Taylor is as good as always as a mother put through the mill, and Ron Livingston, not so high profile of late, convincingly essays a down-to-earth and baffled parent. Knowing Wan can assemble great casts and that he is technically proficient is one thing, though. Perhaps he knows he needs to play a different tune… which is why he’s gone to work with Vin Diesel next. It’s probably a forlorn hope that the Conjuring sequel will veer a little more towards Warren biopic territory. While Lorraine is still giving her seal of approval, and Christian audiences keep showing up, why change the recipe?