starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
screenplay by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes
directed by James Wan
by Walter Chaw Based on a true story in the same way that a pineapple is an apple, James Wan's latest exercise in jump-scare theatre is the workmanlike haunted house/demonic possession flick The Conjuring. In it, the paranormal investigation team of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, co-authors of several books and shown as the film begins lecturing a small auditorium of people on the finer points of ghost-hunting, confront their Greatest Challenge Ever when they're called to the modest New England farmhouse of the Perron family. It seems this was the former home of a WITCH! Can you fucking believe the luck? An evil witch lived in this house. Fuck. A witch. Motherfucker, am I right? You buy a house and you think that...anyway, it really sucks that a witch lived there. It all starts out innocently enough with the largely-indistinguishable Perron girls getting jerked out of bed by an invisible whatever, then evolves into a game of hide and clap (which sounds venereal but isn't, unless you're doing it really wrong) that leads to mommy Carolyn (Lili Taylor) getting thrown down a flight of stairs into a creepy, boarded-up cellar™. That's when daddy Roger (Ron Livingston) calls the Warrens... Well, he doesn't, because he's away on a week-long business trip and he's a skeptic of the Warrens, we learn after the fact... Um... He's not a well-developed character, seeing as how Wan seems distracted by all the loud noises and crap leaping out at the camera.
To be fair, anyone hoping for characters, tension, meaty exposition, meaningful subtext, or anything of the sort, will leave The Conjuring hungry. If you're looking, instead, for a movie that does its best to startle the poop out of you, well, look no farther. Though I maintain that popping up out of the bushes isn't art, there's a well-established place for films like this in the mating rituals of young Americans--one of many ways that youth culture can facilitate illicit contact under the guise of innocent experience. Honestly, that old-fashioned, William Castle gimmick shock-buzzers like The Conjuring remain popular is actually kind of a reassuring, nostalgic phenomenon. It's like taking your sweetie to the malt shop...with demons. Taylor is fantastic in the film, exuding her natural warmth; Farmiga is also exceptional in the thankless role of the "sensitive" half of the Warren team. There's possibly a conversation to be had about the wisdom of the real-life Warrens keeping a "museum" of evil artifacts in their home that they're always having to warn their young daughter against messing around with, but poking holes in movies like this, which are mostly intended to make you drop your popcorn, is pretty futile.
The Conjuring looks good and has cast itself with wisdom--so what if it relies heavily on tried-and-true clichés of the haunted house/exorcism genres without attempting to do anything novel? There's something to be said, too, for a picture that wants to do one thing, does it a dozen times or so, and ends with one of those credit sequences where we see actual photos of the fake people we just watched run around, screaming, for 112 minutes. Better films in this vein are (Robert Wise's) The Haunting, The Others, The Changeling (from which The Conjuring steals a gag), and, my personal fave of them all, The Innocents. There's some degree of religiosity in the picture (The Exorcist, after all, is like Top Gun for Catholics--or vice versa, I don't know; can you believe it was a witch?) that's echoed in interviews with the real-life Warrens, but, honestly, this thing is so allergic to anything like complexity that it's not worth anyone's time to dig around in there, either. The Conjuring is fun if you like expensive jacks-in-the-boxes and surprise alarm clocks--I mean, what the hell, who am I to judge? If you see it, I hope you'll tell me what the title means. In any case, it's harmless. I just wonder if demon-witch movies ought to be.