The most unusual thing about the film industry's history of looking down on the comedy and horror genres is that they're the most difficult kind of films to pull off. There is nothing worse than a painfully unfunny comedy or a cliched and horror film, and on the flip side, there are fewer pure pleasures than consistent laughter or the adrenaline rush of suspense and terror when a genre film is done right. The horror genre often feels like a horse carcass beat beyond recognition these days, with torture porn, found footage, and ghost stories spewed out semi-regularly in various venues (theaters, straight to video, on-demand, streaming). I recently wondered aloud to my fellow horror fan gal pal Lita Robinson, a writer for Diabolique Magazine, if the genre has just become so mediocre and predictable that any film that is the slightest bit above average gets a tremendous amount of attention. So I went into The Conjuring unsure if it would live up to expectations. After all, Drag Me to Hell (2009), raved about left and right, proved to be a more violent variation on the far superior Curse of the Demon (1957), and I forgot I had even seen the film a week later. The honest truth: this is the most effective horror film I've seen in a long while.
In a not very promising pre-credits sequence, we meet Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married pair of paranormal investigators who help two nurse roommates deal with a creepy doll inhabited by a demon. The film thankfully improves with the introduction of the Perron family: truck driver father Roger (Ron Livingston), doting mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and daughters Andrea, Nancy, Christine, Cindy, and April (Shanley Caswell, Hayley MacFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver). The Perrons have purchased a secluded Rhode Island farmhouse at a bank auction and have high hopes for it to be just what their family needs to make a fresh start. The eerie haunting shenanigans begin after a boarded-up cellar is discovered. The family dog won't come into the house, little April starts talking to an imaginary friend, Rupert, who she says emerged from a music box, Cindy begins sleepwalking and banging her head against a mysterious wardrobe in Andrea's room, Carolyn begins developing strange bruises overnight, and Christine is woken in the night by something yanking on her leg. The Warrens are asked to investigate, resulting in what the credits crawl claims was a true-life case so "malevolent" they are only now allowing it to be publicly revealed. To give away much more would detract from some incredible shock scares and a supremely intense final third.
There is nothing particularly original about The Conjuring. We've all seen haunted house, possession, and paranormal investigation horror films before. We know that the youngest child will be the one in the most danger, the family dog is toast, levitating and a demonic male voice will be possession symptoms, etc. There are equal doses Amityville Horror (both 1 and 2), Poltergeist, and Blair Witch Project to be found woven throughout the narrative. But director James Wan, working with a very talented cast and a firm understanding of how the genre works best, has done something very special here. Set in 1971, the film has the visual style and storytelling panache of the best genre films of that decade. If you're an admirer of the "good old days" of horror, you will find a lot to love in The Conjuring, with contemporary twists keeping it fresh and lively. Wan has gathered together a talented ensemble of actors that keep things convincing at all times. Wilson is a solid actor, and Livingston has the lovable schmoe act down pat, but the film belongs to the women. Farmiga, who I've loved since her indie days of Dummy (2003), Down to the Bone (2004), and Running Scared (2006), enjoyed a career surge after The Departed (2006) and an Oscar nom for Up in the Air (2009). I'd follow her anywhere, and thankfully she never disappoints, especially here. Another indie darling, Taylor has been away from the big screen too long, and her last haunted house flick, an ill-advised 1999 remake of The Haunting, gave no indication of how good she could be in this kind of film. She is really put through the ringer as the tortured family matriarch, in a role that not just any actress could excel in. Of the girls, Joey King ("Christine") sells her sheer terror the best, especially in a suspenseful sequence where she sees a horrific...something...that neither her sister or the audience can.
Not everything works in The Conjuring: the aforementioned pre-credits sequence of a doll is nowhere near as striking as similar material in Wan's earlier (and very underrated) Dead Silence (2007); a comic relief policeman attached to the investigative team and his banter with the Warrens' assistant Drew isn't truly necessary (though the cop's eventual encounter with the supernatural is one of the film's highlights); and the demon's attempt to "make it personal" with the Warrens by targeting their daughter is, while effective, slightly feels like padding to boost the scares before the climax. But there is so much done right here that it's hard to fault Wan for these negatives. Any film that can make this hardened horror fan jump twice in his theater seat is one that can't be recommended enough.
Contemporary horror tends to produce one auteur darling every couple of years that the fans embrace and enthusiastically hope is the future of the genre. A decade ago, it was Eli Roth. Then it was Rob Zombie. Most recently it was Ti West. This year it's James Wan. Where West seems to have shot his wad with his first feature, The House of the Devil (2008), as all subsequent efforts have been fairly disappointing, Wan seems to be on a roll. He made a splash with 2003's Saw, considered the originator of the lamentable "torture porn" subgenre, but his follow-up film, Dead Silence, landed with a thud. It's time to re-evaluate that one, folks. His last genre film, Insidious (2010), received very positive notices from people whose taste I trust, but I have yet to see it. It proved successful enough to warrant a sequel, coming to theaters next month (September 13). If it's as good as The Conjuring, Wan will have released two superb horror flicks in one calendar year. When's the last time that happened?
Word of warning: don't watch the official trailer for this. The teaser, linked below, is far more effective, and reminds me of a 1970s horror film preview.