"The Conjuring" Ultimately Succumbs To Cliché

The glory days of horror are well behind us – the 70s and 80s were undeniably the zenith of the genre – so it’s no surprise that 2013 has provided little by way of competition for James Wan’s highly anticipated “The Conjuring.” Arguably, it’s been two decades since we’ve had a game-changing horror movie – Wes Craven’s terrifically sardonic “Scream” – and even that film left a mostly negative legacy thanks to a seemingly endless crop of useless imitators. Sure, the occasional horror pic has seen major crossover success (see: “The Ring”), but most modern theatrical horror releases are intended to make a quick buck and then fade into obscurity. The less said about the majority of straight-to-DVD horror, the better.

The stylistic successes of “The Conjuring” are definite, but they’re mostly negated by its lack of inventiveness, leaving director James Wan marooned on an island of stale ideas that he somehow keeps from eroding entirely. If you’re well versed in the genre, you’ve seen this a hundred times before and won’t find much here to sate your thirst for thrills. I applaud Wan for attempting to make a horror film that eschews violence in favor of atmosphere, but “The Conjuring” is little more than a mildly engaging funhouse ride, rife with slamming doors and “don’t go down in the basement!” moments.

The film, set in the late 60s and early 70s, is centered around two couples, the first of which is based on a real life husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren. The opening scene – easily the best in the picture – sets the stage as Ed and Lorraine interview three young adults about a possible demonic possession. As the duo explains the nature of possession, we see flashbacks of an inimitably creepy doll showing up in different locations throughout the youngsters’ apartment, understandably terrorizing them.

This prologue, combined with a delightfully ominous title card, makes for an undeniably unsettling intro that hints at great things to come. That the title card is accompanied by a “based on a true story” claim, along with a rather extensive backstory laid out via glowing, yellow text only ramps up the tension, as does the obvious attention to detail paid by the costume and set designers. Regrettably, the rest of “The Conjuring” never evokes the same level of suspense and uneasiness.

The second headlining couple consists of Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) Perron, who’ve just moved into a dilapidated farmhouse with their five young daughters. The first act is an extended look into the lives of the Perrons as they settle into their new house. But it’s immediately obvious that they’re not alone. What follows is typical of haunted house movies – the aforementioned slamming doors, exploding light bulbs, and deafening audio cues meant to elicit jolts from the audience. Refreshingly, Wan doesn’t put too much stock into jump scares, but the film’s most startling moments do come from jump-out-of-your-seat moments.

When Roger and Carolyn reach out to Ed and Lorraine, the Warrens reluctantly hole up in the Perron household, bringing in a camera crew to document evidence. An exorcism on the house can only be performed at the behest of the Vatican, whose officials require proof. While bringing all four leads together for the second half of the film assuages some of rinse-and-repeat haunted house tropes – the first act is a definite slow burn – nothing much happens story-wise, other than the screenwriters revisiting the doll subplot, which, while scary, is tangential at best.

James Wan is a capable director, and I think he squeezes every last ounce of juice out of the screenplay and a very capable cast, but it simply doesn’t add up to much. “The Conjuring” might play well with horror newbies, but I can’t imagine that anyone familiar with “The Shining,” “Halloween,” or “The Exorcist” will be terribly impressed by what’s here. Its thrills are sporadic and empty, and the relatively impressive atmosphere on display isn’t unique enough to warrant any kind of effusive praise. At best, “The Conjuring” is a drop or two of rain in the middle of a decades-long horror drought. It won’t tide anyone over for more than a couple hours.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 19, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of disturbing violence and terror)