Horror is a tricky genre. Even more so than its peers in the cinematic ghetto (sci-fi, Western, Nicholas Sparks), horror often seems particularly limited by convention. The modern romcom might be the only genre more narratively stagnant – the plot beats for any horror/haunted house film are so thoroughly laid out at this point that formalism is the only way for a filmmaker to leave his or her mark.
For better or for much, much worse, James Wan did that almost ten years ago when he made the first “Saw” movie. That film’s marginally original premise and stark, grisly style spawned a slew of sequels and wannabes, essentially opening the floodgates of the genre’s “torture porn” era. Wan, who to his credit was never involved in any of the “Saw” sequels beyond a contractual executive producer credit, returned a few years ago with “Insidious,” another low-budget horror phenomenon that received a fair amount of acclaim for relying on old-fashioned suspense rather than shock and gore. With his latest film, Wan has continued in that vein, and one can only hope that the box office success of “The Conjuring” could help usher in a new phase of American horror.
Calling “The Conjuring” new might be an overly liberal use of that word, however. In its emphasis on unseen terrors and restless spirits, the film is nothing if not a major homage to the classic supernatural suspense films of the 60s/70s, from “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” to “The Haunting” and “The Amityville Horror.” That last example is particularly relevant, considering both “Amityville” and “The Conjuring” were based on supposedly true stories from the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of real-life paranormal investigators. While the Amityville case has become more firmly ingrained in pop culture, the Warrens have often referred to the haunting of the Perron family, the subject of “The Conjuring,” as the most dangerous, malicious experience they’ve ever had as demonologists. That’s some pull quote-worthy publicity.
At first said danger reveals itself in expected ways: after moving into an isolated Rhode Island home with their five daughters, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) experience a series of small disturbances, including stopped clocks, a perturbed family dog, and mysterious bruises on Carolyn’s body. Because no one in a horror movie actually seems to have SEEN a horror movie (outside of the “Scream” franchise), the Perrons simply stick around as the incidents mount and grow increasingly violent towards the family. After a particularly raucous night, Carolyn seeks the help of the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who need little time to declare that the house requires an exorcism.
This is all a familiar formula, notable not so much for its narrative twists but for Wan’s tight, effective execution. Unless it’s John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” any movie monster is going to be scarier in our imagination than it is on screen, and so Wan relies on half-seen glimpses of shadowy figures and creaking doors to create a palpable sense of terror. The sound and production design in particular should be praised here – the film does an excellent job of laying out the geography of the house early on, so that later every whisper and groan can immediately be traced back to a specific place.
The Perrons are unfortunately not as distinctive as their home. Though Taylor and Livingston both do fine work, their roles as imperiled victims never amount to much more than looking alternately worried, confused or blatantly afraid. That leaves more space, however for the Warrens, and another standout element of “The Conjuring” is the way it elevates the psychic medium/paranormal consultant characters from supporting players to fleshed out leads. These are not outsiders whose only purpose is to spout dire warnings and beat a hasty retreat – the Warrens become intimately involved in the Perron case, to the point that they as well become a target of whatever presence is threatening the house.
There are a number of scenes meant to illuminate the psychological toll of the Warrens’ lifestyle – in particular there’s a lot of allusions to a recent exorcism that left Lorraine somewhat traumatized – which makes it all the more intriguing to wonder why anyone would decide to make such a living in the first place. While the pragmatic, protective Ed remains something of a cipher, Lorraine wears (quite literally) her religious fervor on her sleeve, and her overwhelming sense of duty lends “The Conjuring” a sense of purpose and motivation that many similar films lack.
Still, “The Conjuring” remains ultimately an exercise in suspense, a brief, scary story told well. There’s any number of unsettling images and scenes, but the Perron case lacks any of the primal, existential terror that makes the greatest horror films stick with us long after we leave the theater. There’s none of the spiritual dread of “The Exorcist” or “The Omen,” none of the fears of pregnancy, parenthood and commitment you can find in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Occasionally “The Conjuring” nods in the direction of modern economic paranoia: the Perrons are unable to immediately move out of the house because of massive debt, a far more convincing excuse than most. But Wan never seems interested in delving any further into that issue, and late in the game the family simply moves into a hotel anyway. It seems a wasted opportunity in these uncertain times to not hit people with what really scares them most: not murderous ghosts, but the thought of losing everything they have.
If it doesn’t reach its modern-classic potential, “The Conjuring” remains a very promising direction for the horror genre to regain broad appeal. After all, nothing, NOTHING is scarier than the notion of “Saw VIII.”
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars