If a horror movie is scary enough, most fans of the genre will forgive its flaws-- a hole-ridden plot, dropped setups, poor special effects, wooden acting, anything. These low expectations have led to a flood of bad yet successful horror flicks that should do little to inspire the genre's auteurs. And yet James Wan, the man whose Saw raised the bar on contemporary horror gore, has strived to make a movie that is not just scary, it's heartfelt. While he doesn't land every step, The Conjuring is an impressively frightening and engaging journey.
Based on the case files of noted paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring unfolds the husband-and-wife team's most dangerous adventure. He (Patrick Wilson) is the only demonologist recognized outside the Catholic Church. She (Vera Farmiga) is a clairvoyant with the power to see and communicate with disembodied spirits. They have faced evil forces before, but when they come into the haunted farm house of the Perrons in 1970s Rhode Island, the Warrens fear not just for the family of seven but for their own safety as they come up against the most powerful and wrathful spirit they have ever faced.
Abandoning the torture porn and ghoulish gore of Saw, Wan favors a subtle approach to scares here, more in line with his haunted house hit Insidious. Instead of being awed by buckets of blood at every turn, the audience is enveloped in an atmosphere of doom through an ominous score and sound effects, and given just a few jump scares to release the fear-spurred knot tangling in our guts. Like in Jaws, we get to know the family whose trauma we will soon share. We like them, which makes what we see befall them all the more harrowing. A warm stay-at-home mom (Lili Taylor), a patient truck driver dad (Ron Livingston), and their flock of young daughters are ecstatic at the prospect of their brand new home...until weird smells lead to strange sounds lead to outright menacing assaults from mysterious spirits.
To Wan's credit he has pulled together a largely terrific cast, able to bring dimension to these characters that binds us to them and their plight fast and fiercely. Farmiga keeps her portrayal of Lorraine nuanced, presenting her as a soft-spoken but determined woman whom you mightt easily trust with your life. Wilson plays Ed as a bit of a bumpkin, whose well-meaning attempts as smooth talk are clunky yet endearing. Together they share an easy chemistry that makes them believable not just as husband and wife but also as partners in their investigation, her thoughtfulness and his boyish bravado making them fitting foils.
Taylor is captivating as the mother most plagued by these spirits, expertly managing her grim transformation from chipper to terrorized. Livingston is aptly strong but mostly silent in a role that offers him little to do beyond chasing his frightened family members around. And most of the child actors do well with their roles, but a special mention is deserved by Joey King, who first drew notice earlier in this summer as Channing Tatum's noble daughter in White House Down. One of the film's most frightening moments is a sequence where her Christine is haunted by a spirit that tugs at her limbs then scares her out of her wits. The success of the scene is entirely dependent on King projecting soul-wrenching fear. And she does so brilliantly and without the help of CGI ghouls or gore.
The Conjuring is totally terrifying. And if scares are all you care about in your horror films, you can stop reading this review-- go buy your ticket. Still, this film is far from flawless. At New York Comic Con last year, I covered The Conjuring panel, where Wan and some of the cast turned out to share the film's trailer as well as part of its most successfully scary sequence, which centers on a troubling game called "Hide and Clap." To my delight, this scene was no less effective the second time I saw it. But at the event, Wan made clear what deep respect he has for the Warrens, and his passion to do right by them becomes a problem. He's too loyal to what really happened.
The clearest example of this is the inclusion of the notorious Annabelle doll, which has even become a notable part of the film's marketing. It's introduced in the movie's first moments, but its role in The Conjuring feels like fan service rather than integral to the story. Another problem is that this movie has a few too many characters to make them all distinct. Two ghost hunting helpers are little more than stereotypes, as there's no time to flesh them out. But more obvious is just how unnecessary five daughters are to the plot. Yes, the haunted family had five daughters, but for the purposes of a more effective story, two or more could have been combined here. As it is, I would be hard pressed to give most of their characters descriptions beyond The Sleepwalking One, The Oldest, The One With Glasses.
The Warrens themselves could have stood to have a bit more definition as well. Ed tells others that these dealings with the dead have taken a terrible toll on Lorraine, so much so that he fears for her safety. But the problem is the stakes are never made clear. Does Lorraine risk death? Possession? Insanity? We aren't shown but a flash of what's referring to as her low point. Instead, Wan commits the sin of telling and not showing, and the film is weaker for it. Similarly disappointing, Ed sets up in the second act what he and Lorraine are capable of when it comes to exorcisms, but when the third act hits all this is quickly dismissed with a couple lines of dialogue. Nevermind! Moving on!
These issues in the plotting keep The Conjuring from fully settling in your brain. But in the thick of the experience, you'll be too caught up in anxiety and terror to care too much about who said what or which daughter is which. Still, with talk of a sequel already brewing, I am hoping Wan's next tale from the Warren files will have a plot that better stands up to scrutiny. The scares are sensational, truly goosebump-provoking and scream inducing. The story needs work.