Aug 5, 2013

The Conjuring

Or how $13 million make everything better. This horror film by James Wan shows a marked improvement of his skills since Insidious ($1.5 million). It has a robust budget, a better cast, it is better directed and better written and it succeeds in having a good amount of chills and scares. It is based on the real-life exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), apparently some very busy demonologists, and a case of a possessed house in the 70s.  
The Conjuring is too frantic when it could benefit from a more sustained, lingering pace; but the first third, when a family moves into a remote house and things start going bump in the night, is effectively scary because we don't see anything. When we start seeing things in horror movies, the ghosts, spirits, and demons always seem cheesy and they break the spell. You know they are actors in makeup and special effects. But if you can't really see what's behind the doors, that is quite unnerving.
The camera work and the editing are very effective, and in some instances beautiful. Wan's problem may be that he has too many ideas, too many ways to spring up the scares. Sometimes the camera pans unbearably slowly, a la Kubrick, sometimes it is deranged and handheld. And the movie entwines two separate plots: the story of the Perron family and their house from hell, and the story of the Warrens and their work cleansing houses of evil spirits. If you can suspend your skepticism that the only way to fight demons is with holy water, wooden crosses and the Vatican's blessing, this movie is bound to scare you. This storyline raised a lot of questions for me. Do demons only attack Catholics? Could you fight Satan with a star of David, a crescent moon or a statue of Buddha? Anywho, I could believe that the house where the Perrons (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor -- so good to have her back) move in with their five daughters is possessed by evil spirits; I'm not so sure about Satan and his distaste for the Catholic faith. 
Still, it is interesting how good actors can raise the level of a horror movie just by showing up. Case in point is Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren, whose performance is so grounded and convincing, she roots the movie in reality. As does Lili Taylor, as Mrs. Perron and her excellent five daughters.  I was grateful that at some point someone finally suggests moving out, which is what I would have done the first ten minutes upon arrival and at the first hint of freezing cold and the smell of rotting meat, but here there are good reasons for having to stick it out: 1) apparently, those pesky demons will follow you to the nearest Holiday Inn. 2) and, much better, this working class family has no money. They can't even afford a hotel. They have put everything they have into buying this hellhole. They're screwed. 
The Conjuring has some story problems and it is too action oriented, but I have faith that Mr. Wan, as he matures, will come up with an unbearably scary film, if his good hand at terror continues growing steady. For a typical horror film of today, The Conjuring is a good, scary bet.

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