Review: The Conjuring (2013)

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Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes
Based on a “true” (*cough* bullshit *cough*) story
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Kyla Deaver, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King & Mackenzie Foy
Runtime: 112 min // Certificate: 15

In the age of desensitisation, jump-scares and Paranormal Activity 28, decent horror films are disgracefully hard to come by. Though The Conjuring, James Wan’s sixth directorial effort to date, isn’t exactly “scary” – though not for a lack of trying – it manages to get under your skin with its creepy, character-focussed story of possession and exorcism in 1970s America. With its Amityville-esque leanings and its reliance on tension over thrills, it gives us a glimpse of what horror used to be like before that tosser responsible for trash like Saw and Insidious came along and ruined everything.

Wait, what? That was James Wan too? Wow… ok, so either he’s been playing a very long game, directing turd after turd so that when he finally made a somewhat half-decent film it would get over-hyped out of all proportion, or this was just a bit of a lucky break. Whatever the case, The Conjuring is – almost in spite of its subject matter – a tight and accomplished film. Based on a true story, in the same way that The Passion of the Christ is based on a true story, The Conjuring follows real-life “paranormal investigators” – hucksters in all but name – Lorraine (Farmiga) and Ed (Wilson) Warren on what, it is claimed, was one of their most terrifying cases. The Perron family – which consists of Carolyn (Taylor), Roger (Livingston) and their five daughters – move into a large house in Rhode Island that, wouldn’t you know, turns out to be haunted by the dark spirit of a witch. Scared out of their wits, the Perrons call the Warrens in to investigate, only for this filicidal entity to soon turn on them too.

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On paper it sounds like the type of nonsense I normally hate. Supernaturalism is very tough to get right, especially when you’re playing to a cynic like me, and Wan’s film gets off to a shaky start because it takes its influence from every other supernatural horror film going. It is sort of like the Oblivion of horror in that it feels very much like a composite film. As well as the aforementioned Amityville Horror – also based, supposedly, on one of the Warren’s investigations – it is also influenced rather heavily by The Exorcist, the final act of which is all but recreated to the letter here, albeit with diminishing returns. Also thrown into the mix is some Possession, a sprinkling of Black Sunday, a crude reference to Rosemary’s Baby and a few fan-service nods to films like Poltergeist and The Birds. It’s like an homage to the past, told via the sensibilities of the present day, which is a recipe that ultimately worked far better than I expected it to.

See, the thing about The Conjuring is there’s nothing unique about the story or the manner in which it is told. It doggedly conforms to the rules of its genre to such an extent that there is a distinct lack of terror, particularly if you’re already well-versed in horror cinema, and it follows the tropes of the supernatural possession story to the letter; from the sequence of events to the characters and the setting. What this means is there are few surprises. Nevertheless, something about it works because it has a lingering effect that stays with you for quite some time after the credits have rolled. Part of its charm rests on the sheer attempt, however unsuccessful it might be, to actually earn the scares. Rather than throw random junk at the audience in the hope of eliciting a reaction, Wan and the Hayes brothers try to create an atmosphere and creep the audience out before subjecting them to the “jump out of your skin” moments.

What sets The Conjuring apart from derivative pantomimes like The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity is that the audience is given characters in whom we can invest. Though what happens to the characters is predictable, and though on a basic level they very much conform to type, an effort has been made to give them some sort of personality. They aren’t just husks, they’re actual people. As the film progresses, the initial lack of jump scares gives us some scope to get to know these people and to understand what it is that has them so terrified. The introduction of Lorraine and Ed to the main story is clunky – though perhaps unavoidably so, given the nature of the plot – but the subsequent character development is practically unheard of in contemporary horror cinema.

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Where The Conjuring fails is in its final act, as so many films of its ilk do. In an Exorcist III-esque assault on all the good will that the first 90 minutes built up, the film descends into an almost laughably bad exorcism sequence in which a woman starts caterwauling and coughing up blood, in which Livingston hams it up to eleven and in which a chair starts spinning on the ceiling, a la Scary Movie 3. In a sense it was inevitable that the film would descend into such chaos; after all, you can’t rely so heavily on the standard tropes of the genre without the inevitable cheap Exorcist knock-off sequence in the final act, but I spent most of the film hoping in vain that it might be avoided.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, The Conjuring is a confidently directed and well-acted bit of horror cinema. It flounders in its set-up and flails about uncontrollably in the last twenty minutes but the bulk of the film, in which we get to know the characters, learn about the vicious spirit that’s haunting them and get a glimpse into what it is that drove the Warrens to do what they did, is surprisingly good. As I said, the film is never “scary” but it is consistently creepy, so much so that when it finished I had a minor to-do when I wanted to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. If a horror film can stay with you like that after it has ended then, in my book, it’s done its job.

On a final note, The Conjuring is deliciously entertaining which, in modern horror, is a rarity in itself so it deserves some credit for that alone…