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Review: Horror ‘The Conjuring’ Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor & Ron Livingston

Review: Horror 'The Conjuring' Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor & Ron Livingston

Who would have guessed that the
man responsible for spearheading the “torture porn” label would turn out to be
such a classicist filmmaker? James Wan, who famously abandoned the over-long “Saw
series after its first gruesome installment, has gone on to make a number of
pictures that harken back to an earlier era, less grisly and more foreboding.
It’s perhaps a testament to his craft that his latest, “The Conjuring,” seems
to feature no sex, almost zero foul language, and a minimal amount of blood-letting,
only to still comfortably secure an R-rating. Rarely do you find contemporary horror
films dedicated to genuinely scaring you instead of making you laugh
ironically, recoil in disgust, or react with politically-fueled anger.

With “The Conjuring,” Wan
accomplishes this task, creating a picture that owes a great deal to
seventies-era chillers like “The Amityville Horror” and “The Changeling.” It’s
1970, and two families are about to cross paths. One is a fairly generic
American clan, the Perrons, with a truck-driving patriarch attempting to
provide for a wife and a five-daughter household as they move into a rickety
Rhode Island fixer-upper. There isn’t much, if any conflict, separating
shaggy-haired Roger (Ron Livingston) from sweet-natured Carolyn (Lili Taylor),
and each of their five daughters bicker and joke amongst themselves a healthy
amount, even with their differences in age and temperament. In quieter moments,
the girls pick each other up, through nuanced interactions at the fringes of
the story that provide an interest in character this genre long stopped

The Warrens, however, have a
decidedly different outlook. The picture begins with a scare sequence involving
a couple of girls stalked by a malevolent force, but after these conventional
spook moments, in walk the Warrens. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) enter as
investigators primarily, and they dispose of the spirit off-screen, calmly
explaining the otherworldly phenomena to the victims. A fiery sideburned alpha
type, Ed compliments Lorraine’s intensely intellectual, observational style,
the two of them explaining their work like exterminators getting rid of a
not-particularly-threatening insect. That this scene introduces the throwback title
sequence is telling; unlike pretty much any studio horror film this year, “The
Conjuring” isn’t desperate to scare you, but rather to showcase two
professionals working through a problematic situation. The only flash between
these two likely happens behind the scene, where their obvious chemistry takes
flower. When dealing with the supernatural, it’s just another day at work.

The Perrons’ new home is a
musty two-floor townhouse, but the discovery of a boarded-up, spider-webbed closet
door reveals a cellar, which the family pragmatically refers to as “extra
footage.” If prying those boards off doesn’t necessarily unleash the demon
inside this house, it certainly allows it to loosen its belt, and soon the
attacks happen with frequency. Some items are misplaced. Others fly across the
room. The damage isn’t as considerable as its meaning, as one sequence results
in the Perrons’ family photos violently coming off the wall. At times it
appears there are ghosts afoot, particularly the kind that like to linger mischievously
in the back of the frame. In other, more violently alarming sequences, it’s as
if this new house is belligerently rejecting its new tenants.

The Warrens agree to lend their
expertise once the haunting appears legit, and soon they are moving in with the
couple and their rambunctious daughters. The Warrens’ tech is charmingly
analog, as they and their collegiate assistant Drew (Shannon Kook) lug bulky equipment
around that’s probably pocket-sized today, but Wan warmly treats this incursion
as a temporary extension of the family. There’s the opportunity for
manufactured contempt but it doesn’t manifest, not even in the skeptical macho
cop (John Brotherton) providing protection. The best non-scare moments occur
with the teaming of the two core couples. Farmiga and Taylor don’t share much
screen-time, which somewhat handicaps the emotional payoff of a portion of the
third act, but Livingston and Wilson share moments where, beyond the intensity
of this situation, they’re just two bros, bro’ing out. There’s lip service paid
to the fact that the Perrons are not religious, a contrast to the
cross-clutching Warrens, but neither side seems in a hurry to grandstand.

Speaking of which, the scare
moments: “The Conjuring,” at points, is terrifying. Wan really understands how active,
acrobatic camerawork can enhance the storytelling without breaking the fourth
wall, a technique abused by today’s horror craftsmen. Often, he’ll switch
perspective in the middle of the scenes, where it will cast doubt as to whose
eyes we’re looking through, and in other moments it will shift from one person
to the next, without knowledge if that other person is our spectral threat.
Moments with obvious CG, as always, don’t convince: Wan stages spook moments
well, like the sudden possession of a white cloth, but as it stays into frame
and moves unnaturally, the distraction of excessive effects pulls you out of a
film very much dedicated to creating believable characters in a real period
setting. But contrast the dusty, sinister basement in this film versus the same
one in this year’s flop sweat-drenched “Evil Dead” remake. Wan understands the
horror of the mundane, and his success with creating atmosphere allows a few
stacked chairs and some covered-up furniture to register as menacing.

Mostly, Wan takes his time,
allowing a methodical approach to the material that forces you to be absorbed
into the world created therein. The Warrens, a real-life paranormal team, are
seen giving lectures about their work to college students in a way that
suggests a dry familiarity bordering on boredom, and there is no real attempt
to sex them up or heighten the stakes by creating division between the two of
them. In fact, what startles is the strength of their bond when the chips are
down. The third act is a bit sloppier than the first two, particularly when the
rather familiar ghostly motivation surfaces, and the editing glosses over some
key plot progressions. But it’s Wan’s unpretentious sentiment regarding the
union built by this duo that shines through, which we see represented by a
suburban chamber of haunted souvenirs from past cases. To them, every defeated
boogeyman is another vow renewal; what ghost would stand a chance? [B]

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