James Wan’s The Conjuring (the title is meaningless, unless you consider the box-office numbers the film has magicked up) is an old fashioned spook-house horror, built on the bedrock of a supposedly true supernatural story and unashamedly derived from the best bits of a long list of genre classics, from The Exorcist to The Shining.
1976s blockbuster Amityville Horror is a touchstone, but that’s no surprise given that this purportedly true-to-life account of the strange goings on that affected a family home in Rhode Island in the early 70s comes from the same source, husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).
In real life, the Warrens came to prominence at a time when there was a spike in interest in paranormal matters; the most pronounced revival in spiritualism since the Victorian era, a hangover from the third-eye opening sixties. It was a golden age for woo-hoo: the films already mentioned were all released during the 70s, and have been rejigged, remade and repurposed ever since. As the Warrens were busy mounting investigations and writing up reports in a series of best-selling books, to join hundreds of others on bookshelves around the world, belief in ghosts, demons and little green men was in the ether. Horror films became blockbusters, they were fainting in the aisles at The Exorcist (similarly ‘based on a true story’) while on small screens at home, Arthur C Clarke and Uri Geller were revealing signs and wonders. Context is everything in storytelling and Wan goes to considerable effort to evoke the era, dressing his sets and actors in drab shades of brown and plastic while adding a subtle sepia tint to the cinematography.
After attending one of their lectures at a local college, a desperate young married couple, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) beg the Warrens to visit them at their new home, deep in the New England countryside. As soon as Farminga’s medium Loraine enters the house, she knows something is wrong. An evil spirit has taken hold of the family. It manifests itself through night-time disturbances, slammed doors, bad smells and sudden cold spots. Confined to one room by the nightly disturbances, deep fissures have appeared in the family.
The kids are terrified and withdrawn. Carolyn, who appears to be the focus of the haunting, wakes every morning covered in bruises. She has strange thoughts. They are being pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and seeing spectres in the shadows (cleverly hidden from our view). The Warrens arrive in a bustle and do a pleasingly analogue survey with flash-bulb cameras and reel-to-reel tape recorders. Their professional diagnosis is that the Perron’s house is haunted by a malign spirit that must be removed.
Wan leads us through the house with a constantly tracking camera, familiarising us with the layout, before injecting sudden moments of twitchy pace by switching from steady, carefully composed shots to jolting, galloping Steadicam. Events that happen off-screen are chased down, the camera arriving a moment too late, blurred and breathless. The big scares, and there are quite a few, are delivered like rib-shaking punches from a skipping welterweight. It’s all terribly effective.
But there’s the distinct impression that the Warren’s aren’t really listening to the voices in their own heads. For one thing, they keep a museum of cursed items – including a creepy porcelain doll possessed by a demon – in their home. That’s the same home they share with their eight year old daughter. One of them underwent a psychic collapse during their last exorcism they performed, yet they’re happy to agree to do another, not too long after, and agree the deal while standing in a car park. These underestimations are carefully delineated in a lengthy prologue that forecasts details that will become important later, but feel every bit the signposts that they are.
The first half unfolds as an escalating series of creepy moments, perfectly timed for maximum effect and convincingly played by the entire cast. The Conjuring is the very model of a haunted house horror. Pre-determination is perhaps inevitable in a story about psychics, but everything seems to lose traction once the Warrens apply their bell, book and candle. Nevertheless, a sequel is already in development.