When the close-knit Perron clan (headed by a laid back Ron Livingston and lovely earthy Lili Taylor) move into a bucolic New England home on a deceptively serene lake, it’s not long before this old house they bought at auction begins raising hell. Who you gonna call in the era before basic cable paranormal investigators? Ed and Lorraine Warren – played in their pre-Amityville Horror days by Patrick Wilson (partially raised eyebrows and all manly reactions) and Vera Farmiga (wily, caring and determined). The spectacular scenario is wisely set up by jumping back and forth between the two families who soon collide in a supernatural cataclysm.
The Conjuring, James Wan’s startling and enormously entertaining Destroy All Ghosts! story, plays like a montage of horror’s greatest hits from the past twenty years.
Based on a true story? DUH!
Groovy period setting? It’s 1971, baby.
Dark cobwebbed basement? What did you expect?
Creepy old tree with branches for grabbing…or hanging? Oh, yeeaaahh.
Spooky music box? They got that!
Demonic doll? What else would there be?
Stereotypical psycho-terror “What’s wrong with Mommy?” mumbo jumbo? Check it.
En vogue possession scares? We got this.
Kids in jeopardy? Five, count ’em, five…no wait, six…no wait, seven (if you include the one kid ghost)! We got your kids in jeopardy, folks!
Wan and his screenwriters place all your classic tropes in a blender and somehow, miraculously, make it work.
Or maybe it’s not so miraculous. Maybe it’s just cool, calculated genre thrills well-played by a director who knows the ropes and continues to mature every time he climbs them. Wan’s progression from Saw to Insidious to this has been quite the pleasant surprise.
The cast is spot on. You care about this Perron family. You believe the Warrens (whether you believe their real-life counterparts or not) and you want to know what made this house become a den of ill will and malevolent spirits. Wan plays it straight without ever passing judgment. There are early fake-scares, red herrings and things that go bump in the night. But when things get real, he wisely shows the horror/ghosts from both the point of view of those being scared and of those coming in to rescue the terrified. Kids turn somersaults to look under their beds, and invisible entities move objects and toss bodies around rooms like rag dolls. But not everyone sees everything, a keen visual play on the audience, full of believers and skeptics. What Wan convinces the audience of is that these characters were truly scared…of something…and that evokes empathy in the audience and creates a rising sense of suspense around the supernatural events on-screen.
Even I was tickled by the filmmakers throw all caution to the wind take on things we’ve all seen before. They stick hard-core to the based on a true story conceit and when you find out what allegedly was going on in the house…it’s so let’s throw every ghost scenario against the wall and see what sticks that it could have turned into parody if they hadn’t kept everything so deadly serious. It had that odd effect of making the audience laugh to release the tension…because if this was true…shit…I mean, shiiiiiiiiit. DISCLAIMER: I do not believe in any of this kind of stuff…but it’s fun to imagine what’s going on in the minds of people who do, and it’s fun to watch the stories people cook up to explain the unexplainable.
Which, in the end, is what this is all about: having fun in a dark theater with a group of strangers along for the same ride. All good things come to a head in The Conjuring’s shrieking and emotionally sincere finale, and when the pitch perfect music and sound effects come to a stop, and the cast is able to let out a sigh of relief…it’s in communion with the audience.
Job well done, you crafty conjurers. Now that’s entertainment!
Written by David H. Schleicher