The Conjuring – West End Preview Review

The Conjuring Screening at West End Odeon Review
by Alli Price

“Amityville meets the Exorcist”

Before I get to the latest offering from James Wan, director of Saw and Insidious, I have to say something about this screening itself. When I arrived after a scorching rush hour journey on the tube across London, I was dismayed to see the size of the queue stretching around the corner of the cinema as it meant a further wait before hitting the air-con.  However, standing in the queue, talking to the people eagerly awaiting their chance to see The Conjuring prior to its UK release on 2nd August (USA release 19thJuly) actually proved not only interesting but entertaining.  Generally it seemed to be the women who were more than happy to relate how they react to horror films and which ones they’d seen at the cinema and which at home where they could more easily hide behind something, but there were more than a few uneasy looking guys. The audience was made up of some press, a lot of competition winners and some who had snapped up tickets when they became available just a few hours before the screening.  When we finally started filing inside most people seemed distracted by the words “Free beer is upstairs…” and quite possibly didn’t even hear that the screening was downstairs.  I had met some great people in the queue behind me and as I’d been deserted by my colleague, so was there alone, it was only polite to meander upstairs with those guys, and would have been downright rude not to accept a free beer.  As we went downstairs, there was a darkened area with black sheeting up and in one section, a light behind it and a figure in a rocking chair imitating the promotional posters we had all walked past.  It was at this point my skittishness showed as I hid behind the handily tall guy I was walking with muttering, “Oh no – I don’t do the dark!”  Yes, I have to admit, despite being a long-term horror fan of both books and movies, I generally don’t watch horror at the cinema and rarely alone at home – I have a horror buddy for that – so if nothing else, it was going to be an experience.  Just around the corner there was a camera set up and a guy asking if people would be willing to stop and talk for a few minutes, and yet this didn’t set off any alarm bells in my head.  No, it was when we sat down and noticed two more cameras at the front pointed out across the audience that the penny finally dropped – they would be filming audience reactions.  As someone who has occasionally been known to jump at a febreeze advert if there’s a sudden noise, I was filled with deep joy at the prospect of being shown in the next TV spot, hiding behind my hands, or suddenly sitting in the lap of some poor stranger. So if you see someone hiding behind the handy A4 info pack we were given, about 6 rows back, on the left-hand end of the centre row of seats – yep, that was me.

Just prior to the film, there was a brief introduction by a representative of Haunting Happenings, who provide overnight ghost hunting experiences. He announced that a small selection of the audience would be taken after the show to the basement of “one of London’s most haunted places”, the basement of the Trocadero Centre, in an attempt to experience some genuine paranormal activity.  Following that, there was an onscreen introduction by director James Wan, who said he wished he could be there with the audience to “see you guys, er… suffer”, rather too gleefully.
So, onto the film itself.  The story is taken from the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a well respected married couple who researched many cases of paranormal activity over the years, including the original Amityville investigation.  The case on which the film ‘The Conjuring’ is based, took place in the home of the Perron family in Harrisville, Rhode Island, in 1971, prior to the Amityville case, hence the tagline “Before Amityville, there was Harrisville.” (surely a good indicator that if your prospective new home has the suffix “-ville” and is a total bargain, you should probably keep house hunting!)  The one thing I’m not going to debate in this article is the validity of the original claims because in the words of American writer, Stuart Chase, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary.  For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”
In an interview earlier this year, regarding the release of the film, Lorraine Warren said “A lot of [the film] is very accurate… There’s a little artistic licence – for example, the staircase never exploded – but much of it is true.”
So take from that what you will, and believe what you want to believe, but it has to add a certain level of “gravitas” these days that a film purporting to be based on a true story is actually something more than just a tired rehash of the Blair Witchesque found footage marketing ploy.
Whilst I personally really loved James Wan’s first film, Saw, I just don’t see it as horror myself, although equally, I can’t quite accept the term “torture porn – perhaps “extreme police procedural” is closer to the mark for me.  His second film, Insidious, for me is best avoided in discussion as I was sorely disappointed and find the most horrific thing about it is that Insidious 2 is out in September, so I went into The Conjuring with mixed expectations.
There are two things which for me made this a stand out film not only amongst Wan’s previous offerings, but amongst many of the releases in the past few years.  The first is the casting, which includes Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren, and Patrick Wilson as her husband, Ed, Ron Livingston and the brilliant Lili Taylor as Roger and Carolyn Perron.  The Perrons’ five daughters are played by Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy and Kyla Deaver, and they do a fine job of portraying a close-knit, happy family who find themselves in deeply disturbing circumstances.  The second is the soundtrack and score by Joseph Bishara, which is a mixture of skilfully placed traditional horror film sounds, like jarring strings, and subtly pervasive, oddly discordant sounds more evocative of the kind of soundscape you find in survival horror games like Silent Hill and its ilk.  The film doesn’t rely on its score to tell you when to be scared though and in places the fact that there was no soundtrack at all more than successfully built a palpable tension in the audience, and when on one or two occasions the tension was broken by a false scare, the level of nervous laughter around the cinema spoke volumes to how successful both the audio and visual stimuli were.
The film opens with a look back at a previous case involving a doll called Anabel, a version of which can be seen on the posters, although when you look into the creepy basement museum the Warrens kept over the years, it bears little resemblance to the actual doll itself, which is hardly surprising as the general consensus amongst the audience seemed to be an incredulous, “Why on earth would anyone have that thing in their house??”  However, the use of the doll on the advertising and the opening story is almost a complete red-herring, as it certainly isn’t the main focus of the activity in the film.
The first part sets the scene, introducing the family as they move into their new home and ticking several “haunted house” boxes including the family dog refusing to enter the house,  the youngest child finding a battered looking, jack-in-the-box style music box (and looking back, was there anything creepier than those things, and is it any wonder so many people say they were scared of clowns as a child?), the accidental discovery of a previously unknown basement (to which Roger Perron says “We have extra square footage” which as I’m sure you’ll be expecting, soon loses its appeal) and clocks in the house all stopping at the same time.  As the “bumps in the night”, unexplained smells and pictures falling off the wall begin, along with the inevitable investigations of strange noises which had the audience actually exclaiming their disbelief loudly, it would be easy to write this off a “horror-by-numbers”, but what it actually does is nod in reverence to those which came before it as it takes its own path.

By the time Carolyn Perron approaches demonologist Ed Warren and his clairvoyant wife, Lorraine, after one of the many talks they gave on paranormal investigation, the family has taken to sleeping downstairs in one room, and from the moment the investigators first enter the house, the tension ratchets up notch after notch as the film moves from the disturbances of a haunting to straight out possession.
The high calibre of the performances, alongside a clever use of sound, unusual camera angles and even subtle tricks such as differences in the warmth of colours between the Perron house and the Warren house, all add up to a tensely building jump-fest leading to a disturbing climax which was undoubtedly appreciated by the audience who had gasped, squealed, groaned, laughed nervously and definitely jumped in all the right places.

As we left, one of the people I had sat with asked me “Did you enjoy that?” and I had to explain that I always think “enjoy” is a strange word to attach to a horror film, though I don’t exactly have a better one to replace it with.  I had to settle with saying I jumped in my seat, held my breath for longer than is probably healthy in most circumstances, had to pull my feet up onto the edge of the seat several times and watch peeking over my knees, left half-moon fingernail marks in my palms, my heart pounded pumping floods of adrenaline round my body and yes, for one very small part, I had to cover my eyes because the tension level got to such a point I couldn’t watch the pay off… but if you don’t want to feel that way, why watch a horror film?  Aside from chuckling at my discomfort (although I definitely saw him jump a few times, so myself and the woman he was with weren’t the only ones), he agreed with me, as the majority of the audience seemed to, with many of them eagerly lining up to tell the camera about their thoughts and reactions to the film.  


Follow Alli on Twitter: @Digitallli

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