Wednesday, July 24, 2013


There are a few people who will dispute me on this, but 2010's Insidious is one of the most frightening, best-made modern mainstream horror films of the 21'st century. Within a sea of found-footage Paranormal Activity clones, the brainchild of Saw (just the first one) director James Wan was surprisingly moody, atmospheric, and well-acted for a budget film, delivering some of the best scares in recent memory. Add in being a money-making machine, and you've got all the ingredients for a sequel, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime, Wan put together this new horror which apparently has been trying to get the big-screen treatment for more than twenty years.

The Conjuring is based on the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who for decades investigated paranormal instances around the United States. Ed was a demonologist and the only non-Catholic priest allowed to perform exorcisms (at least according to the movie), while Lorraine was (and still is today) a clairvoyant and medium who could communicate with dead spirits. The pair are perhaps best known for their study of the infamous Amityville Haunting, but they also claim to have taken part in over 10,000 investigations during their career. This film is based on one of those cases, as Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters find themselves haunted by a particularly vengeful spirit in their new home. With their lives a living hell and no place else to go, the family calls on the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to find out just what's happening and to stop it. What they find however might just be the most terrifying event the pair have ever discovered.
If the recording equipment wasn't clue enough, that sweater just SCREAMS the 70's
From moment one, when we see an earlier investigation into the case of two nurses haunted by a possessed doll, Wan's skills as a modern master of terror are established. This is a man who not only uses darkness to his advantage (because any decent horror director can do that), but can make something scary when fully illuminated through timing and not showing too much. A pair of undead legs peeking out from under a table or some kind of creature peering out from atop a tall dresser are absolutely terrifying under the right circumstances, and Wan is an expert at keeping that level of atmosphere prevalent throughout the entire film. As a result, you can be assured that The Conjuring is meant for horror aficionados and anybody who can use a good scare. If you balk at the tiniest of frightening moments however, this title (or in fact any scary movie) is not for you.
Yeah, we might just have a haunting here.
For those whose lives cannot consist of chills alone, The Conjuring also possesses a stellar cast led by Wilson and Farmiga. Wilson is of course a Wan veteran, also having starred in Insidious. While his performance here is certainly more low-key than it was in that scare-fest, he's an effective lead and moves the story forward more than most of his co-stars. While Wilson plays the Warrens' logic, Farmiga is the soul, effortlessly playing the mystical half of the investigative pair. Hers is an esoteric performance, full of life and emotion that leaves the rest of the actors in the dust. In doing so, she also happens to put in one of her best performances in years, even better than her Oscar-nominated work in Up in the Air. From the supporting players, the best is definitely Lili Taylor, who steals the screen with her classic wife/haunting victim on more than one occasion. Ron Livingston puts in more of an everyman performance, but that's all the script calls for from him, and he does so well enough. Their five daughters contrast between well-known genre actresses (White House Down's Joey King and Twilight's Mackenzie Foy) and ones not quite as recognizable (Detention's Shanley Caswell, Lie to Me's Hayley McFarland, and newcomer Kyla Deaver), but all are effective when called upon to perform, although with such a big cast it's not as often as I would have liked. Still, it's a more-than-effective cast that Wan has brought forth, and they really sell the horror of what is happening on screen.
Yup, I think there might be spirits here.
Unfortunately, what you see in the theater is pretty much what you've witnessed in any classic Exorcist-type film in the past twenty years. Wan might make it terrifying, but that doesn't change the fact that every single horror trope we've come to expect from the genre is back, even if it is with a vengeance. Obviously, for a story from over forty years ago, you can expect that details would leak into other, newer horror films of franchises. But while Wan's Insidious was instrumental in reinventing the budget horror classic, here he's just doing what everybody before him put on, and the result is definitely less than you might expect. It's actually kind of surprising that Wan and his crew didn't take discretionary control of the story, as "Based on a True Story" has never limited any director's ability to put interesting content first.
And she would have gotten away with it too, if not for those meddling kids.
Still, despite The Conjuring's less-than-original premise, you can't help but be scared out of your pants by Wan's effortless atmosphere and the horror that you are made to see through his lens. That and great performances can achieve quite a bit, and while there's no reinventing sliced bread here, it's still a VERY scary product that can be enjoyed by just about anyone looking for a cheap scare. Is The Conjuring the scariest movie out there? No. But it IS the scariest movie so far in 2013, and right now that definitely counts for something.

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