US (2013) Dir. James Wan
Films based on true events will always incur scepticism from people who will either quibble over the veracity of the dramatisation or, if they are political or based around war, simply dismiss them outright as propaganda. Horror films based on real events find themselves under deeper scrutiny which, given their nature of involving the fantastic, is somewhat understandable.
James Wan has, over the past decade, built his reputation in horror films, beginning with the Saw franchise, tackles a story based on just one incident from the storied career of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Their cases are said to have inspired The Amityville Horror and now one from 1971 is brought to our attention.
Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) along with their five daughters, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver), move to a farmhouse in Rhode Island. Their dog, Sadie, refuses to enter the house and whilst playing, the girls discover a boarded up entrance to a cellar.
April also finds a music box outside which she brings into the house. Over the next few nights, Carolyn discovers bruises on her body, Christine is spooked by a visitation, and Sadie is found dead. Stressed to their limits Carolyn sees help from the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farminga) who believe an exorcism is required but the demonic spirit finds a new victim in the Warrens’ young daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins).
Ever since The Conjuring became a hit, it has spawned a mini franchise with one direct sequel (so far) and two spin-off films featuring a possessed doll named Annabelle, which features in the prologue introducing us to the husband and wife ghost busters. As the Warrens’ have quite the catalogue of cases involving paranormal activities, this is inevitable, the law of diminishing returns, notwithstanding.
In this opening instalment, we find a tale of two halves that exemplify the best and worst aspects of horror filmmaking. The first hour embraces the “less is more” ethos to deliver exponential terror in depicting the supernatural harassment endure by the Perrons, before the second half goes overboard with a decidedly over the top climax with all the subtlety of a Donald Trump tweet.
Like The Warrens, the Perrons did actually exist (and probably still do) but given this is a dramatisation, some of the details will have been embellished for this cinematic telling, which is important to consider given the chance in tone mentioned above. The deliberate actions of the demonic spirit in the first half is much more palatable even to cynics, building from occasional noises to intrusive but unharmful physical interaction.
Sadie’s death and the bruises aside there is no malevolence shown towards the family at first until an attack on Christine drives the message home to the Perrons that someone, or something doesn’t like them being in that house. A nice touch is the fact the siblings are the early victims which the parents can pass off any nighttime spooks as their callow imaginations running way with them.
Enter the Warrens, who haven’t had a mission in quite a while ever since Lorraine was traumatised by a case of demonic possession through her psychic powers. Immediately they sense an evil presence in the house latching onto various members and find some fertile clues in the cellar. Lorraine is able to see the spirit’s former human form hanging from a tree in the garden and suspects she was a witch who committed suicide.
If we’ve learned anything from spiritual possession stories within the horror milieu, it is there is usually a tragic backstory behind these hauntings and this is no different. It’s a horribly upsetting story dating back to 1863, the Ringu like mythology of which we hope is an original addendum and not true, and the vengeful spirit is determined to stop people from living on her land.
Depending on your horror pedigree, The Conjuring will either frighten the bejesus out of you or feel like a homage to the classics. Many have likened it to The Exorcist because of the final act and the victims being young girls but that suggests this film is derivative and devoid of its own ideas which isn’t true. Horror is a genre where a certain amount of shared ideas is ingrained in its DNA so a bit of leeway is required from the audience.
Wan cleverly avoids the usual signposting of impending scares via musical stings or eerie soundscapes, leaving to “if” something will occur rather than “when”. As is becoming a trend of late, silence is a key part in hitting us with something simple but effective to make us jump. But, as the climax proves, when he wants to shake us up, Wan isn’t beyond throwing in SFX laden stunts to match the hysteria of the moment.
Being set in 1971 limits the amount of technology used in investigating and combating these supernatural foes and this period setting does add a certain charm to the simplicity of the horror and verisimilitude to the often naïve understanding of the paranormal. In an odd way it also makes the cast less obnoxious as, had it been set in modern times, we’d probably want the family to suffer!
I’m always concerned about the psychological effects on young actors in horror films and whilst the kids here are spared some of the truly horrific occurrences, they are subject to some nasty moments which they handle with aplomb, sufficiently getting the audience onside. Of the adult cast, it is the two females that impress the most, Vera Farminga and Lili Taylor being he emotional cores of both their relationships.
The Conjuring is far from being a paradigm shifter in the busy genre of horror cinema but stands as a highly serviceable slice of unsettling supernatural hokum with top end production values to give the scares a convincing boost.