The haunted house movie is a genre nearly as old as film itself, and one that, much like its typical subject, hasn’t undergone much renovation. While technological advances (Steadicam, home video), trends (“found footage”, true crime) and tweaks to the basic format have brought us a few variations in make and model over the past 100 or so years, the basic idea is always the same: people move into a place where bad things happened, and bad things start happening to them.
It’s a story that we’ve all seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times. So when a haunted house film comes along that is able to tell us what we already know in a way that still gets under our skin, it is both a admirable achievement and a deliciously thrilling excuse to get the living shit scared out of you with a bunch of shrieking strangers.
The diabolically effective mid-summer surprise The Conjuring tells two stories, both based in fact. The first is that of the Perrons, a family who moved to a rural farmhouse in 1971 and soon found themselves at the center of a host of strange events. The other is the story of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, a deeply devout couple who devoted their lives to assisting those besieged by the supernatural from a home base of rural Connecticut.
We meet Carolyn (Lili Taylor – doing considerable penance here for that godawful remake of The Haunting) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron on the day that they move into their new home with their five adorable daughters. Right off the bat, something is wrong: the family dog won’t come in the house, and youngest daughter April becomes strangely fixated on a found music box. Before you can say “They’re here…”, all sorts of ominous occurrences begin scaring the wits out of the displaced family.
Meanwhile, Ed (Patrick Wilson, sporting some seriously sexy mutton chops) and Lorraine (the always-luminous Vera Farmiga) Warren are building their careers as the It Couple of Exorcisms. Aside from traveling all over the country to meet with people afflicted by hauntings and demonic forces (as introduced in a campy but effective case about a possessed doll tormenting some nurses), they keep a vault of cursed and possessed items locked up in their house and speak at colleges, explaining what they do and showing footage from their investigations. But their clearly strong marriage and working relationship has recently been upset by an unnamed event that affected Lorraine – a gifted clairvoyant – very deeply.
Pulling from the Warrens’ case file on the Perrons (their files also include the cases that inspired The Amityville Horror and A Haunting in Connecticut), sibling writers Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes keep things relatively simple: strange things happen, the family desperately reaches out for help, and the pros come in to try to dispel the boogedies. But there’s enough intrigue surrounding the house’s history and the ghostly goings-on to keep us guessing as to exactly who (or what) is doing what to whom. While we’re eager to learn more about the Warrens and their work, a shoehorned side story about their own daughter seems a bit forced, and is a bit of a distraction from the main event.
Of course, the real task at hand isn’t complicated plotting, but rather freaking the bejeezus out of us with dozens of expertly executed suspense and scare sequences. Director James Wan – who has previously tackled the supernatural in the goofy but fun Dead Silence and the surprisingly effecting low-fi haunter Insidious – is wise to keep things very simple. Sure, The Conjuring has never met a haunted house cliche it didn’t like (spooky dolls! creepy crayon drawings! doomed animals!), but Wan still makes each of them work as he mercilessly piles on the uncanny events, gradually escalating the pitch from creepy to freaky to completely f*cking bananas. By the time the no-holds-barred final sequence rolls around, there’s so much going on that your head will be spinning – though, thankfully not in the way that Linda Blair’s did in The Exorcist.
As the film’s beleaguered central couple, Taylor and Livingston effectively capture the balance of down-on-their-luck and genuinely decent that makes their nosedive into hell that much more terrifying. While the film is set in the ’70s, it’s sad how relatable their situation is to today’s economy – and further, it’s great that the filmmakers were able to capture the feel of the decade without turning it into what I like to call an “ashtray movie”: a film that is more concerned with showcasing perfectly-curated vintage props than telling an actual story. They’re likeable, and thankfully don’t display the stupidity that all too often leads a horror movie audience’s frustrated cries of “WHY WOULD YOU GO IN THERE?!” to overcome the film’s soundtrack.
Wilson – who has established himself as one of our most unpredictable actors with diverse roles in Watchmen, Little Children, Hard Candy, Angels in America, Girls, and Wan’s Insidious (and its upcoming sequel) – is a sturdy presence as the practical cop-turned-ghost-chaser determined to protect his wife’s sanity while still allowing her gift to help those in need. Ed Warren was an unlikely paranormal investigator, and Wilson beautifully captures both sides of this businesslike suburban father who has committed his life to taking down the demonic.
As Lorraine (in real life a calming, seemingly lovely woman who has appeared on shows like A Haunting and Paranormal State), Farmiga is an ethereally graceful foil to Ed’s taskmaster. After watching her nail the schizophrenic Norma Bates for a spectacular season of Bates Motel, it’s a delight to see Farmiga play a character that could not be more different. And I love how firmly Farmiga has quietly cemented herself as our generation’s most reliable go-to genre player (Bates, Joshua, Orphan, Source Code) while doing equally stellar work in more “legitimate” non-genre fare like Up in the Air and The Departed.
Whether you love horror movies and watch them all the time or you only allow yourself to get dragged to one fright flick a year, you really need to check this one out. Hearkening back to a more innocent age of fright flicks, it’s a simply told and yet very inventive house of horrors that has scares, incredible tension, and a surprising amount of heart. See it with someone who won’t mind if you wind up in their lap.
The Conjuring opens everywhere on Friday and despite featuring no nudity, graphic violence, or profanity, is Rated R for – get this – “Terror”