Film Review – The Conjuring

The conjuring

Directed by James Wan, starring Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor and Patrick Wilson, The Conjuring is examined closely by Ren Zelen…

The Conjuring, the 2013 horror film from James Wan, was the American box office success story of last summer. It presents all the creepy movie cliches — creaky doors, cobwebbed cellars, toys you wouldn’t have in your house let alone let a child play with. It has next-to-no digital effects or gore, and it delivers its scares with imagination and a methodical regularity.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, real-life paranormal investigators who in the early 1970s helped the Perron family (led here by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) rid their newly-acquired large Rhode Island house of a demon, before going on to clear up the paranormal mess in Amityville (which became the basis for another horror movie franchise). Wan’s supernatural chiller is artfully crafted from the first scares to the closing credits, with a nice retro feel, but while its closest fellows are The Exorcist, Poltergeist and the original The Amityville Horror, Wan understands the short attention span of the modern audience. The scares here begin in the pre-credits sequence, and continue pretty much up until the end. The acting is generally good, but Lili Taylor stands out, bringing sympathy to a difficult and shifting role. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes are also assets, resisting the horror movie urge to over-explain their points, creating memorable scenes, but leaving some mystery, in the hope that new things may be discovered upon repeat viewings.

The film takes place in 1971, and borrows much from that era, with Kubrickian camera glides and Scorsese-like tracking shots, it might have been made during that same decade. Although Wan’s 2004 film Saw sparked the trend for the ‘torture-porn’ horror sub-genre and the inferior and sensationalist imitators that followed, here, even more so than with his excellent 2010 film Insidious, he has dragged the genre back to that age.

The late 1960s and the 1970s spawned their own array of horror classics: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976). These movies all held the female body up as a source of unholy terror. Can it be a coincidence that, in the dawning of the era of Women’s liberation and Equal Rights, the most common conduits for devilry in American cinema were female? The Conjuring, being a homage to that period, follows in those 1970’s hoofprints. Taylor and Farmiga’s female characters are the ones fixed upon by evil spirits and chosen to bring their  mayhem into the world, while the male-led forces of family and church struggle to bring them to order.

If, like me, you feel you have seen The Conjuring’s tricks before (and if you have seen any classic American horror movie created between 1960 and 1980, you probably have) the impact is somewhat reduced. Wan’s movie, while it owes a debt to those previous films, not only incorporates elements from his 2007 demon-doll thriller Dead Silence and his rather good 2010 haunted-house movie Insidious, but also taps into a self-aware vein of gallows humour that has been one of his trademarks. In contrast to his more dubious torture-porn excesses with Saw ten years ago, The Conjuring is all the more remarkable for being a relatively gross-gore-free piece of mainstream craftsmanship.

Copyright Ren Zelen (2014)

Image from Amazon

The Conjuring is available from Amazon:

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