James Wan’s Insidious wasn’t perfect – the movie suffered from a poor tonal shift towards its final act and on the whole, never quite realised the haunting potential set up in its first third. Despite this, the movie possessed some excellent moments of horror, with certain scenes – the demon in the dream for example – standing up as some of the most well-designed genre moments of recent memory. Wan knows what works and can put a scare together, relying on an old-school approach to horror, a focus on the unseen and the suggested.
And so fans greeted his latest movie – The Conjuring – with great expectations. Word of mouth was fantastic, with a common view that the film was horror gold, finally fulfilling Wan’s left-over, Insidious potential. Unfortunately, the film isn’t quite as strong as fans would hope, and despite containing some excellent moments here and there, struggles to breathe new life into the tired haunted house genre.
The movie, supposedly based on true events, follows real-life psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) on their most shocking case yet. The pair, best known for investigating (and validating) the Amityville Haunting, this time take on a farmhouse in Rhode Island, where the Perron family (headed up by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) are being terrorised by an unseen and malicious entity. Various bumps in the night occur as the Warrens work to save the family from fiendish forces.
After a misjudged and clichéd opening featuring a haunted doll, the movie quickly settles into familiar haunted house territory, though with the added benefit of a slow-burn. For a modern horror movie, The Conjuring really does take its time at the start, building characters and letting the audience soak in the atmosphere. There’s a great sense of impending doom to these early scenes, and Wan is right to focus on the family unit as opposed to the Warrens – the divide working in a similar fashion to Regan/Father Karras in The Exorcist, which sets the family as the heart of the movie. Some of the earlier scares – involving a clapping game and a wardrobe – are fantastic, building tension and fear whilst showing very little, and the movie’s best and most frightening scene shows nothing at all, working simply on the suggestion of something standing behind a door. There’s a subtly to a lot of these scenes which really sells the horror.
Unfortunately the movie doesn’t remain this consistent throughout; The Conjuring can’t kept its monsters in the dark, and like most flawed horror movies, begins to both show and explain far too much. Great horror movies – such as The Shining – work by denying the audience information; viewers can guess that the hotel is after Danny’s gift, but it’s never spelled out, and this lack of motivation generates fear. We’re given nothing to go on but a sense of evil, with no further details regarding the Overlook Hotel. It’s the same way that Michael Myers is scarier in the first Halloween, when he’s inexplicitly stalking baby-sitters, before the sequel added an unnecessary justification involving hidden sisters and family ties. Once the Warrens get involved in The Conjuring, the background of the ghost, and its raison d’être, gets spelled out, and the audience know too much logically to be frightened anymore. Once ghosts have motive, they become humanised, and no longer threatening. It doesn’t help that the scares become sillier and that we see too much of the ghosts too, leading to a frankly silly third act.
The movie’s greatest issue however is its reliance on homage, which raises problems regarding references and the diluting impact they have on horror. Primarily, a movie can either generate its own shocks or throwback to past ones; The Conjuring takes the latter approach, which makes it a self-knowing treat for horror fans, but means the actual horror itself is lost. Take the climax, which references Hitchcock; the scene isn’t scary because the audience recognise it as a reference; you see The Birds in the scene and nothing else; you can’t generate new scares on top of versions of older material. Similarly, whilst the movie’s old school approach (complete with its 70s setting) is fun for fans, there’s nothing surprising here. The movie feels like a love letter to The Exorcist (with which it shares many tropes) and The Amityville Horror (which is a worse movie than The Conjuring, but certainly more iconic), the problem being that this familiarity generates a feeling of ‘been there, done that’ and there’s nothing here audiences hasn’t seen a thousand times before. Insidious, for its faults, was more original in execution and far scarier; The Conjuring seems to be treading on well-worn ground. Every element of this film is predictable, meaning the movie exists in a weird half-world of both references and sincerity; imagine if Scream had been played straight and you’ll get the idea; there’d be a lack of real identity.
The cast however are very strong – Wilson comes with a loveable, bumbling edge which works as a nice counter balance to Farmiga’s serious but concerned psychic – the two make a great on screen team. Farmiga in particular comes across as motherly and trusting and the sort of woman who you’d let take your life in her hands. It’s a shame we’re not given much insight into Lorraine’s darkest hour, something the film mentions in passing which is sadly never addressed. The Warrens are taken completely at face value with no hints of fraud or delusion which honestly works for the material – the movie doesn’t ever question the reality of its proceedings; The Conjuring is refreshingly free of sceptical counter-argument and able to just have fun. Lili Taylor is great in her meek and unsettled role, deceptively the centre of the movie, and credit has to be given to Joey King too, one of the daughters who manages to sell a very scary scene on the strength of nothing but her acting. Sadly the girls are generally interchangeable for the most part – divided into character traits such as the one with glasses and the sleepwalking one – and it makes no sense why there are five of them. Yes that’s true to the ‘truth’ but in narrative terms, it just complicates things – these girls could have been streamlined into two or three characters.
The Conjuring has a few great scares and a nice opening atmosphere, but its reliance on plot explanations and past throwbacks really holds it back. There’s nothing new here and the movie suffers from being unable to function as either a serious horror movie or a retro pastiche. It’s on the whole, more consistent in tone than Insidious was, but suffers from being considerably less original in execution and far less frightening – for reference in recent horror terms, this is a worse movie than Insidious, but a far better movie than Mama, sitting firmly between the two on the quality scale. Again, Wan shows a lot of promise with this movie, and the suggestion seems to be that with the right script (one somewhat more vague) he’d be able to make a genre masterpiece. For now, The Conjuring is an average horror movie with a few highlights, not bad, but nothing special either.