July 19, 2013 (U.S. Theatrical)
Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren
Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren
Lili Taylor as Carolyn Perron
Ron Livingston as Roger Perron
Shanley Caswell as Andrea
Hayley McFarland as Nancy
Joey King as Christine
Mackenzie Foy as Cindy
Kyla Deaver as April
Horror movies “based on a true story” are always put immediately on a suspect list, and typically fall into one of two categories: Either the film is an attempt at an actual dramatization of truly horrific events (i.e. Snowtown, based on the Snowtown Murders in Australia) or there is one element of an actual event that is expanded upon beyond all recognition (i.e. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, (loosely) based on the skin-removing habits of serial killer Ed Geins.) In all cases, the true story talking-point is used as an effective marketing gimmick – with the gimmickyness increasing along with the levels of artistic license. It’s always a risky proposition to spend money to see a “based on a true story” feature.
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the information sources presumably behindThe Conjuring, are not new to sharing their adventures for the sake of movie-going fear seekers; They also worked on the well-known case of The Amityville Horror (which has undergone quite a bit of scrutiny regarding the accuracy of the movie depiction). Regardless of the historical consistency of such stories, the Warrens do tell a whopper – Get a story from these two together with the movie-making talents of James Wan (Saw, Insidious, Dead Silence) and something magical is definitely possible.
The story of The Conjuring surrounds a family from New Jersey who decide to start new lives for themselves in the Rhode Island countryside in an old farmhouse they bought at an auction. The house is a bit run down, but it’s on several acres and has a beautiful pond and boat dock, and seems like a wonderful place to raise their family of four girls and leave whatever it is that discouraged them from city life behind. What they couldn’t anticipate, of course, is that an evil demon child-killer, who is not very happy to have a loving family walking the halls, controls the house.
The Conjuring begins slowly with care taken to ensure that the audience knows a bit about this family and its members. The girls are loving, and relatively typical – the oldest Andrea (Shanley Caswell) is slightly bratty in “I’m not a child anymore” teenage fashion, and the younger girls are generally just happy to be here and enjoy the love and attention they get from their mother (Lili Taylor) and truck-driver father (Ron Livingston). The evidence of a haunting begins slowly, as is normal for such haunting stories, and the toll it takes on the family is well done considering they cannot afford to move anywhere (even if the house were to say “get out”). The performances of the cast of extremely “normal”, and this works extremely well as the film ascends into it’s incredibly shocking and action-packed finale. In fact, the casting of Taylor and Livingston as the parents, two performers best known for character roles rather than star power, allows the developing terror to take center stage over the individual actors. No offense to Ethan Hawke, who is fantastic, but someone with his leading-man charisma might have shifted focus to his own persona and reactions rather than keeping it where it belongs – on the situation at hand. The Warrens, on the other hand, are a bit larger than life, which makes sense considering their chosen profession and tendency to guest-lecture at universities and write tombs describing their adventures. The casting and characters in The Conjuring are about perfect.
Regarding performances, that of Lili Taylor must be called out specifically as incredible, particularly in the ending scenes. Taylor absolutely did not hold back, and delivers a message that is extremely physically and emotionally demanding. The raw nature of Taylor’s portrayal is amazing, a tribute to her talent and the direction of James Wan.
Haunting stories have so many opportunities to go so very wrong, but thankfully The Conjuringavoids such pitfalls under Wan’s leadership. One area that many falter has to do with effects, where the easy route of CGI overuse can ruin the atmosphere of a film that is completely dependent on atmosphere. This one is much more practical, actually having things happen like hands clapping behind someone’s head of a toy ball launching from behind a book case in the cellar, in real life rather than in the form of some ghostly apparition. The film does approach “over the top” as it progresses, but with restraint – nothing goes so far that it shocks the audience out of the movie going trance, and even those moments that are quite extreme are arrived at gracefully rather than out of the blue. Make no mistake, the finale scenes of this film are intense – white knuckle barely breathing intense, but it works.
The Conjuring is an excellent haunting story that is interesting, compelling and actually very scary. There are jump-scares and shockers, as well as a slow-building fear that builds to a wide-eyed comatose state waiting for some kind of relief. Extremely well done indeed. The time period is 70s, and that adds to the story greatly as the absence of smart phones, video chat and YouTube commentary is a wonderful reminder that our culture and society weren’t always so lame.
It is impossible to know how true to life this film actually is; whether the “based on true events” is any more than a hint of something that maybe kinda sorta happened. As a horror film dealing with haunting and possession, though, The Conjuring is a terrifying ride that pulls together the best parts of Poltergeist and The Exorcist in a way that only James Wan has the skill and horror acumen to do. Wan has certainly been in demand after his previous horror hits, but all indications are that, after The Conjuring, Wan’s price just went up.