Scare me once
Going down the dark, well-worn road to another haunted-house flick
There’s really not a whole lot you can do with the haunted-house template. Pretty much every one runs like this:
A family moves into a house they bought for a steal; the kids start experiencing some creepy goings-on; the parents laugh it off until beds start banging and things start flying around. And the people generally can’t move away because they have put all their resources into the dump, so they call in the experts to uncover the secret past. Things get hairy. Lather, rinse and repeat.
And so there’s a creeping sense of familiarity with each run at the premise, and with The Conjuring, the latest from James Wan (Saw, Insidious), that familiarity is amped to the nth degree with an indulgence of homages to the touchstones of the genre, with the film’s structure of acts obviously: The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, wrapping up with The Evil Dead. But the end result is more of a homogenized Scooby-Doo episode padded to feature length and played straight. The Conjuring weirdly plays like a spoof of haunted-house movies, without the comedy.
But there are some spooky moments to be found—a couple of decent chills and one good jump scare (maybe even a few more if you’re skittish). And one clever approach is having the focus be more on the ghost hunters themselves (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, playing real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren).
Unfortunately, Ed and Lorraine aren’t very interesting. Ed is kind of a goof and Lorraine is one of those Christians who wears her martyrdom like a disapproving crucifix. And there’s a lot of crucifixing going down. The Conjuring comes across as a haunted-house movie for Christians, with all of the devil’s work being traced back to a witch trying to curry favor with the horned one.
But for all the power-of-Christ-ing going on in The Conjuring, I didn’t find it very compelling. The dialogue is fundamental and “on-the-nose” (lacking subtlety) and I wasn’t sure if Wan was deliberately trying to go meta and homage the old stale-and-talky (and not-so-scary) made-for-television horror films that came out on the heels of The Exorcist. Wan really nails that soft-focus 1970s vibe, but even that affectation is undermined by a persistent hand-held, first-person-shooter point-of-view.
And the subplot involving a possessed doll seems shoehorned in so as to indulge Wan’s damned creepy-doll fetish (which one might have hoped had been exorcised with his creepy-doll movie, Dead Silence), and provide a way to open the movie with a bang. Problem is, between the opening bang and The Evil Dead-like closing bang, there are more whispers than screams. If the subplot about the doll and another story thread (about the Warrens’ daughter) had been cut, trimming the film from nearly two hours to 90 minutes, Wan might have really delivered.
As it is, The Conjuring isn’t particularly bad. There are some touches of humor and the beast is perhaps even fun if you have never seen any of the movies Wan exhumes here.