Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: James Wan
Writer: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Producer: Tony DeRosa-Grund, Peter Safran, Rob Cowan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are summoned to exorcise an evil entity from the haunted home of the Perron Family.
Typecasting and pigeonholing can be career killers in Hollywood, but if someone chained James Wan to a camera and forced him to make fright films for the rest of his professional life, horror fans would probably be just fine with that. Already established as a contemporary master of the genre with “Saw,” “Insidious,” and the often overlooked “Dead Silence,” the notch that Wan puts on his bedpost with “The Conjuring” is a deft-handed display of how to take every horror trope imaginable and still craft an invigorating experience of white-knuckled suspense.
Tack the final reel of “The Exorcist” onto “The Amityville Horror” and the plot summary writes itself. “The Conjuring” purports to be based on the “true story” of the Perron Family, who had the unfortunate luck of moving into a farmhouse cursed by the devil-worshipping descendant of a Salem witch that hanged herself on the property. With a provenance like that, purchasing a home on an Indian burial ground might have been a better idea after all. Notable demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren take up the mantle usually occupied by a Catholic priest in these types of films and begin an investigation to cleanse the house of its malevolent entities.
What follows is a nearly two hour “best of” highlight reel of the most familiar, and most reliable, horror movie scares. After opening with the introductory tale of a creepy doll, “The Conjuring” goes on to include such clichés as the child’s imaginary friend who turns out to be a ghost, the swaying light bulb on a string casting shadows, a plethora of creaking floors and doors, a music box with an eerie melody, and even a cameo by the bouncing ball from “The Changeling.”
Lesser filmmakers in lesser productions lean heavily on these overused elements for purposes that are cheap and exploitative. The end result alienates the audience because the effort feels desperate and forced. But the reason why “The Conjuring” is successful despite relying on old tricks is because there is a genuine reverence for employing these techniques effectively.
Using every available tool at his disposable to complete an effect, from an audio sting to slight CGI enhancements to disorienting camera movements, Wan never employs more than is necessary to sell the fright fully. There is always a carefully balanced blend to all of the ingredients. He demonstrates a natural instinct for when to alternate between restraint and wild abandon. Proven methods work to the film’s advantage because they are always in service to the substance behind the scare, and not simply to the jump moment itself.
That substance comes from a relatable portrayal of ordinary people experiencing an unbelievable ordeal. “The Conjuring” has a more satisfying path to resolution than similar films with its focus on the strength of family over religious iconography. The emphasis here is that emotion and affection are more effective tools against evil than Latin phrases or a vial of holy water.
“The Conjuring” works its magic best on those who do not see horror films often. Although even those well versed in films featuring haunted houses, priests, witches, suicides, ghost children, and references to Satan can appreciate the skill with which those elements triumph on the screen here.
Virtually nothing about “The Conjuring” is unique and yet it seems fresh under the intelligent stewardship of an exceptional cast and crew. Seeing the film in action is not unlike watching a master illusionist perform his greatest feats. Even when the audience knows how a trick is done, the timing, dexterity, and showmanship on display is stunning nonetheless. And while James Wan is making the Statue of Liberty disappear, others still think they are dazzling with the cups and ball. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Pity be upon anyone who has to follow this act with a haunting or exorcism movie of his/her own.
Review Score: 80