18 July 2013

The Conjuring sure to possess audiences

Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) uses a music box to make one of The Conjuring's many spirits materialize.

Director James Wan, following the international box office success of 2011’s supremely creepy Insidious, returns with the well-constructed haunted house film, The Conjuring. While Wan could have built a successful horror career around the “gore-porn” elements of his earlier Saw (2004), he has instead consistently frightened audiences with suspenseful and unsettling situations. The Conjuring adds another level of terror to Wan’s proven directorial skills with a script based on events from the lives and case files of real-life demonologist couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens are perhaps best known for their investigation of the supernatural events recounted in the book and film versions of The Amityville Horror, and The Conjuring makes several overt nods to the classic 1979 film version of the incident. Rather than the overt references, though, it is the faithful recreation of the same small-town, New England culture of the early 1970s in The Conjuring that most reflects Amityville. Wan treats the setting with just enough camp to bring grins to reminiscent older audience members, but not so much that the film lapses into parody or loses its terrifying momentum. The result is a smart, scary, and self-aware movie that hits a breathless pace midway in and does not let up until the final credits roll.

The Conjuring is not without its missteps, including a couple of comedic lines of dialogue that, rather than complement the horror, seem out of place. Thankfully, none of those jokes are put in the mouth of Ron Livingston, who, despite stints in several dramatic television series, always carries with him the comedic spectre of Office Space. His understated performance and shaggy-haired look in this film, though, make him nearly unrecognizable and keep his Roger subdued. Of the four principle actors, however, he is the least noteworthy.

Instead, it is Lili Taylor’s performance as his wife, Carolyn, that ultimately shines. For much of the film she, too, is subdued, with most of the early action involving the five young daughters of the family. At the climactic moment of the film, however, her shift in demeanor is captivating. The character of a woman sharing a supernatural bond with demonic, domestic forces is a comfortable role for Taylor, having starred in the 1999 remake of the haunted house classic, The Haunting.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who quite capably embody the Warrens, are no strangers to horror fans, either. Wilson also stars in the aforementioned Insidious and Farmiga is fresh off a successful stint as Norman Bates’ mother, Norma, in A&E’s discomfiting series, Bates Motel. The actors move convincingly and seamlessly between scenes in which they are required to perform as academics, as loving parents, and as stalwart combatants against the forces of hell.

If classic drive-in horror is your milieu, do yourself a favor and see The Conjuring. If you prefer the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror to the original, hold out for another Saw installment.

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