Midweek movie review: The Conjuring

For a while it seemed that the only horror films on circuit were sordid torture porn, shaky-cam efforts masquerading as “true stories”, and reimaginings of older (and international) classics. Well, in the midst of these releases, director James Wan was carving out his own retro-style route, winning critical and commercial love for low-budget but classy-looking efforts that downplay special effects in favour of atmosphere and character-building.

Following 2011’s Insidious, The Conjuring is Wan’s best film to date, a haunted house tale that is granted extra skin-crawling oomph by being based on real life events. In 1971, the Perron family (headed by mom Lili Taylor and dad Ron Livingstone) with their five daughters move into a Rhode Island farmhouse. Immediately they are subjected to unexplained events which escalate in intensity until they’re forced to seek out paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) – both of whom are still shaken by a recent exorcism that went wrong.

There are a few pacing stumbles. The Conjuring seems to lose a major percentage of its fright factor once the Warrens move their monitoring equipment into the house. It’s at this point that the film’s derivative nature becomes impossible to ignore – because make no mistake about it, The Conjuring is highly reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, Paranormal Activity 2, and Poltergeist especially.

This said, despite The Conjuring trotting out the creepy vintage dolls, kiddies’ “imaginary” friends and demonic possession clichés, it’s been a while since I’ve sat watching a horror film in the cinema, simultaneously clenching the armrests and grinning from ear to ear with anxiety-tinted exhilaration. The Conjuring is a frightfully good time. And it does this without having to resort to computer-generated effects or jump moments. It’s all about suddenly ajar cellar doors and inexplicable knocking inside cupboards.

The convincing Seventies look of the film helps to distinguish The Conjuring, but the major selling point – unusual for this type of genre fare – is the time spent establishing the characters; their psychologies and relationships to one another. It helps to have relaxed natural performers like Farmiga and Wilson playing the Warrens, but regardless, I would happily embark on more paranormal adventures with these grounded characters in future. It’s just so refreshing to have an adult married couple – who are clearly and credibly devoted to one another – appearing as the protagonists of a horror film instead of the usual cardboard cut-out teens and college kids.

In the end, The Conjuring doesn’t bring anything new to the haunted house sub-genre. It is however an example of pure class pastiche, drawing on all the established elements and repackaging them into one effectively creepy horror flick for those who appreciate a slow-burn approach to generating suspense. Just excuse the seen-it-before climax; this one is a gem.

4 stars out of 5.


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