Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
July 17, 2013 10:04 AM
12 Comments
  • |

Review: James Wan's 'The Conjuring' Is Filled With Scares, But What's the Point?

James Wan's "The Conjuring" starts out with a terrific sense of place: Before the title credits roll, the movie establishes its pair of real life ghosthunters as if aspiring to become the world's spookiest documentary. Based on the allegedly authentic incident of demonic possession in the early 1970's documented by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the same couple called upon to aid in the purging of evil that inspired "The Amityville Horror," the movie opens and closes with non-fiction ingredients: scrolling text detailing the Warrens' famous antics and still photographs of the real couple as well as the family whose case forms the center of the film. But that self-serious pose is ultimately disingenuous. Any hints of a smarter agenda serve to cloud the main one: "The Conjuring" has been engineered to freak you out.

The reality basis for "The Conjuring" establishes a tall order: Wan, the director of the first "Saw" installment and haunted house thrill ride "Insidious," takes great care in the skill of scaring people, but his movies have always featured a cartoonish quality to the way they relentless aim to shock audiences in the most visceral way possible. "The Conjuring" turns that potential up to the max until it grows uncomfortably transparent. It's not productively scary when you can see the scarer creeping around each corner and waiting for the next big opportunity to catch you off-guard; just exasperating and sometimes even cruel.

Still, Wan remains a thoughtful director whose emphasis on atmosphere during the movie's leisurely first act sets the stage for a classy thriller in which spooky things gradually creep out of the shadows. But for that same experience, meted out with a finer balance of scares and storytelling, you're better off watching "Poltergeist" instead. The best entries in this genre inflict the oppressiveness of the haunting onto the audience until it's clear that otherworldly beings simply can't be destroyed. Part of the challenge involves making the case that this is serious business. "The Conjuring" launches on that path by gradually establishing a haunted house scenario punctuated with moments of bonafide terror, but once the Warrens begin their investigation, it shifts into silly mode (although Wilson and particularly Farmiga do their best with the material by bringing a grim, clinical quality to the roles).

While Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor effectively portray the parents of the five-girl Perron family, whose problems with a demon in 1971 threaten their lives, once Wan makes that much clear it's just a matter of time before the entire story devolves into a cavalcade of shrieking phantoms and unseen assailants, slamming doors and howling away. Take a breath at any given quiet moment in "The Conjuring," because a sudden jump scare undoubtedly lurks mere seconds away.

Wan seems to critique the third act failings of "The Conjuring" during the alarmingly superior first half.
A few of these jolts work astoundingly well: a pair of scenes in which Taylor's character plays a clapping game with her youngest daughter, only to receive an unexpected (and largely invisible) third player; the abrupt moments in which a series of family photographs crash to the floor; a sudden nighttime visitor stalking the kids and whispering predictions of their imminent doom. But these elements are countered by a parade of clichés. Chief among them: the kid who befriends a dead child and tells her mother about it with eerie calm, and a loud, violent exorcism that largely plays like a lesser version of "The Exorcism."

The Warrens' eventual attempt to cleanse the Perrons' home echoes the closing act of Wan's "Insidious," which had the kooky feel of an old William Castle movie until the a legitimate aura of doom in its climax. Once it sets certain ingredients in motion, "The Conjuring" plays it straight -- and the result is a frightening bore. When the movie transforms into an ode to the power of blind faith in supernatural phenomena, it conveys a strange fusion of camp and spirituality thoroughly out of sync with the jarring, in-your-face ghoulishness preceding it. The contemplative turn arrives too late for "The Conjuring" to deepen its aims.

Yet Wan seems to critique the third act failings of "The Conjuring" during the alarmingly superior first half. In an impressive long take that introduces the Perrons as they move into their new home, the director crafts a disquieting world in which the camera itself may represent the perspective of some undefined phantom menace. Echoing the works of the great classic horror producer Val Lewton, who pioneered the slow build involved in generating chills that dig into your skin and stay there, Wan creates the ominous anticipation that anything could happen.

That's a talent key to the appeal of his movies going back to the minimalist "Saw." While now working within the studio system ("The Conjuring" is a Warner Bros. release), Wan has maintained a rather elegant approach to genre filmmaking that stands apart from the crassest examples of horror movie manipulation. But in this case, the traps he nimbly avoids catch up to him. The Warrens may know how to handle demonic possessions, but "The Conjuring" suffers from a different invading force: the ghosts of familiarity.

Criticwire grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases "The Conjuring" this Friday and seems poised to do well with it, as it fills the gap for a meaty summer horror movie. Anticipating as much, the studio has already instigated plans for a sequel.

You might also like:

12 Comments

  • Jonathan L | August 3, 2013 2:25 AMReply

    Just saw this movie and must say that this review sums up my feelings. A strong(ish) buildup leads into cheap scares and a clutter of cliche horror and illogical scenarios. Why would the police officer follow a somewhat loud ghost maid around a dark corner by himself? Why, in the exorcism segment, can the demon (devil?) break the very structure of the house but not break a chair holding its host(it sure knows how to keep a door or 6 closed)? Why do the kids always talk to the ghosts as friends(these horror movie kids must have no friends, thanks for moving them to the middle of near nowhere Perron parents)? Why do the Warrens keep their daughter in a house full of supposed haunted objects almost alone (pretty bad parenting if you ask me)? Why do the scares dwindle down to bumps and jumps, knocks and clocks? I could rant on but that is what this review is for. Good job!

    P.s. no need to be caustic towards this reviewer. Leave those comments to yourself or, better yet, just smash your head into a antique cabinet.

  • Chris Meade | February 20, 2014 6:58 PM

    Thank you for that Jonathan L.

  • What the heck | July 31, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    People who criticize this movie are trying to minimize the fact that demons are real, hell is real and God is real! You need Jesus, we ALL need Jesus and we are utterly powerless against the darkness without him! That's the point!! You must hate that huh? Your all like, "I ain't believin' in Jesus and you can't make me!" Better think twice about that.....

  • Jarod | October 26, 2013 2:11 AM

    Joel Osteen, is that you, ya gullible bastard?!

  • J.D. Lombardi | July 19, 2013 2:34 PMReply

    This piece would have been much better received had it been edited at all or more competently. I stopped about halfway thru simply because it was too sloppy and I can't read someone's criticism and consider it valid when it is badly written.

  • Rr | July 19, 2013 11:04 AMReply

    Just saw the movie. What are you talking about???? By reading your review, you must be an uptight hipster. You do not have the spirit of a moviegoer. You need to relax and get into the movie.

  • LS | July 17, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    You're kidding, right? I've see the film twice and it's not at all a victim of its third act. This is a desperately contrarian review -- one of those, "Hold on, folks, it's not THAT good -- I see it for what it really is, and let me know you the light" type pieces. Except that it is that good. And the "point" of the film is scares, which it has in spades. And it doesn't devolve into "silliness," rather, it deepens with the relationship bewteen Farmiga and Wilson, both strong. Farmiga in particular invests the picture with a spirital conviction that is palpable and unusual in a modern horror film; she takes the material deadly seriously and her faith in the character (and the character's faith in, well, faith) is very affecting and atypical for a film in a genre where almost everything has been done. This is one classy, elegant, superbly designed, respectful of its audience and go-the-extra-mile suspense movie that relies on suggestion until the horror comes right out into the light in the film's climax. It's a beauty of a movie, and asking "what's the point" is both ill-informed and unfair to this achievement.

  • WM | July 17, 2013 3:36 PMReply

    "James Wan's 'The Conjuring' Is Filled With Scares, But What's the Point?"

    "Any hints of a smarter agenda serve to cloud the main one: "The Conjuring" has been engineered to freak you out."

    This is a serious question: Is this the first time you've seen a horror movie? Because you don't seem to understand how they work.

  • WM | July 17, 2013 5:43 PM

    "Saw" and "Hostel" are terrible movies....

  • Eric | July 17, 2013 5:10 PM

    I've seen many horror movies. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.

    My favorite horror movies are the ones that don't exclusively rely on the basest scare tactics. I mention Val Lewton at the end. Have you seen any of the movies he produced? Because that's a good place to start when considering alternatives to this half-formed disappointment. Try "Cat People" for starters.

    A good horror movie, like any good narrative, demands a certain amount of narrative propulsion to work. The irony of all the derision directed at so-called "torture porn" is that the earliest examples of it contain terrific storytelling all the way through: Both "Saw" and "Hostel" are consistently unpredictable even while they deliver insanely visceral experiences. By contrast, "The Conjuring" is really, really scary in its first half and then totally predictable in its second. That, to me, is a disappointing scary movie. It's not nearly as innovative to scary people as it is to tell them a good tale while doing it.

  • K | July 17, 2013 11:46 AMReply

    Just like you're review has been engineered to show you're a douche.

  • WM | July 17, 2013 5:42 PM

    "Saw" and "Hostel" are terrible movies....