By Eric Plaag
Full Disclosure: Matt and Eric often see the same movies but rarely post separate reviews of the same film for the site, unless the film is the topic of a special TheSplitScreen discussion. But this one stuck with Eric, and even though Matt has already posted his review, Eric felt compelled to write his own, too. For the record, Eric did not read Matt’s review prior to writing his own, to avoid being influenced by Matt’s thoughts.
One of the most frightening scenes I have ever seen in a paranormal film was the moment in Poltergeist (1982) when all chaos has begun to break out in the house and young Robbie Freeling goes looking for the vanished clown doll that usually resides at the end of his bed. As Robbie gingerly peeks under the bed for the clown he despises and fears, the audience prays along with Robbie that nothing will be there. And indeed, nothing is there. The audience also knows, though—as Robbie does with a sinking look of dread—that the clown will instead be behind him, ready to pounce. It doesn’t matter that we anticipate this outcome; it still scares us out of our pants.
I reference this moment because The Conjuring, from director James Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, is filled with moments like these, and I’m glad for it. They are never cheap. They are never bland retreads of jump scares we have seen a thousand times before in lesser paranormal films. They are inventive and smart and logical and expertly executed. And if you’ve ever actually been haunted by something in your home, you know that this is the steroids version of exactly how things go down. Contrast this narrative with the absurdities and excesses we see in any of the renditions of Paranormal Activity or their many imitators, and you’ll understand the difference.
The Conjuring centers around real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who fans of the countless ghost and paranormal shows on cable television will surely recognize as “the real deal.” Shortly after Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) move into an 1863 dilapidated farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island, the restless spirits still residing there make it clear that something evil is still present and to be feared, and that something evil soon makes her presence known, too. Badly bruised, utterly exhausted, and deeply troubled by their experiences to that early point in their haunting, the Perrons approach the Warrens and beg them for help. The film’s last two acts focus on the familiar paranormal film territory of trying to tease out enough proof from the spirits to justify the Catholic Church’s intervention with an exorcism, followed by a final confrontation that is fully intended to both shock and horrify and offer a tangible explanation for the events afflicting the Perrons.
Familiarity here, though, does not breed contempt. As someone who thoroughly enjoys a good ghost story and was once known as the “Ghost Man of Williamsburg” for the ghost tours I offered there in college, I crave narrative films about the paranormal that honestly seek explanation for the dramatized events while also focusing on the sheer terror and helplessness of those who are besieged by their haunting. In this respect, and setting aside questions about the allegedly “true” nature of its story, The Conjuring never disappoints. Yes, there is the creepy wardrobe with a dark secret located in a bedroom belonging to one of the girls. As one might expect, there is also a terrifying basement filled with furniture, devices, and assorted junk that on their own suggest anthropomorphic forms and frightening outcomes, long before their presence actually comes into play. And sure, at the back of the property on the edge of a dense swamp, there’s a twisted oak tree whose very shape hints at the terrible events that once transpired there. In this respect, The Conjuring relies heavily on what can only be described as the gothic traditions of ghost storytelling—the understanding that one’s own physical environment hints strongly at the secrets and dangers that lie in wait from any unsettled spirits attached thereto, if only one is willing to pay vigilant attention to the clues they’ve left behind and respect their whispered, cautioning voices on the wind.
The film’s focus on actual events that allegedly occurred in 1971 only strengthens the success of this trope; perched on the precipice between an older time when regional mythology still ruled the roost and a post-modern culture that offered only rational, skeptical explanations for the strange, the Perrons’ story forces twenty-first century audiences to consider what they might do if confronted today with similar circumstances. Yes, the script takes liberties with the actual events for dramatic purposes, and there are a few moments when those dramatic liberties teeter on the edge of wandering into Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazi face melting territory. But the real horror of the Perrons’ story lies not so much in the spooky events themselves as it does in the understanding that the family cannot simply leave their cursed house behind and must rely, desperately so, on the only two people who might be willing and qualified to help. Unfortunately, that “help” means conjuring a confrontation with a demonic presence that has murdered/sacrificed past occupants of the house and is already royally pissed off to find the Perrons squatting on its turf. I’m not sure that many of us today would be up to that challenge.
If I have a gripe about The Conjuring, it lies primarily with acting concerns. Farmiga’s performance is nicely layered as her character’s story evolves, and she has an uncanny ability to mimic both the appearance and mannerisms of the real-life Lorraine Warren. Livingston and Wilson are both capable, too, and their occasionally stilted dialogue can be dismissed as a scriptwriting problem rather than an issue of direction or delivery. Lili Taylor, though—who twenty years ago seemed to be a fascinating actress with a load of talent—appears at times here to be sleepwalking through her performance, or at least acting as if she’s doing a begrudging revival of her uninspired, overacted turn in the deeply disappointing The Haunting (1999). Fortunately, her possession during the last hour of the film makes it easy to forget her substantial missteps early on.
I will not attempt to parse the “true” part of this story, nor do I take issue with the historical inconsistencies of the story and the Warrens’ well-publicized tendency to hype their own significance for financial gain, as some other reviewers have. I came to this film on a lark, with the sole desire of being scared by a good ghost story—something that rarely happens in most movies about the paranormal these days. The fact that I am typing this from an empty house that I know to be haunted and wondering now how I will ever get to sleep tonight should be testament alone to the classic and remarkably insidious creepiness of The Conjuring. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Four out of five stars, theaters