Previewed at the Filmhouse, home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Conjuring was introduced via a video segment from director James Wan who described the venue as “One of the UK’s most haunted cinemas.” Certainly the plush red seating and arched ceiling of the former St. Thomas Church are no stranger to horror, hosting as it does the Dead by Dawn festival every April, and there is no doubt those walls have many stories to tell.
Represented as a true story “so malevolent they’ve kept it locked away until now,” it recounts the purported events when the Perron family moved to Harrisville, Rhode Island and began experiencing strange events which prompted them to seek the assistance of Ed and Lorraine Warren, described as demonologists, paranormal researchers, kooks…
The Warrens are shown to have a basement full of cursed items akin to the shop in the Friday the 13th television series, so many that they would have to be performing cleansings every week, yet in their long careers they never managed to produce any conclusive evidence to prove the existence of the paranormal. While initially shown demonstrating that strange noises are most often old pipes and creaking floors, whilst visiting the Perron household Ed asks leading questions and makes preposterous assumptions, seeding beliefs in the minds of the already scared children. Investigating the surrounding woodland, Ed and the purportedly clairvoyant Lorraine are soon convinced that there is a genuine presence in the house which has attached itself to the family and is feeding on them, and they begin the cleansing process.
Wan is best known as one of the creators of the Saw franchise and more recently Insidious, and it is in the style of the latter The Conjuring follows, a horror of mood and indirect scares rather than the outright gore and bodily violations of his earlier work. The haunted house is the oldest of the horror genres and when well done the most effective, and for the most part this film defies expectation and remains above the level of tiresome mediocrity of studio horror aimed at teenagers on date night, but none of the elements reach their full potential.
Other than the impressive environment of the house itself, the setting feels oddly generic; our introduction to the family is their arrival at the house, so we have no sense of dislocation or isolation, and despite being surrounded by wilderness, nowhere seems to be further than a brief car journey away. The restraint of the early parts of the film is admirable, with no computer generated beasts leaping out of the screen, but nor does Wan use this valuable time to develop the characters or make them interesting or likeable in any way.
Former indie queen Lili Taylor has done scares before (well inThe X-Files; less so in the shocking remake of The Haunting) but here she is given little to work with, and neither Vera Farmiga nor Patrick Wilson are warm characters, any devotion frozen in their utter lack of chemistry. Fortunately as the investigation expands, the easy camaraderie of research assistant Drew and police officer Brad (Shannon Kook and John Brotherton clearly enjoying their minimal roles) is more amenable.
The hideous nightgowns and housecoats fit with the period, but neither the hair nor the makeup feel authentic, and Wan would have done well to follow Richard Kelly’s approach to The Box, where the film was not a pastiche of the seventies but instead was lensed, shot and edited as though it were actually created in that decade. Here, the modern style is at odds with the dated clichés, where the only blessing is that the surprisingly athletic decayed hag doesn’t appear until half way through the film. A more disturbing presence is the doll Annabelle, although that is as much a holdover from Wan’s Dead Silence as his love for having surprises jump out of shadows.
The other influences are too numerous to tally; footage shown at the lecture by the Warrens where they are first approached by Carolyn Perron is lifted wholesale from The Exorcist while the Perron’s own case seems to be a checklist of The Amityville Horror itself.
Set in Rhode Island rather than Long Island but with a family and their kids and the family dog making a new start in big house by the water only to find cold spots and hear strange noises, the children claiming imaginary friends, the implication of money trouble, the clocks stopping at the same time every morning, this may not be Amityville, but that house is the foundation the story is built upon, the only absence being the Indian burial ground, here replaced by the New England standby of the Salem witch trials.
The sole oblique reference to the Warren’s most famous (documented) case highlights the oddity of the timeframe of the film. The events apparently took place in late 1971, though the arrival of the Perrons is accompanied by Time of the Season by The Zombies, released in 1968, though in the final scene the Warrens are summoned to another case in Long Island, presumably Amityville, yet that didn’t even begin until December 1975. It’s also curious that while this is represented as a true story, there is no direct credit or thanks to Lorraine Warren, still active as demonstrated by her recent appearance in the documentary My Amityville Horrorwhere she discusses her involvement and that of her late husband.