‘The Conjuring’ is like one big spring break for spirits

Vera Farmiga stars in "The Conjuring."
July 25, 2013

Ghost stories, whether on screen, in a darkened room or around a campfire, are all about delivery. It’s the slow cadence of the storyteller, the attention to the details that lurk in the shadows and the timing of the “punch,” where the goods are delivered with thunderous enthusiasm.

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If there is one thing “The Conjuring” does not lack, it’s thunder. Doors don’t merely open and close, they creak and moan like a 100-year-old ship moored to a dock in a windstorm. Pictures do not fall from walls, they rumble off and land in a glassy explosion on the floor. It is a veritable paranormal party palace. In fact, the featured haunted house in “The Conjuring” is like one big spring break for spirits.

All of this boom and bass tells us exactly when we are supposed to be scared, but is its story enough to make it linger past the initial jumps? Director James Wan cut his teeth with “Saw” (actually, he cut other people’s teeth, but you understand). It was an effective, gritty little thriller that unfortunately spawned countless sequels that focused more on guts than glory. He then had an inexplicably popular “Insidious,” where he took a paranormal pathway that also starred Patrick Wilson, his star of “Conjuring.”

Wilson is Ed Warren, half of a husband-and-wife demonologist duo with his wife Lorraine (played by Vera Farmiga), who is the psychic of the family. They are based on actual, psychic researchers who have spent a lifetime investigating some of the most renowned hauntings (including the now completely debunked “Amityville Horror” house, and the questionable Snedeker family featured in “A Haunting in Connecticut”).

Here we have yet another “based on a true story” account where otherworld entities are unwilling to share a home with its newest tenants, the Perron family, in 1971. Just because the majority of the film’s “facts” are in dispute does not mean it cannot deliver the goods when it comes to jolts and jumps.

And while it certainly turns up the volume at just the right times, and it's one of the most artfully made horror films in quite some time (Wan certainly has an affinity for effective camera usage), it doesn’t manage to be more than a few bumps in the night.

The main demon is apparently a centuries-old witch who hung herself at the house and has since passed time by making mothers kill their own children. She’s now after the Perron brood, including mom Carolyn (played by Lili Taylor in a dedicated performance) and dad Roger (played by a Ron Livingston who could have used a possession to give his character some life) and about a half-dozen daughters, distinguishable only by age.

And that is the main fault of the so-close-to-good “Conjuring.” We are treated to some possibly interesting characters, but never get to really know any of them. We have little detail about the family dynamics, save for one old family movie of them all frolicking on the beach. We are offered a glimpse into the Warren’s home life (they have an adorable daughter who they often leave in the care of her mother while they go ghostbusting), but not enough to really care.

As far as the “true story” aspect, I’m a little tired of this tag (there are 46 films marked as such for 2013 alone). While most of the supernatural events are privy only to the Perron family, the film does make it seem as though they hightailed it outta there at the first sign of the hauntings, but they actually stuck around the dwellings for about a decade. I’d be ready to torch my house if I had to deal with bedbugs for over a month, so they must be a patient bunch.

It’s all fitfully frightful when it needs to be, but little more. There’s no doubt a lot went into “The Conjuring” - taking equal parts “Amityville Horror,” "Paranormal Activity” and “Blair Witch Project.” Even the Warrens are presented as a potential precursor to Mulder and Scully from “The X Files,”  but the film's poltergeist parts don’t add up to a holy hell of a lot beyond that.

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