Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: "The Conjuring"

"The Conjuring" dredges up nearly every trope of the exorcism subgenre of horror, and faithfully puts its characters and the audience through the paces. It doesn't do much of anything that we haven't seen before, but what it does it does mostly well.

Director James Wan gained notoriety with "Saw," kicking off the (thankfully) now-waning "torture porn" fad. Here he turns to more cerebral frights, based on building a sense of dread mixed with sudden scares. The first half really drags, but once they get to the hard stuff of demonic possessions and thrashing exorcisms, it's a genuine thrill.

(I should point out that the R rating from the MPAA seems hard to justify. There is no cursing, sex or drugs, and though there is a constant threat of violence, very little of it actually occurs. "Overly forbidding" wouldn't seem to be part of the association's charter, but there you have it.)

Usually with these sorts of movies, the focus is on the family plagued with an ominous spirit, and the paranormal experts show up about halfway through. Here, the demonologists are just as much a part of the story as the haunted.

Like many movies of this ilk, we're assured that the events we're seeing are based on a true story. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were real-life occult investigators, who tried for decades to get a movie made about themselves. The idea is that although they have a really strange job, the Warrens are perfectly normal folks with a strong marriage, Christian values and a loving daughter.

We get to see them presenting film and audiotapes of their disturbing cases on college campuses, and it's pretty eye-opening stuff. One possessed man has bloody tears and speaks Latin, despite having only a third-grade education. Of course, what they encounter in the movie is far worse than anything they've seen before.

Parallel to the Warrens' story is the Perrons, Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston). It's 1971 and they have just bought an old farmhouse cheap at auction to live with their five daughters, ranging in age from cute little pixie to surly teen. The house seems like a dream come true until, as they say, strange things star to happen.

Things go bump without explanation, clocks stop at precisely 3:07 a.m. every night, and the younger girls start to see things looming in dark spaces. They bust through a boarded-up stairwell and find a basement loaded with all sorts of cool stuff that just screams, "Evil spirits residing here!"

The strength of the film is depicting the Warrens as careful, rational people with lives outside their demon-hunting. For instance, Lorraine is a clairvoyant, meaning she can get a sense of the spiritual aura of things and people just by being near them. But their ghostly encounters each cost her a little piece of her own emotional stability.

Farmiga brings a matter-of-fact calm to her role, an unflashy sort of competence and groundedness that offsets nicely with her character's supernatural talents. The kid actors all acquit themselves nicely, particularly Joey King as the initial target of the spirit's ire.

I respected the craft with which "The Conjuring" was made, and its attempt to insert a little sober rationality into a familiar ghost story. It won't haunt your dreams, but this film will creep you out sufficiently for a couple of hours.

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