James Wan, member of the “Splat-pack”, writer/director of Saw, cult purveyor, herald of the dingy urban horror, a new talent that’s spent the past decade bolstering his CV with some really wonderful films aimed at the sort of people who enjoyed the same late night Hammer marathons as he did in his youth, has a new film out. Like his last film 2010’s Insidious, The Conjuring is his love letter to the supernatural, a film dancing through a hundred horror references whilst trying to instil Wan’s own very particular style.
The Conjuring is the story of the most terrifying case American supernatural hunters The Warrens ever investigated, for a horror fan that’s hallowed ground; a film about the most famous paranormal detectives in history, the couple who were amongst the first to investigate Amityville. Ed and Lorraine Warren, played magnificently by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, are here drawn into helping a family terrorized by a dark presence in their newly bought farmhouse.
First thing to say is that The Conjuring is very much an account of the Warren’s adventures, and clearly something of great interest to Wan who treats them like horror royalty, which they basically are. That’s fine though when you’ve got Wilson and Farmiga on top form as the down-to Earth ghost hunters.
The film begins with the unrelated side story of another one of the Warren’s cases, a sort of introduction for the audience to the their careers, and this is a weak reworked puppet story the likes of which we’ve already seen Wan nail in his Hammer homage Dead Silence. This weak and wobbly sort of narrative pops up a few times throughout the film and is purely down to the film being perhaps to old-school for its own good. The retro vibe is wonderful (jarring neon yellow opening credits on a black backdrop) but once the classic American ghost story gets milked too much it pushes the film into Frankenstein territory, making it seem like the reworked ideas of so many other horror films. Wan is like a kid in a sweet shop grabbing a little of everything to ensure all bases are covered.
At a run time of 112 minutes, The Conjuring has perhaps covered too much ground, spread itself too thin. A fair amount of time is spent getting to know the Perron family before and during their ordeal and in the end one can’t help but feel a lack of attachment to an essentially boring group of characters. Though special mention has to go to Lili Taylor’s performance as Carolyn Perron, the focal point of the haunting and scream queen of the piece.
Those reliable tropes Wan engages with are still terrifying and do their job at putting the audience on the edge of their seats, there’s enough boo moments, a “hide and seek” sequence, one of those “somebody in the corner” bits, and a hundred other moments expertly done so that it’s difficult to criticise for a lack of originality. The film switches tracks in the last half hour to give one of the best exorcisms in recent horror history but some viewers may feel like it’s crammed in to maximise dramatic effect.
A reliable, sturdy sort of haunted house flick that harks back to old-school effects and scares, The Conjuring may not be as innovative as some of Wan’s other works, but it is certainly a thrilling ride in the classic manner. Perhaps a little careful editing would make the film a more consise hard-hitting slice of terror.