Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Conjuring

THE CONJURING: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, directed by James Wan (112 min.)

Always trust the dog.

Sooner or later, when the characters in these haunted house films move into their demonically-possessed antique mansion and the dog is too spooked to come in, or is barking at seemingly nothing in the corner, they might figure out it's time to just turn right back around and leave.  The dog always knows, as is the case early on in The Conjuring, a strong entry into the haunted house pantheon from director James Wan.  This is another one of those "based on a true story" horror films, and judging by the end credits it appears this may be closer to true than any of the other so-called true stories.  All of the central figures are real people at least, but does it really matter in the end?  The objective of a film like The Conjuring is to carefully navigate through the cliches of the haunted house spook fests, using what has been used before a little differently, and hopefully a little better.

The Perron family is a large one, with father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and five daughters all under fifteen or so.  As the film gets going the Perron family is moving into a large country home on some land with a pond out back and an appropriately macabre tree.  It is 1971 in Rhode Island, and all seems well.  But you know with a house like this something is up.  Strange things start happening, though it takes some time for them to ramp up to a suspicious level.  The dog dies, bruises start popping up on Carolyn's body, the youngest daughter has an imaginary friend, etc.  The Perrons discover a boarded-up basement full of antiques and cobwebs, never a good thing.  Then the occurrences grow more threatening. Ghosts appear and attack the children and Carolyn.  Things go bump in the night, then they bump a little louder and a little more violent until the Perrons seek some outside help.

This outside help comes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by thriller vets Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  The Warrens are renowned paranormal investigators, he an un-ordained man of faith, she a clairvoyant.  In between lecturing at college campuses they look into strange hauntings and possessions and determine either their validity or their severity.  Carolyn pleads with them for help and they oblige, and it doesn't take long for them to feel the evil spirits occupying the hallways and crawl spaces of the house.  They call in reinforcements in some scenes reminiscent of Poltergeist, rig the house with camera and sound equipment, and try and find the best approach.  That, of course, just seems to make things worse.

James Wan is a director getting stronger with each passing film.  The first Saw film was wildly inventive - despite the sequel monster it created - and Insidious was a sleeper hit in the same vein as The Conjuring. Here, Wan shows maturity, and a real ability to put his camera in the perfect places to maximize the jumps and screams.  Often times with haunted house films, what is behind the actor on the screen is ten times more important than the actor themselves, and Wan knows how to focus on the surroundings without exploiting the background or the reflection too much.  He also allows silence to work on the nerves.

Another thing that keeps The Conjuring from getting tiresome or eye rolling with cliches and "been there, done that" moments is the cast.  Wilson and Famirga fit so well into their parts because they have backgrounds in some solid horror films, and Lili Taylor is wonderfully magnetic as Carolyn.  The final act, where things really spiral into nerve-racking madness, relies on some great physical acting from Taylor, who is up for the challenge.  And Livingston as the hapless, desperate father in the background somehow works as well.  My advice: Don't go in expecting a revelation of new ideas and new horror.  Go in expecting a haunted house film, and you will be greatly entertained by the product on the screen.  And if you ever find yourself in the situation of the Perrons, play close attention to the way your dog reacts to the new digs.