(by Dustin Putman
In my 2011 review of "Insidious," it was suggested that director James Wan had a tendency of being overly self-congratulatory, his onscreen credit so large and bold and lingering during both the opening and ending titles that it would make even someone as allegedly egotistic as M. Night Shyamalan blush. With an uneven résumé up to that point consisting of 2004's "Saw," 2007's "Dead Silence," and 2007's "Death Sentence," it was concluded that Wan had not quite proven what the credits slyly suggested: that a master filmmaker of noted importance was in charge. With time comes perspective, however, and in the two years and four viewings since that original review of "Insidious," the film has only grown in impact. It's just as leap-out-of-your-seat chilling as it was the first time, and Wan's skill deconstructing the family unit while delving into supernatural subject matter that bypasses obvious frights while getting to the true heart of darkness and the unknown is virtually second to none. If "The Conjuring" is perhaps a fraction less rattlingly scary than "Insidious," that's still far creepier than the average studio-released horror films that come out these days. Credit must go to Wan for also not merely repeating himself; while it must have been tempting since both pictures are basically "haunted house" movies, this one never feels derivative. With a sure-footed elegiac pace and a keen understanding that anticipation and what we don't see is sometimes more affecting than the payoff, "The Conjuring" plays like a loving throwback to cinema of the '70s, the director comfortably joining company as reputable and varied as Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, William Friedkin and Roman Polanski. Article continues below
Based on the true accounts of married paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the film centers upon one of the most difficult and daunting cases of their careers. The year is 1971, and the Perron family—Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston), along with their five daughters—are excited about their fresh start as they move into an old Harrisville, Rhode Island, farmhouse that they bought at auction. Carolyn notices that the clocks keep stopping every night at 3:07 a.m., a rank smell of rotting meat seems to permeate certain rooms before vanishing in the morning, and on only the second day in the house the family dog is found dead outside. Then things get seriously strange, with middle daughter Christine (Joey King) terrorized in the night and youngest April (Kyla Deaver) gaining an imaginary friend named Rory who allegedly appears in the reflection of a music box mirror every time the lullaby stops. Worried first and foremost about the safety of her family, Carolyn seeks out the Warrens, noted clairvoyant Lorraine and demonologist expert Ed. Immediately, Lorraine senses a terrible energy that has latched onto the Perrons, unwilling to let go. As their investigation continues, Lorraine's research into the previous owners reveals a grisly tale of madness, satanic rituals, child murder and suicide.
Imbued with a crisp autumnal atmosphere and elegant period flavor—costumes and production design are authentic without becoming overly tacky, while soundtrack cues (e.g., "Time of the Season" by The Zombies; "Sleep Walk" by Betsy Brye, and "In the Room Where You Sleep" by Dead Man's Bones) bring shading and color to the proceedings—"The Conjuring" might as well have been shot back in 1971. Relying almost entirely on technical effects and camera trickery over CGI and concentrating on the reality of characters as much as the heightened situations they find themselves faced with, director James Wan and screenwriter Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes (2009's "Whiteout") get off to an indelibly ominous start with a prologue introducing the Warrens through their 1968 case of an otherworldly presence haunting two college roommates through their Annabelle doll. The face of the doll alone could put a shiver up the sturdiest of spines, and, indeed, when Annabelle appears in the home of the Warrens behind a glass casing surrounded by all of the past artifacts and objects from their cases, it's only a matter of time before Wan takes that porcelain nightmare to the next level. Other humdinger moments, from a game of hide-and-clap gone awry, to a startling run-in with a spectral maid, to Christine's nighttime bedroom terrors, play terrifically into the threatening pall of doom cornering the Perrons.
Vera Farmiga (2011's "Source Code") and Patrick Wilson (2011's "Young Adult") should be commended in the way they shatter expectations to find the core love, respect and normalcy of Lorraine and Ed Warren, a couple who happen to specialize in the paranormal without letting that define them as people. These two don't superstitiously wander about with crosses and Bibles while speaking in hushed tones. Instead, they're loving parents themselves to daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins) and forthright and empathetic to their hosts, able to figure out fairly quickly whether a place is genuinely haunted or if there are simple explanations for the suspicious goings-on. Farmiga is particularly fascinating as Lorraine, gifted with strong intuitions that help her in her job, but also force her to feel and identify with things more strongly. As the heads of the imperiled Perron clan, Ron Livingston's (2012's "The Odd Life of Timothy Green") role is underserved and mostly reactionary, but Lili Taylor (2009's "Public Enemies") more than makes up for it with a committed, multilayered turn as Carolyn. The film forces her to go through a lot, and Taylor is convincing without fail.
On its way toward a conclusion that manages to recall 1973's "The Exorcist" while taking the treatment of a real-life exorcism in a whole different direction, "The Conjuring" doesn't quite explore the tragic, malevolent backstory of the Perron farmhouse with the level of detail hoped for. Likewise, there is the sense that director James Wan missed an opportunity or two in taking things to the next level—a level that "Insidious" managed to get to on several occasions. With that said, "The Conjuring" is a graceful, suspense-laden thriller in the classical mode, violence kept to a minimum in favor of the power of apprehension. Stunningly shot by cinematographer John R. Leonetti (2011's "Soul Surfer"), taking full advantage of the space within his frame, the picture proves to be a solid dispute to the claim that they don't make horror movies like this one anymore. As a matter of fact, they do, and James Wan does nothing if not play his audience like a master's concerto.