Some movies go bump in the night. Others go thump, thud, Oh my God, it’s got me by the throat and I can’t breathe! This weekend’s The Conjuring is that rare exception. What could have been another rote, by-the-numbers haunted house movie, works like a finely crafted piece of machinery that smoothes every frame for maximum fear potency. It is not necessarily the most original or clever of horror films, but it does something that few ever accomplish: It gets under your skin, even if you have seen all the tricks before. The Conjuring returns to the investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren for its inspiration. The two paranormal investigators whose previous travels served as backgrounds used for The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Haunting in Connecticut (2008), finally receive their own film which, in a novel idea, casts them as the leads. It’s 1971 when the Perron family moves into a quaint fixer-upper in rural Rhode Island. After living in the hustle and bustle of New Jersey, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) seem ecstatic that they were able to find their home at a very reasonable rate after a bank auction. Perhaps they should have asked for a receipt.
Their cuddly dog Sadie, a smart hound who will not even step foot inside the farmhouse, is dead by the end of the first night. And things just go downhill from there. Before long, creepy children’s voices are luring Carolyn into the basement for the worst game of hide-and-seek on record and Nancy Perron (Hayley McFarland), the eldest of Roger and Carolyn’s five daughters, is being dragged by the hair across the living room. Things are bad. So who do the Perrons call? Enter Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The dynamic duo were actually very well known and renowned paranormal sleuths, as well as demonologists. Indeed, the movie’s early text brackets claim that Ed Warren was the only non-clergy man recognized as a demonologist by the Vatican. How true that is (or any of these “Based on a True Story” sequences), I shall leave to the most dedicated commenters. Ed and Lorraine themselves are a perfectly endearing New England couple. You can tell they’re from New England by the way Wilson allows his accent to charmingly curl around the vowels. He is the science guy and she is the spiritual one who experiences a form of clairvoyance. Together, they are the perfect team who can take care of their cute daughter when they aren’t hauling her away from the tightly locked “museum” in the back of their house, filled with haunted or demon-touched artifacts (that is real place and can still be visited today). So, when they know that your house is severely troubled with supernatural activity after spending all of five minutes on the premises…it may be time to consider relocation.
Ed and Lorraine quickly deduce that the grounds are overflowing with spirits from the many who died over the last hundred years in or near the house, including other neighborhoods. It goes back to the original couple that owned the house, constructed in 1863, the wife of whom was a descendant from the Salem Witch Trials and reportedly hanged herself after professing a love for the Devil and murdering her own child. Many kids have died since. What follows is a masterfully crafted game of ratcheting tension as Ed and Lorraine are pulled more and more into the lives of the Perrons. Soon, the bumps become crashing furniture and demonic entities taking over bodies. This is the stuff of genuine horror. Directed by James Wan, the filmmaker behind Saw and Insidious, many of the tricks at first appear to be old hat. Admittedly, the director uses plenty of the set-ups for the reinvigorated haunted house subgenre that has been in vogue since Paranormal Activity reminded viewers that they need not gore or gross-outs to be unsettled. Fortunately, Wan has avoided the found footage gimmick and approaches his material with the classicism of a traditionalist reared on old school horrors like The Haunting (1963). Even when he is going through the most expected jump scare beats, there is a confidence in the storytelling that is refreshing for a genre that often stands on sandier foundations. As an extension of that, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga convincingly testify again of their underrated status. The former having worked with Wan before on Insidious, has carved out a nice little niche for himself as a face in horror while it’s a family business for the latter. Besides appearing as Norman’s sweet, dear mother on Bates Motel, Vera Farmiga is also sister to Taissa Farmiga, aka Violet from the first season of American Horror Story. These growing ambassadors of the genre do the best thing possible for it: submerging into their characters and avoiding trite clichés.
Wilson and Farmiga glow with a nice warmth that makes them instantly sympathetic. All the performances are similarly tender, and therefore freaky as the story progresses. We do not want to see this cute family of five traumatized daughters hurt anymore. Taylor herself seems to be doing time for her part in the awful 1999 Haunting remake. Yet, the movie still belongs to Ed and Lorraine. As the “investigators” in these sorts of films are often the most interesting, this new angle makes for an appealing approach on this very familiar yarn. Unfortunately, the early sequences suffer as we bide our time for Ed and Lorraine to appear again. However, once the two families’ stories start to merge, to negative consequences for Ed and Lorraine’s daughter, all their fates become riveting. The best trick about the acting is it did the near impossible, it completely engrossed me into the characters’ plight by the third act, despite guessing how it could play out. None of the tricks in The Conjuring are particularly groundbreaking. But in this genre, that is a compliment. Wan is more determined to pull back from old school ghost stories and the more disturbing religious horror flicks of the 1970s. That means a particularly nasty make-up job on a character here and a levitating chair over there , as opposed to copious amounts of CGI or, worse, CGI gore.
The result is a film that feels like it has been summoned from many other parts before. However, the execution, particularly from the actors, is so pitch perfect that the high-notes could shatter glass. The Conjuring pulls you in and feverishly shakes you until you buy into its uncomfortable world. Once there, you will struggle along with all the characters to reach the end credits, if only to find an excuse for the lights to come back on. Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars