Directed by: James Wan
Premise: Set in the early 1970s, a family moves into a new home and discovers that it is haunted.
What Works: For the past few years the horror genre has been dominated by stories of haunted houses and The Conjuring is situated comfortably in the upper tier of that trend. The movie manages to be enjoyably scary. It isn’t shocking or upsetting in the way of The Exorcist but it is comfortably frightening in a way that will appeal to a mass audience. The filmmakers have succeeded in making the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house by using sounds and images to create a frightening atmosphere and periodically goosing the audience with a jump scare. Successful haunted house movies require a lot of technical skill and The Conjuring demonstrates a lot of filmmaking craft. The picture is extremely well shot with unusual camera angles and effective use of light and shadow. Many of the sequences are well paced, especially early scenes in which the mother of the family investigates strange sounds. One of the more impressive qualities of this film is how naturalistic it is. There is little or no obvious computer graphics work and the movie maintains a credible style that makes it scary. The Conjuring also benefits from some strong performances by its core cast. Lili Taylor plays the mother of the besieged household and among the family members the script gives her the most to do. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are cast as a pair of paranormal investigators and they bring a lot of credibility to the movie. They play their parts as normal people with unusual interests instead of the kooks that these characters typically are in other movies.
What Doesn’t: As another entry in the haunted house subgenre, a lot of The Conjuring is overly familiar. The film is very similar to Insidious, which was director James Wan’s previous directorial project, and the scenarios, plot developments, and visuals recall many other movies like this one, especially The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. The familiarity is especially apparent in the climactic exorcism sequence which borrows a lot from possession films like The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Unlike those films, however, the exorcism ritual of The Conjuring becomes silly. The filmmakers of The Conjuring seem to want to be taken seriously but the way they play fast and loose with theology and the specifics of the exorcism ritual undermine the movie’s credibility. Where The Conjuring succeeds has more to do with its performances and its style and less to do with its story which is often muddled and occasionally incoherent. The story introduces a lot of narrative pieces that don’t come to bear later in the movie and many scenes allude to some bigger design, especially in regard to the paranormal investigator’s collection of occult artifacts. The biggest narrative misstep of The Conjuring is the handling of the mystery. The backstory of a haunted house movie is usually the most interesting part about it and typically the source of relief in the conclusion. Stories about hauntings are really about the sins of the past and the exorcism of those wrongs puts the ghosts and the issues they represent at peace. The backstory to The Conjuring is overly complicated with several generations of owners manifested in the haunting and so it is unclear what needs to be resolved in order to put the supernatural disruption to rest. When the film gets to its ending it is unclear just what has been overcome and so the resolution isn’t entirely fulfilling.
Bottom Line: Among the haunted house movies that have been released in the last few years, The Conjuring is much better than the Paranormal Activity sequels but it isn’t quite as good as The Woman in Black or Insidious. It delivers a few frights and it is entertainingly scary but the clichés and storytelling missteps make it acceptable instead of remarkable.
Episode: #449 (July 28, 2013)