Horror movies are held up to a decidedly different threshold than any other major film genre – the mark of success is less whether the movie is good or not, but whether it has effectively and repeatedly scared you. This discrepancy is illustrated in the case of The Conjuring, which is a perfectly adequate story obfuscated in relatively cheap “gotcha!” thrills and stock horror movie clichés. The result is a movie which is doubtless entertaining and perhaps even moderately satisfying in a world where the horror genre is synonymous with bloodied limbs, chainsaws, and stupid teenagers (The Conjuring fortunately has none of those). But is the movie really scary?
Like most horror movies, the answer to that question lies in the eyes of the beholder. On a “scary scale,” I would rank it somewhere above, oh, the American remake of The Ring but below, say, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. That sentence alone would probably satisfy many eager perspective viewers deciding whether The Conjuring is worth seeing. But for those rare 2013 horror audiences with the audacity to hope for an actual good movie, The Conjuring is worth exploring in greater depth.
The film stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (who seems to be in every horror movie or TV show made nowadays) as a married team of demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who investigate paranormal and demonic events. “Paranormal investigators” is one of those wonderful vocations which only people in the movies seem to occupy (other such jobs include “Hooker with a heart of gold,” “Janitor with exceptional abilities,” and “Boring office drone who is secretly a spy”) but the movie informs us that they were, indeed, a real couple and the events of The Conjuring actually happened in 1971. Right. Anyway, an early scene shows how the Warrens store all their keepsake possessed objects in their basement, leading one to wonder whether they are just abundantly nostalgic or have a secret kleptomaniacal proclivity.
Meanwhile, a Naïve Family, the Perrons, moves into a Big Haunted House and begins experiencing strange events. The clocks all uniformly cease ticking at 3:07. The mother (Lili Taylor) shows mysterious signs of bruising on her body. Each of the five adolescent daughters at some point gets pulled off their bed in the middle of the night, although strangely no one wonders whether the demonic spirit is just a restless young male apparition with puerile pranks.
Soon, Lili Taylor begs the Warrens to investigate. This leads to the first major problem of The Conjuring: Everyone seems immediately complicit in their belief that demons are real, and they are occupying the Big Haunted House. Part of what made The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity so effective is that the main characters were skeptics who questioned the veracity of ghosts – we therefore associated with their initial incredulity and eventual genuine aghast surprise. In The Conjuring, there are no skeptics. In fact, the Warrens probably talk to about 100 people over the course of the film (including large lecture halls) and no one seems to remotely question their evidence. A newspaper reporter writes a doe-eyed story about them, a police officer happily joins their exorcisms, and even the local Catholic priest is friends with them – apparently to the point that Ed is even permitted to perform exorcisms (at this point, I was reminded of the scene in The Exorcist, a movie celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, when Father Karras talks about how silly, archaic, and inane the ritual is. Is it possible films in 1973 were more sophisticated and cynical in their treatment of exorcisms?)
The priest and the cop, in particular, lead to The Conjuring’s second problem: At times, the movie tries to be funny, taking a great deal away from the suspense the film has so carefully tried to build up. Officer Brad, played by John Brotherton, is a buffoon who unintentionally opens the bathroom door slowly like a ghost (gotcha!) and doesn’t know what an ultraviolet light is. Another member of the Warren’s crew is Drew (Shannon Kook), who operates the camera equipment while sheepishly trying to hit on the Perron’s oldest daughter. When the four members of the exorcism crew, the two parents, and the five daughters are all in the house investigating, The Conjuring reeks of narrative excess, at times feeling like the middle passages of Jurassic Park – everyone is afforded their nice little isolated one-on-one encounters with the demon. Remember the stark alienation of the film crew in Blair Witch or the young couple in Paranormal Activity? Not in this crowded surrounding, although thankfully the filmmakers refrain from indulging in the cliché of the demon running past the doorway, but oh wait, it’s actually just Little Cindy.
The final problem of The Conjuring is that the mythology and supernatural abilities of the demon (and its motivations for haunting the poor Perron family) are unclear and poorly defined. Apparently, it all goes back to the Salem Witch Trials, when a mother was hanged for killing her infant under demon possession. So why is this demon targeting anyone other than poor Lili Taylor? In addition, birds and other animals fly around until they eventually collapse suddenly, and in one crucial scene, it is implied that the demon is somehow related to an earlier case of the Warrens involving a demented doll. But the movie seems only content with showing us these images rather than explaining why we are seeing them in the first place. When the dust is settled and the morning sun shines at the end of the movie (in a scene that the packed audience I sat with laughed at), one is left wondering whether the Perrons’ real problem the whole time was Vitamin D deficiency.
Of course, in horror movies, all of these shortcomings can be forgiven so long as the movie provides sufficient thrills. This is mostly not the case in The Conjuring, which panders too frequently to jilting strings and ominous ambient sounds blasted to 11 when the creature suddenly appears. Remember how scary Paranormal Activity was without music? Sure, The Conjuring provides a few genuine chills, especially in the early parts of the film when we are not quite sure where the movie is going. In addition, there are several admirable attempts by the director, James Wan, to innovatively frame certain shots so that the audience should be seeing the terrifying things the characters are seeing, but is unable to. But then there are other times when it appears Wan has watched too much 1970s-Amityville-type schlock – most endemic of which are the ominous but excessive zoom-ins and zoom-outs of the Big Haunted House. When we see this repeated shot for the seventh time, I think it’s fair to assume the audience gets the message.
The Conjuring arrives in summer theaters with positive reviews and good word-of-mouth. In some ways, it is a relieving antidote to the profusion of violent slasher movies. It never feels long at 112 minutes. It will provide a few honest scares, several cheap thrills, and a great deal of channeling of its 1970s cinematic predecessors. But it lacks the imagination, wit, character depth, and even the cynicism of those other more effective horror films, such as The Exorcist and Poltergeist. It makes you wait for the time when demonic spirits will graduate from grabbing people’s legs or smashing family pictures in the stairway to perhaps something really impressive and genuinely surprising to its victims in the theater seats.
Rating: 2.5 stars