A lot of things are brought back to life in The Conjuring; mostly things long thought dead and buried: rocking chairs that rock by themselves, boarded-up rooms, swinging light bulbs, birds flying into windows, creepy dolls with inexplicably grotesque faces (heads turning around slowly, of course), lightning storms, creepy children in long nightdresses, a jack-in-the-box, scary clown – heck, at one point, even a white sheet striking a ghostly pose. With the exception of blood dripping down the walls, no cliché has been left unrevived in a film that makes a valiant effort to scare the bejeesus out of modern audiences, but does it by borrowing heavily from nearly a century of scary movie tropes. Looked at one way, it’s just as much a post-modern parody of the horror genre as the Scary Movie series, except that it’s funny.
The screenplay, by twin brothers Chad and Carey W. Hayes (who previously gave us the unholy trinity of The Reaping, Whiteout and House of Wax – yes, the one with Paris Hilton), sticks pretty closely to the formula – a house/family/child gets possessed, parent calls in the ghostbusters/demonologists/Vatican, demon/ghost/evil spirit causes havoc, and all Hell breaks loose before Good ultimately conquers Evil – although the film The Conjuring most closely resembles is The Amityville Horror (1979), the fitfully effective mainstream movie based on the alleged haunting of the Lutz family, since thoroughly debunked. (Oh yes it has! Look it up. Or better yet, read The Amityville Horror Conspiracy, or watch the documentary My Amityville Horror.) The resemblance is no spooky coincidence: The Conjuring is based on an earlier paranormal investigation by “Vatican-approved demonologists” (or so they claim) Lorraine Warren, “a light trance medium”, and her husband Ed, now deceased, who were among the self-proclaimed experts who enabled the Amityville fraud. According to legend (well, the press notes) Ms Warren was so traumatised by the events depicted in this story (which took place in Harrisville, Rhode Island, two years before the Amityville business) that she refused to talk about them for nearly forty years – until the power of Hollywood compelled her. Thus the marketing hook for older audiences: “Before Amityville, there was Harrisville.” And before that, Vaudeville?
And so it is that long distance lorry driver Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters, move into a lakeside Rhode Island house which looks like the cover of a Stephen King book, except spookier-looking and with more spider-webs. The clichés start to pile up when the oldest daughter complains about living in the middle of nowhere, her sisters squabble over who gets what room, and the family dog, Sadie – who has exhibited more actual character than any of her owners – refuses to enter the house. When Sadie turns up dead the next morning, no one seems overly put out, or to wonder how she died, so perhaps they hadn’t had her long. Neither does anyone seem too concerned when the youngest daughter, Alice, starts talking to an imaginary friend, ‘Rory’, whom she claims can only be seen in the mirror inside the lid of a jack-in-the-box – which, incidentally, looks suspiciously like the logo of The Umbrella Corporation from Resident Evil. Then again, parents in the early ‘70s weren’t as over-protective of their children as they are now, as illustrated by the fact that Carolyn lets the children play “hide and clap” in the new house, a mix of hide-and-seek and blind man’s bluff which involves children stumbling around the unfamiliar, multi-storey house wearing a blindfold.
It’s this (potentially life-threatening) game that leads to the discovery of a secret, boarded-up room in the basement, and before you can say “There’s usually always a rational explanation” (the first of many facepalm-worthy lines of dialogue) things literally start to go bump in the night, threatening the sanity and perhaps even the lives of the Perron family, prompting Carolyn to track down and call in paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick ‘Insidious’ Wilson and Vera ‘Orphan’ Farmiga – the latter poised to chase her Academy Award nomination with an Emmy for her portrayal of Norma Bates on TV’s Psycho prequel Bates Motel. Leaving their own little girl behind in their own scary house – which has a trophy room full of possessed objects and other evil paranormal paraphernalia from previous investigations – Ed and Lorraine agree to take the case, travelling to Rhode Island in a Volkswagen camper which calls to mind the Scooby gang’s Mystery Machine, but without the gnarly paint job.
Rational minds might suggest removing the vulnerable Perron children from the apparently hateful house – or at least asking them not to play ‘hide and clap’ for a while – but the Warrens are having none of it. As Ed tells poor Roger portentously, “Sometimes when you get haunted, it’s like stepping on gum – you take it with you.” In other words, Getting The Hell Out is not an option – the demonic spirit has latched onto the Perron family, feeding off them, and will likely follow them to their next house, rather than swallow up the current one, Poltergeist style. Instead of suggesting an Extreme Makeover, or even redecorating in calming pastel hues, Ed immediately adds fuel to the phantasmagorical fire, bringing in all sorts of religious icons (even though the Perrons claim no religious affiliation), because “it really pisses ‘em off.” Why anyone would want to piss off an angry demon goes undiscussed – perhaps that’s simply how demonologists get Vatican accredited. “At least they haven’t been violent,” Ed remarks of the house demon, perhaps forgetting that Carolyn wakes up covered in bruises every day, has been flung violently down the cellar steps, and that the cause of Sadie’s death remains unexplained.
From here, it’s back to the Exorcist/Poltergeist template (at one point, the youngest daughter even disappears, like Carole Ann in Poltergeist), unleashing unholy Hell on the Rhode Island residence, the evil spirits (read: screenwriters) flinging everything in the book (specifically, The Big Book of Horror Clichés) at the out of their depth ‘demonbusters’ and their increasingly terrified and cowering clients, until the power of international box office compels a happy ending. OR DOES IT!? (Yes, it does – although not so happy, obviously, that poor Patrick Wilson may have to face The Conjuring Part 2 not long after the upcoming Insidious Part 2.)
The Conjuring is directed in kitchen sink fashion by James Wan, who, in 2004, co-wrote and directed the smart, scary, gory and hugely successful Saw, which kicked off the biggest franchise in horror film history. Since then, the only half-decent film he has made was Insidious – literally: only the first half was decent – and with such films as House of Horror, Dead Silence, Death Sentence and Insidious on his resumé, Wan was looking increasingly like a one-trick pony – at least, until he signed on to direct Fast & Furious 7. (Unless, of course, that turns out to involve a haunted or demonically-possessed car a la Christine, or indeed The Car from the underappreciated James Brolin B-movie The Car – a man can dream.) Wan has a firmer grip on the horror genre than some of the directors who have tried, and failed, to make haunted houses scary again – the main offender being Jan de Bont, who gave us the disturbing-for-all-the-wrong-reasons remake of The Haunting. So what, ahem, possessed him to take the reins of a script as rickety as The Conjuring? And what exactly is being conjured in The Conjuring, which involves no conjuring of any kind?
The answer to both questions is simple: dead presidents. The Conjuring will repeat the tendency of supernatural horrors like The Woman in Black, the Paranormal Activity films, Evil Dead, The Devil Inside, Mama, The Last Exorcism and The Haunting in Connecticut to open above $20 million in the US (except, curiously, for Wan’s last film, Insidious, which only managed $13 million) and enjoy a healthy afterlife on home entertainment formats. Backed by an effective, if by-the-numbers marketing campaign, and despite being released at the height of summer, The Conjuring looks set to conjure up a decent box office opening – and why not? It’s certainly disturbing, scary, occasionally even shocking. Just not in the way it was supposed to be. ★★