Silver Screen: The Conjuring ***1/2
P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never fact-checked it, as I was just the sucker born to a particular minute in the early 1980s.
Barnum would be tickled to see the opening crawl for The Conjuring, which warns us that the events we’re about to witness are based on the true story of a pair of certified and definitely not hucksterish paranormal investigators. The reason you’ve never heard about this before is that the case was so “malevolent” (their word), the real-life investigators were unwilling to release the information... until now.
It’s a bizarre kind of testament to the human spirit that in the age of smartphones, drone warfare, and genetic manipulation people can still be afraid of a demon-spirit summoned by Satan that can only be fought off by reading phrases in Latin and spouting Catholic hokum. Nothing will ultimately save us from our own stupidity.
If you can believe that a true story from three decades ago just happens to resemble every particular horror trend of the last decade, and that the parties involved got incontrovertible video evidence of demons levitating children and throwing them around the room that for some reason they never showed anyone outside the church, The Conjuring will scare the bejeesus out of you and the Jesus into you. If not, you’ll be treated to an hour of nicely executed scares that eventually give way to condescending religious babble that feigns rebellion at church bureaucracy while ultimately reaffirming every major tenent of Christian doctrine. Kirk Cameron has made movies that prosthelytize more subtly.
The Conjuring tells the obviously no way even remotely true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), an unordained demonologist and his clairvoyant wife. We meet them as they look into the case of a pair of roommates who are being stalked by a creepy doll that has been possessed by an evil spirit, but soon they turn their attention to another, more pressing disturbance.
Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston) have recently moved their four daughters into a dilapidated old house they bought at a bank auction, and from the outset the house is plagued by inexplicable disturbances. A terrible rotting smell floats from room to room. Pictures tumble off walls. Footsteps are heard when no one else is around. Doors close themselves.
The supernatural events escalate until one of the girls is yanked out of her bed and dragged around the room by an invisible force. The Perrons call the Warrens, who determine that a demon spirit has entered the house and intends to possess one of the family members and drive them to murder. You could almost call it some kind of, oh, let’s say, paranormal activity.
The Conjuring is director James Wan’s fourth horror movie. It bears little resemblance, thankfully, to his breakout effort, Saw, which remains a solid movie, albeit one with an awful legacy. Instead The Conjuring is an odd combination of his more recent efforts, combining the haunted house of Insidious and the haunted ventriloquist dummy of Dead Silence. Neither of those films are terribly distinctive. Nor is his latest. Wan’s no innovator, although he’s far more effective with the genre conventions than most horror-movie directors.
At the very least, Wan knows the best stuff to borrow. In addition to the plot of Paranormal Activity, he lifts a lot of its most simple, startling effects, but replaces the grainy found-footage aesthetic for one more rich and atmospheric. We even get a one-point perspective shot straight out of the Stanley Kubrick playbook as the camera zooms down a long hallway lined with patterned wallpaper framing a frightened child standing in the middle of the hallway. Homages aside, though, the movie’s best scenes involve Mrs. Perron and her children playing the clap game, which is like Marco Polo but requires the seeker to be blindfolded. The sequences are almost unbearably suspenseful. Ditto the early forays into shadowy nooks of the ghost house, as Livingston lights his way through the cluttered basement with a series of failing matches.
But ultimately the evil spirit must be dealt with, which means breaking out the Bibles and The Exorcist routine. The disappointing final act is too big, too loud, too effects-driven. Taylor does a fine job, but it’s near impossible to imagine being scared by yet another performer feigning possession; we’ve seen it too often already. Farmiga, the movie’s ace in the hole, does the rest of the heavy lifting and brings a lot of credibility to some potentially silly scenes of her psychic flashes of insight. The likable Livingston and the bland Wilson are mostly around for moral support.
The Conjuring is forgettable, but delivers more than its share of scares along the way. If only Wan would put his talents toward something a little more novel and thoughtful, he could craft a movie that not only thrills but doesn’t leave you feeling like a rube when the lights come up.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.