Think of recent supernatural films and chances are that you’ll initially picture the latest entry in the Paranormal Activity series, or one of its many rip offs, or one of the many recent horror films that have tried to be scary and really, well, haven’t been. Mention Amityville and the likelihood is that you’ll think of the infamous real-life haunting (or was it real…?) and the many films that have rolled off the back of the famous account (including that terrible 2005 remake). For some people, James Wan’s latest feature The Conjuring might sound like another Amityville inspired waste of ninety minutes, but in reality Wan manages to craft a pretty decent modern haunted house story that puts many recent efforts to shame.
The ‘based on a true story’ moniker doesn’t always work for some films, but for The Conjuring this is actually a reality. The film is based on one of the cases that real-life paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren dealt with. More famously known for being some of the first investigators to look into the Amityville Haunting, Ed and Lorraine have investigated over 10,000 hauntings in their career, one of which involved the Perron family…
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move their family, including their five daughters, into a run-down house in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The illusion of the perfect new spacious family home is shattered when strange things start happening and the young girls start seeing and interacting with spirits. As the incidents escalate, Carolyn seeks out Ed and Lorraine, well seasoned investigators and demonologists (and gifted clairvoyent in the case of Lorraine), in the hope that they can provide some answers. Once the Warren’s start scratching at the surface of everything, they soon uncover that they are in for more than they bargained for…
First off, reactions to The Conjuring have been a little mixed. Whilst its done well with critics and is taking the US box office by storm, I have read comments from viewers who, having seen it, weren’t massive fans and it’s easy to understand why. When it comes to action, the film is a bit of a slow burner, and when the action does eventually start to kick in, it does feel a little familiar. Despite the 1970s setting (which is perfectly captured and maintained through some great costume work, ace hairstyles and a few knowing lines in the script), a few of the bedroom scenes feel a bit Paranormal Activity, the location and family sometimes feel a little Amityville Horror and no matter how hard it tries to steer clear of it, there’s no denying that the exorcism scene feels very reminiscent of none other than The Exorcist (whilst not as extreme, its easy to see the influence of the film on the make up). Hell, even the house feels a little Elm Street with its green, white and red colour scheme. Admittedly, some of the scares are predictable in their timing meaning they lose a little of their scare factor, and when it finally comes down to the link between the Perron’s and the Warren’s, you can’t help but feel like the emotional cliché dial has been cranked up to eleven.
That aside, Wan has managed to create a tight little haunted house story for the modern audience, that rightfully shows film makers how its done. Focusing more on character, Wan doesn’t need to rely so much on outrageous set pieces, gore and overuse of special effects (although the hair pulling scene is the perfect case for The Conjuring over doing it) making the picture feel more balanced. The atmosphere is eerie, the scares are jumpworthy (even if ever so slightly too reliant on sound) and when its time to get creepy, it gets creepy quickly and uncomfortably (the film has without a doubt one of the creepiest dolls I’ve ever seen in a film). The film also has some great steady-cam shots, making the audience very familiar with the house itself, giving it its own identity and making it as much a player as the human cast.
The main thing that makes the film work so well though are the cast. With a few supporting characters aside, the film really does just focus on the Perron family and the Warren’s, siding you with both the fear of Carolyn and her girls and the initial scepticism-come-solve-it attitude of Ed and Lorraine. Patrick Wilson (who has another outing with Wan scheduled for this year, Insidious: Chapter 2) and Vera Farmiga are both terrific, playing off an apparent chemistry with absolute ease and really making their versions of the Warren’s human. Nothing feels clichéd or overly dramatic about their performance which, in the realm of supernatural films and some of the portrayals of psychics and mediums I’ve seen, feels really fresh and enjoyable to watch. Lili Taylor also comes off well, finally doing the haunted house movie she deserves to do after being in the awful mess that wasThe Haunting remake. Concerned, confused, possessed, terrified, loving, she does it all and it’s all underplayed to precision. As for Ron Livingston and his on-screen daughters, they all play scared very well, but ultimately the film belongs to Taylor, Wilson and Farmiga’s perfectly crafted sympathetic portrayals.
For a film which started developement nearly twenty years ago, it seems that the wait was worth it, just in finding the right crew and cast alone. When it gets to the very end and the inevitable but very subtlety well done Amityville reference has passed, you can instantly see why New Line are keen to get a sequel going. When it comes to Amityville, so much is often heard about the house, the Lutz’s and the DeFeo’s that it’s really nice to have a film that actually shows Ed and Lorraine themselves for once (Lorraine even has a cameo). Whilst Amityville has been done numerous times, and The Haunting In Connecticut been and gone (based on another case of the Warren’s), here’s hoping that another one of the many thousands of cases they investigated that isn’t well-known makes it to the screen also.
It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it certainly doesn’t hide what it is. Wan proved he could do haunted and possessed with Insidious and this just cements his talents as a filmmaker. For a studio release, The Conjuring is an original horror that entertains, even if it leaves you feeling more interested in the Warren’s themselves than being scared.