Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Running time: 112 minutes
Release: August 2
Surely this last decade or so will be remembered as having been the golden age of mild terror. The last great horror epoch, that of the Cowled Dudes who Stab, ran out of ideas around 2000, and American filmmakers looked to Japan for inspiration. The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004), both remakes of Japanese horror films, set the trend for scary movies 15A enough to frighten the blockbusters. Directors saw that an intricate pattern of sound, lighting, and spooky dolls, along with a slower and subtler narrative pacing, could replace the pints of blood demanded by, say, the Scream franchise. Spirits, demonic possession, cursed dwellings; while American horror of the ’80s and ’90s had committed itself to cataloguing physical trauma in its many forms, this new approach, borrowed and diluted from the Japanese, aimed its scares directly at your psychology. Meanwhile the 18-24s were kept sated by the torture porn phenomenon, that limb-by-limb devaluation of the gross anatomy.
James Wan, the director of The Conjuring, has made both kinds of film. He directed the first Saw, which really was pretty horrific back in 2004, and 2011’s Insidious, which was more at the Are You Afraid of the Dark? level of things, but also pretty good. Wan’s films are typical of the 15A horror style; lots of spectral waifs and creepy toys, and, like any Japanese myth worth its shio, plenty of possession by evil demons.
The Conjuring has it all; scary kids and dolls, an old curse, and possession—except it’s by a witch, hence the misleading title. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are ghost-hunters, called upon to investigate an old house in rural Rhode Island by the desperate Perron family. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) has been waking up with mysterious bruises, doors slam all night long and youngest daughter April (Kyla Deaver) has a new friend of the translucent sort. Thereupon the plot takes many turns, some satisfying, some confusing, (some just plain obnoxious—did you know that the women murdered at the Salem Witch Trials were guilty after all?) but the pacing is perfect and the climax is genuinely scary in a silly sort of way.
Patrick Wilson plays Ed as a sort of greaser Catholic, The Fonz meets St. Benedict, and that’s just what Christian Slater would have done, come to think of it; the resemblance is tragically uncanny in many other ways, and of Wilson no more need be said. Vera Farmiga is as excellent as we’ve come to expect, despite being forced to wear a Whistler’s Mother costume for no obvious reason, and Lili Taylor is a revelation. Her role requires both total naturalism and hammy hysteria, and she pulls it all off marvellously.
The Conjuring, then, is mostly a fairly entertaining iteration of a genre that we’re all overfamiliar with by now—and one that hasn’t really produced any masterpieces. The beginning and ending look like they were mangled badly in the editing suite and don’t quite make sense, perhaps to make room for a sequel or prequel. For James Wan’s sake let’s hope Insidious 2 gets done first.