Sunday, August 04, 2013
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s the 70s and a hard-working couple with several children move into a rambling old house in the middle of nowhere. They’ve sunk their life savings into the property and are looking forward to a new start. Their pet dog refuses to enter the house. Their youngest child finds an old music box and makes an imaginary friend who might not be so imaginary after all. Another child sleepwalks and sees things. Clocks stop at exactly the same time every night. A boarded-up stairwell is discovered, leading down a cobweb infested basement. Pictures jump off walls. Doors open and close of their own volition. The mother of the family suffers from bruising that doesn’t seem to have any apparent cause. As strange events proliferate, the family prevail upon the help of paranormal investigators who unearth a history of dark secrets and violent events connected to the house.
‘The Conjuring’ does nothing you haven’t seen in several dozen other movies, right down to the period setting which evokes ‘The Amityville Horror’. Its achievement, though, is generally doing these things better than those several dozen other movies. Avoiding their pitfalls. Skirting it, but never quite tipping over into melodrama. Not overly relying on CGI or whiz-bang effects (an exception, involving a bedsheet torn off a washing line in a gale, pays off with such a careworn image that it shouldn’t work … but somehow does).
Engagingly old-school, ‘The Conjuring’ takes its time in establishing the characters. Let’s meet the family, truck driver Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their daughters Andrea (Shanley Cresswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) and April (Kyla Deaver). Okay, Carolyn’s a tad “gee whiz” naïve/optimistic and Andrea’s pretty much got the whole emo sulk routine off to a fine art, but on the whole these are decent people. A regular family. You wouldn’t balk at having them as neighbours. You care what happens to them. That might sound like an obvious thing to say, but you wouldn’t believe how many genre films I’ve sat through whose characters I’ve either not engaged with (‘The Haunting in Connecticut’) or actively disliked (‘Frozen’).
As the ferocity of the paranormal incidents increases, the Perrons engage the services of renowned ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), from whose case files the story is taken. And hence that twinge of familiarity: they were at Amityville, and they investigated the Smurl family haunting, on which ‘The Haunting in Connecticut’ was based. I guess ghosts and malevolent spirits just took to a certain kind of New England real estate and acted in remarkably similar ways whenever the Warrens were around.
The Warrens had their detractors throughout their career, and how closely the film chimes with the actual psychic investigation four decades ago isn’t something I’ve been able define based on some cursory internet research into the couple. Nor does it seem a worthwhile exercise. The film throws out its “based on true events” card from the outset and we all know how spurious that “based on” tag can be, what a multitude of sins it can hide. What’s up for debate here is how well ‘The Conjuring’ works as an example of its genre, as a work of entertainment. Did it give me the creeps? Yes, and then some. Did it make me jump? Twice, both scenes using the same visual motif.
I’ve seen nothing of director James Wan’s work beyond the inaugural entry in the ‘Saw’ franchise, and was underwhelmed to the point that I let the rest of the saga happily pass me by. I’m told that ‘Dead Silence’ was horrible in many ways (if memory serves, Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy coined the term “fucktrocious” in his review), and ‘Insidious’ reasonably effective if boilerplate. ‘Insidious’ has now been added to the rental list, and the rather pompously titled ‘Insidious Chapter Two’ is definitely on the big screen radar. I’m curious to find out – and it may well be an investigation as freighted by the unknown as any of Ed and Lorraine’s – exactly where James Wan became such an accomplished craftsman.