From time to time, we’ll post film and book reviews by and for aficionados of horror and the weird. Our friend Murray Leeder’s review of The Conjuring, now playing, is our inaugural entry. Enjoy, and stay tuned. — Sean Moreland
James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), it’s now whispered, will become the most profitable horror film of all time. It’s nice to see cinematic horror in such a healthy condition, but it’s a mixed blessing that this unexceptional film should benefit so strongly. On one hand The Conjuring should be praised for its commitment to a slow, tension-building setup, strong acting and an overall sense of craft and care. On the other, it’s marred by derivative storytelling, a disappointing third act and an almost infantile reliance on Manichean categories of good and evil.
The film begins promisingly with a title card that looks like it came off an old horror paperback, and cinematography that suggests a secondary 70s horror film with oversaturated exteriors and a halting use of the zoom lens; my first thoughts were of Burnt Offerings (1976) and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). But the film does not commit to this aesthetic for long, and its use of hand-held camerawork is particularly jarring, as is the assaultive sound mix. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, playing like an anthology of the haunted house genre’s greatest hits, even showing us a fuzzy TV in homage to Poltergeist (1982) and a bouncing rubber ball à la The Changeling (1980). Its strongest influence is probably The Amityville Horror (1979), which it coyly references in its closing scene. Like The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring claims to be based on a true story, that of the Perron family. Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters move into a new house and encounter the demonic forces that reside there. We see numerous variations on scenes in which spooky things happen. These are almost all effective on their own terms but subject to the law of diminishing returns, and, critically, give us little valuable narrative information beyond the self-evident fact that the house is haunted.
The Perrons seek the aid of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), professional paranormal investigators (I say professional, and yet the film ducks the question of whether or not they accept payment for their services). It might have been interesting to show us less of the Warrens, and let us draw our own conclusions as to whether or not they are well-intentioned but misguided soldiers of God, or professional frauds. The film allows for no such ambiguity — they are the good guys in a world where the lines between good and evil are clear-cut, where witches worship Satan and are justly put to death for it, and where our hero even states outright that failing to baptize one’s children puts them in danger of demonic influences. Wilson and Farmiga are dependable performers, however, and they manage to humanize characters that are written like plaster saints.
There are other points of confusion and difficulty. Early on, we’re told that “demonics” (why not “demons”?) are not the souls of dead humans, yet the one troubling the Perrons, the witch Bathsheba, seems to be just that. We’re told that the ghost of the young boy in the house is “sad” when most of what we see of him suggests that he is actually playful. And once the ambiguous scare sequences give way to visible ghosts, the makeup and special effects creations would be better suited to Thirteen Ghosts (2001) than anything we are meant to take seriously.
The Conjuring is solid entertainment and certainly a better film than The Amityville Horror, which was another unlikely hit in its day, though I have always liked Amityville’s focus on finances and the banal pitfalls of home ownership (Stephen King interpreted it in Danse Macabre as being a parable about a “money pit”). The time may be ripe for such a Zeitgeist-tapping haunted house film to comment on the latest economic downturn, but The Conjuring isn’t that movie. Its ambitions begin and end with pastiche.
Murray Leeder is an academic and novelist living in Winnipeg.