“When you hear it, you’re going to think we’re insane,” are the first disembodied words we get in director James Wan’s The Conjuring. The words come from one of two roommates sitting with paranormal investigators after enduring a series of odd and oppressive coincidences involving their toy doll, the sweetly named Annabelle, despite the dolls horrific looks. “It started small.” The woman says. Don’t all demonic infestations?
The Conjuring starts with Annabelle’s short story to establish how sometimes things and people can house evil energy—a force that can stubbornly impose its own bad luck. It also establishes independent paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren, (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) based on a real life civilian X-Files couple who in the 1960’s and 70’s made the rounds between haunted houses and the college lecture circuit. The film divides its time between the Warrens and the family of Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston). The Perrons and their five daughters all move into an old Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971. The house is a character itself and would be perfect for a big family, if it weren’t already a portal of evil. Its introduced from inside as if sentient, and seems to cooly observe as the family approaches with a moving truck. Director Wan uses an early long take sweeping through the layout of the house, almost in the way of a magician revealing to the audience there’s nothing up his sleeve. If you see any evil, point it out. The only thing is… what’s the deal with the huge twisted tree out back? The swooping camera stops its tour of the house here, with the Perron’s youngest member playing with an old, stained music box. Where did that come from?
Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe every clock in a house would stop all at the same time? Do you believe in old, long vacant farm houses with hidden passageways and strange dark trees? Did you notice how the paint on the inner walls of the house is as dark and irregular as mummified skin? Do you know why the family dog won’t come in? Film fans have been tricked before into believing the old ‘Based on a true story’ supertitle. I’m looking at you Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fargo. Does it matter that there is a real Annabelle, more Raggedy Ann than exorcist action figure, locked in a Plexiglas case in the real basement of the Warren’s Connecticut home? Do the collection of historical photos of the real Perrons and Warrens over the end credits add more gravitas to this haunted house story?
The story is a doozy. There’s no ironic winking to the audience. No manipulative music either—Wan often lets the camera silently observe alongside the characters while they scan the room for… something. For all its true life pedigree, The Conjuring is a mixtape of a haunted house movies, sampling The Exorcist, Poltergeist, even Paranormal Activity which I thought held the patent on the ol’ ghost pulling people out of bed gag. The Conjuring raises the ante on that contrivance by giving us the Perron families Clapping game. Seen and spoiled in the trailer, its the films centerpiece and a brilliant addition to the scary movie lexicon. Even when The Conjuring dips its finger in horror movie history, it creatively subverts the scenes it’s plundered and how it uses them to scare you. It’s a smart, scary-fun movie grounded by actors Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga. It’s the Warrens, especially Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren, whom I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Her performance is sober and genuine, raising the bar a notch on how movie psychics are portrayed. Her way of seeing what’s in the room and What Else is in the room, her compassion for the tormented family and its children kept me engaged and concerned about where the story was headed. The younger ladies of the family hold their own against a spirit that’s pervy, abusive to humans and animals alike, and downright rude. But its Lili Taylor, always a strong dramatic actress, who appears to have the most fun as the matriarch of a family who’s being abused by a supernatural entity. Taylor is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting here, rolling up her sleeves and going for it. The Conjuring gets so much right in building atmosphere without ever losing the human connection. Unlike many scary films, the characters here aren’t stupid. Instead they’re clueless over dealing with a type of evil that can’t be arrested or explained away.
The Conjuring does build to an over-stuffed climax of paranormal earthquakes, pigeon suicides, blood, gravity-defying exorcisms and noise. But take this for what its worth. I re-watched its climactic ending recently out of context, in a non-scary, no-ghost-in-my-house late afternoon. Instead of feeling off the rails silly or cartoony as that ending could have been in the hands of a lesser director, it was fun to watch. It may’ve been hell for the real family involved, but I wanted to see it again.