The Conjuring

Big ball of yarn
James Wan
Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
The Setup: 
Psychic couple face nasty entity.

A month or so back, I saw a review of this that described it as just insanely scary, then it debuted to generally positive reviews, which lauded it as an old-fashioned bump-in-the-night ghost story that relied more on creepy noises and suggestion than loud noises and jump scares. Well, yes and no, and what provided fun in the moment is not necessarily what stands up to scrutiny later. In this case, five minutes later.

So we join Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, a couple who are paranormal investigators, as they interview two women about a possessed doll. There is a mild spook up front, then the case is over and Ed has possession of the doll, which he shows to a reporter as part of his room of artifacts, some still haunted and dangerous, that he keeps in his home where he lives with his wife and daughter of eight or so, who has been told to stay out of the room, although it's apparently not locked. These people are a real couple, and their best-known case is the Amityville Horror. The producers got rights to their story, and are hoping to start a franchise where each film will be another of their cases (a sequel has already been approved). But this adherence to "truth" may be what ends up torpedoing this film as a work of art.

After the non-resolution with the doll, which kind of has nothing to do with anything, we have some yellow type telling us that this is the most malevolent case the Warrens ever faced, so very nasty it could not be told... UNTIL NOW. Then the type moves upward and we have the title of this film. It's a good moment, and the film continues to exploit the 70s mood of spooky excitement, connecting back to the mood that surrounded the Amityville Horror book and film, which worked for me--who lived through that time--although I can't comment on how it feels for those under thirty. Anyway, the 70s setting is well-represented in hairstyle and clothing that look genuinely 70s--as opposed to something like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake which tried to position contemporary 70s-throwback styles as authentically 70s--and the movie has a 70s look, relying mostly on natural light and grainy film stock. So it's an interesting method to let the setting and look of the 70s carry us back to the state of interest in the paranormal associated with the 70s.

Okay, so this family, the Perrons, led by Ron Livingston as Roger and Lili Taylor as Carolyn, move into this large Rhode Island house with their indeterminate number of indistinguishable daughters. We never find out why they moved there, and you spend the first half of the movie saying "Okay, there are four daughters. Oh no, there are five. Are there? I'm only seeing four." It was halfway through the film before I realized that there are five, and they're all essentially the same person, except for one, who is slightly older. The dog won't go in the house, and is found dead the next day. Mom wakes up with a new bruise every morning. They find a boarded-up cellar, and open it, in true spooky movie fashion. Soon the girls are smelling nasty smells and being pulled out of their beds at night. All the clocks in the house stop at 3:07am every night. Then Mom ends up down in the cellar in a truly scary sequence, and they find the Warrens giving a lecture and invite them to come over.

We are told that during a previous exorcism, something horrible happened to Lorraine, but we never find out what. She sees a presence as soon as she gets to the house, and in two shakes of a lamb's tail, they've taken on the case. Turns out it's not just run-of-the-mill ghosts, but demonic activity, which means that they can't just leave the house, because the demon will come with them. Of all the luck! Lorraine does a quick spot of research and learns that there was a witch who killed her child and hung herself, and that everyone who has tried to possess the original land of the farmhouse has killed themselves.

The Warrens suggest that their presence will piss off the entities in the house, and this turns out to be the case. Now we start to get a bunch of Poltergeist-type fun as they invite their buddies to come wire the house with cameras that go off when there’s a presence, and all stuff like that we’ve seen before but is always fun. This also brings along a few extra characters who are not introduced [who are they? Where did they come from?], but I won’t complain, because one of them is a cop with a mustache. So now we have a family of seven, another family of three, two additional characters, and a bevy of ghosts, which proves to simply be way too many characters for the film to support. The Warrens start hanging out at the haunted house and getting to know the Perrons, even fixing their old beat-up car, and it adds flavor, but goes nowhere. We also have some stuff with the Warrens and their daughter, and each time they come on screen, there’s a feeling of “Why are we seeing this?” So for a while, aside from good scares, you’re just seeing a lot of scenes which are each quite interesting, but simply failing to add up to much of anything.

Eventually Lorraine is possessed, although no one knows it, and the family repairs to a motel, whereupon we suddenly cut to a young girl being haunted, and at this point I had no idea who this girl was. One of the indistinguishable daughters? Turns out it’s the Warren’s daughter, and it’s supposed to be about how the entity is following them home, but then it is dropped and goes nowhere. Then suddenly Mom takes some of the daughters (but how many?) and goes back to the house, where one character runs around looking for one, but since we have no clear idea how many are there, you’re more confused than anything. Then suddenly we veer into Exorcist territory as Ed has to perform an impromptu exorcism, and well, it would seem that The Exorcist, like Jaws, simply did everything that could possibly be done with the genre. Because everything since has merely been imitation, including this. It goes, and Lili Taylor—gee, kudos for having the courage to go there again after having been abused so badly by The Haunting. The rest of the kids magically show up in the morning—how did they know it was safe to come home?—and when the Warrens return home, genre conventions had me waiting for the final, “you thought it was over” scare sequence, but no, it’s over. They make reference to “a case on Long Island,” which we know as the Amityville Horror, and that’s it.

So when it ended, I was pretty happy with it, having been scared well and seeing a cop with a mustache, which is apparently all it takes for me, but my friend bemoaned the script, and once we started picking it apart, I realized; yeah, it’s kind of lame. On the plus side, it is very scary and accomplishes this mostly through creaking doors and dark spaces, suggestion and misdirection, and good old fashioned honest creepiness. There is also admirably little obvious CGI, and very few instances of something just jumping out. So that’s all in the plus column, and it will scare the pants off you (although still not as scary as Sinister).

But it’s missing a lot of connective tissue. The connection between the Warrens and the haunted family is a rich area for exploration—and is just left to a few strokes. This does the movie as a whole a big disservice, because later it wants to make some connections between the two, and they don’t work as well as they could have. It also wouldn’t hurt to quell confusion over the daughters and the Warren’s daughter. Every time we started exploring the Warren’s home life, I had a feeling of “Why are we seeing this?” This confusion also dampens scares in the second half, when we’re too busy wondering who is who to get involved in the action. And the two extra characters—who are they? Where did they come from? Finally we get to the climax, and while it’s not a Thor-like case of being unable to tell the climax from the rest of the film because it’s all occurring at the same intensity, it’s a case of not being able to tell that it’s the climax because the film hasn’t set up the themes or structured its action. The story was not at a point where there’s nowhere to go now but to resolve the conflict, evidenced by the fact that I didn’t believe it was over when it was over. Also, for a film that built up the immense power of the main entity (and set up a cast of several others), gee, it was much more easily defeated than I might have thought.

Ultimately, what it’s missing is any trace of subtext, nor any sense of shaping the story to provide resonance and give it all some shape. Ultimately I blame the fact that it’s a true story, dependent largely on the participation of the participants, who (I’m speculating) might have objected to any artful shaping of the material they feel might take it away from “truth,” while at the same time making it a better movie. Thus what you end up with is a series of incidents that are all very interesting, but don’t add up to much and don’t connect to each other in a way that starts to accumulate tension and meaning. It is a scary movie and it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, and you won’t feel cheated if you go see it, but with a few changes and additions it could have been a real classic. And during the second half it made me wish I was watching The Woman in Black again.

Should you watch it: 

It’ll give you a good scare, but it’s merely pretty good when it had greatness within its grasp.