I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. That’s a sentiment I suspect most moviegoers can relate to, having been inundated over the past fifteen years or so with long-haired phantom brats, invisible prankster beasties and herky-jerky dime-store ghouls. These days it takes more than a trailer with strumming violins and figures rising from shadows to get us worked up, “based on a true story” is as readily ignored as “please silence your cell phones” and twist endings have become the new straight.
The latest casualty of phantom fatigue is the recent resurgence of 1970’s-style supernatural horror, replacing self-referential camp with a conviction that requires finesse to work. James Wan, who moved on from the gritty exploitative gleam of Saw (a film far more tame than many realize) to throwbacks like Dead Silence and Insidious, has been tapping this vein for a few years but finally hits paranormal pay dirt with The Conjuring.
This dark gothic bauble is by no means an original affair, nor does it do anything new or insightful with the genre. None of that matters much while you are watching it, because the movie is a damn scary funhouse ride that hits all the right, nerve-shredding beats with unsettling accuracy. Heart palpitations and soiled knickers aside, what resonates after the fact is the way The Conjuring anchors its traditional ghost story to well-drawn characters, making it more substantial than the directors other forays into genre.
Although the picture boasts the disclaimer of truth, this is as much based on actual events as last week’s Pacific Rim. Inspired by case files of self-proclaimed “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren (their work is also tied to the infamous and oft debunked Amityville Horror), The Conjuring follows the misfortunes of Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) when they move their family into a seemingly benign gothic homestead in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Fortunately for an audience who showed up wanting scares, something sinister is there already waiting for them.
Wan and screenwriting duo Chad and Carey Hayes do a superb job of setting up the terror to come, banging away at the typical paranormal signposts while sketching out the Perrons and the relationship they share with their daughters. There’s a sequence from the point-of-view of a child staring into the darkness under the bed that is very precise in understanding that kind of irrational, gut-felt fear that stubbornly insists that something loathsome with ill-intentions is hovering just behind our field of vision. These early white-knuckle moments are cleverly woven into the shifting world view of the Perrons, who begin to suspect that something malicious and powerful has set itself against them.
Lili Taylor, who was the only human thing about Jan De Bont’s dull, plastic remake of The Haunting, gives her finest performance to date as a wife and mother who finds she can’t properly fight back against a force who may have dark designs on her family. At one crucial juncture, there’s the possibility that Taylor’s Carolyn may be forcefully manipulated into harming her daughters against her will, and the actress sells a helpless maternal fear that is as devastating as any of the sensational horror moments. Livingston, an actor who doesn’t often get the credit he deserves, is on point as the father who is mostly standing on the outside of this scenario, watching as something he cannot explain or prevent starts taking emotional and psychological bites out of his loved ones. The girls are a major part of the first half of the film, and give fine turns that amplify some of the more spine-tingling interludes. As the focus of the picture shifts, they recede a little as the Warrens arrive at Harrington, ready to get to the bottom of the ghostly hijinks.
If the structure sounds familiar, it’s not just the same layout as Wan’s superficially similar Insidious but also deeply reminiscent of the spooktacular classic Poltergeist, a film Wan clearly adores. There’s the tight-knit but addled family who continue to sally forth until there’s no sallying left to do, psychics with a connection to the other side who show up to reveal a world hidden to normal sight, and a knock-down drag-out battle with the supernatural that feels like the metaphysical equivalent of a heavy-weight bout. The film is ultimately too long, the script is often clunky and terse when it should be evocative and elegant, and the end is anti-climactic in all the wrong ways. These flaws are easily overlooked though, because of the way Wan handles the film’s other subplot, involving the paranormal investigators.
Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina in Poltergeist was a masterstroke of a plot device that was so perfectly written and acted that she became more. The diminutive medium is our primary tour guide through the mysterious land on the other side of the light, and all of the fear we have for the evil spirit at the film’s heart come not from the intricate creature effects but from her simple, eviscerating words; ‘To her it simply is just another child, but to us, it is the Beast.” Wan’s Conjuring can never summon forth such a concise embodiment of spiritual focus, but instead it gives us the Warrens, who enter the film after the first act and provide a counterpoint to the embattled Perrons. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are a stabilizing presence on the second half of the picture, and they ensure that Wan’s giddy enthusiasm for his creep show are held in check by the human drama.
A husband and wife team of cagey but vulnerable demon fighters who hold their Catholic faith very close to the chest is a tasty narrative conceit, and regardless of what you think of the actual Warrens—be they frauds or fright-busters—these characters stand apart from them and become their own agents. All of this is just as well, because The Conjuring isn’t interested in being a biopic or a treatise on the possibility of life after death. It’s a blood-curdling ghost story, plain and simple, with Wan, his performers, and technical team—special shout-out to the elegant and atmospheric work of cinematographer John R. Leonetti and production designer Julie Berghoff—joining together to throw the wildest amusement they can muster.
The Conjuring has its faults, but I’m hard pressed to think of the last time a film has been so satisfyingly spooky and resonant with its arcane ideas. James Wan, puttering around in the dingy basement of the genre, has found his way towards the light at last and the future looks bright.
The Conjuring is released in the US on July 19th and in the UK on August 2nd.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.