It’s 1971. Ed Warren is seated in the Perron’s kitchen with a tape recorder, a size so novelty that today’s audience can only laugh. Ed and his wife Lorraine—paranormal investigators—are explaining demonic possession to the average joe’s, Carolyn and Roger, who are being followed by ghosts. Ed whittles possession to a bite-sized, easy-to-follow chunk: “It’s like gum on your shoe.” They don’t go away that easy, he says. This is the world of The Conjuring. Director James Wan is solely in this for scares. He uses short, quick sound bites to hurriedly move the film along and avoid it being bogged down in exploratory monologues. If this were a straightforward b-grade horror (in many aspects it is) where everyone died at the end except for the quiet loner, such a thing would deserve exclusion. In this case however, we’ve been presented with two real-life characters, the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), whose knowledge on the paranormal is excruciatingly rich and intelligent Wan has unfortunately reduced them to spouting platitudes in the guise of a lecture theatre.
But Wan isn’t concerned. What’s important here isn’t technical know-how: this is about fear. And violence. And scares. And throwing-everything-you-have-at-it-until-you’ve-thrown-too-much.
Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston) are married with five young daughters, the youngest being an estimated 4 years old. He drives a semi-trailer for work and she’s a stay-at-home mum, struggling to make ends meet. They’ve moved into this house in Harrisville from New Jersey on account of their big family needing more space and things start to get strange when on the first morning of their arrival they find their dog has mysteriously been killed overnight and all the clocks have stopped at 3.07AM.
Their story operates parallel to that of the Warrens but it’s eventual the two worlds will collide. We know they’re the right people for the job because the film opens with a couple of young nurses working graveyard shifts who are complaining about an incredibly creepy doll that has invaded their house—their mistake was inviting the spirit in—and welcomes them home by vandalising their apartment with red crayon and writing creepy notes that read “miss me?” The Warrens are pros because they explain the doll is used as a vessel to hold the spirit, though this seems like an obvious conclusion regardless.
Wan loves cinema and, like his previous offerings, this is his ode to the stacks of films adorning his assumed library in his living room. He was so desperate to start a career in filmmaking, after he filmed the guerrilla feature Stygian he and his occasional writing partner Leigh Whannell used $5,000 of their own money to shoot a short in order to secure financing in LA after local efforts failed for two years. What eventually became Saw is an exercise in low-budget horror Hitchcock, with varying levels of success.
Since then, Wan has loosely sought to emulate his heroes but at the expense of originality. He is yet to capture the excited fear that concluded his first feature, that moment where the dead man rose from the ground. Death Sentence has far too much in common with the third act in Taxi Driver and Insidious feels like a carbon copy of every other b-grade creepy-kid flick. With The Conjuring (which shares a lot in common with Insidious and the ignored Dead Silence) he’s finally got the balance right—tense scenes, good scares, plausible b-grade character development—but not developing it much from there. It’s an obvious hallmark back to the horrors of the 1970’s, namely The Amityville Horror (just as Insidious was a dedication to the same decade) but Wan isn’t interested in doing anything new with it.
In dedicating his films to the past, Wan is having a hell of a time but it’s not resulting in anything overly great. His audience loves his low-budget, simple approach (if the $100m-plus box office takings are any indication) and so they should: his uncomplicated style is charming and easily approachable. But the charm only works for so long before falling away and unfortunately the second half of the film isn’t strong enough to make up for it. We’re given a glimpse behind Wan’s curtain and all we can see is the spines of his favourite horror films lining the shelf.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
THE CONJURING is released in Australia on the 18/07/2013
Nicholas Brodie is a writer with big hopes and tiny dreams. Possessing an MA in Film he is on hand to provide opinion pieces and reviews on what's new and, hopefully, still relevant.