Like David Carradine’s Caine roaming the earth, trying to put things right, The Conjuring director James Wan – part of the Australian double act that dragged horror into its taboo-busting, no-holds barred future with torture porn progenitor Saw – seems desperate to roll back the clock to a more dignified era.
Set in the Seventies and making cinephiles jelly at the knees with the very first cut from opening credit trompe l’
Based on the ‘true’ story of the Perron family haunting and the subsequent investigation by mom and pop exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, comparisons to The Amityville Horror – another of their cases to make it to the big screen – is invited in all but gold leaf, but like the Insidious comparisons, only sets The Conjuring up for something of a fall.
While The Amityville Horror was purportedly also based on a ‘true’ story, it was in fact the adaptation of a sensationalist (and allegedly scurrilous) book, keeping the ‘real’ event at bay by degrees. The Conjuring, meanwhile, is taken directly from the source, and as a consequence finds its storytelling manoeuvrability severely limited.
With the real Lorraine Warren (Ed died in 2006) and the real Perrons involved in promoting the film – and Lorraine’s goodwill instrumental in sustaining a franchise – The Conjuring becomes an increasingly sanitised affair where core characters aren’t even permitted challenges, let alone failure.
That’s no fault of the casting, both the always sublime Lili Taylor (Hemlock Grove, Six Feet Under) and the quietly suffering Ron Livingston (Band Of Brothers) ooze archetypal parenthood, while Wan/Whannell regulars Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, Insidious) are consummate professionals, but it’s one of the youngest stars, Joey King (Oz: The Great And Powerful) as Christina Perron, who is absolutely captivating in her very real, very raw terror.
Transitioning from an undeniably atmospheric haunted house film (the use of blind man’s buff echoing the hyper-effective use of statues in JA Bayona’s The Orphanage) to a competent possession movie in the final third, it ultimately does both something of a disservice. With the history of the house and its occupants info-dumped in a single perfunctory scene, everyone rushes toward a neat climax where the outcome is never in doubt.
The idea that Lorraine Warren might be compromised by her past encounters with the supernatural and her fear for her daughter is toyed with and teased, and then largely undeveloped.
All possession movies invite comparison to William Friedkin’s genre-defining 1973 shocker The Exorcist just as all shark movies invite comparison to Jaws, and the the contrast between the colourless Warrens and the fragile Father Merrin and faithless Father Karras – both forced to make the ultimate sacrifice – couldn’t be more extreme.
The Conjuring is fantastic to look at, and holds you enraptured for the vast majority of the running time – the dumb evil doll subplot that inexplicably takes prime position on the DVD cover being one of the pace-killing exceptions – but for horror fans, it all too neatly underlines the holy writ at the heart of The Exorcist.
For this to truly scare beyond mere jump starts we must doubt, but the veracity of the possession and the success of the protagonists, and the ‘truth’ hamstringing The Conjuring leaves us unable to do either.