Film Review: The Conjuring (MA15+) (USA, 2013)

With horror films these days, it’s difficult to avoid either the “torture-porn” sort of films – SawHostel etc. – or the “found footage” stylings of the surprisingly never-ending Paramormal Activity series. But for those who hold the genre close to their heart, it’s hard not to look back to films like The Excorcist or The Amityville Horror and crave a more “classic” style of the genre. Well, the director of the original Saw seems to agree, and has taken us back in time with the brand new film – released in Australian cinemas today – The Conjuring.

In taking us back to the “haunted house” films of the past, director James Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes make a concerted effort to keep true to its very traditions. They use many of the same tricks, from the “something’s under my bed/in my closet” routine to creepy clowns living in ancient toy boxes. Then there’s the title treatment and grading, all designed to give the film an authentic 1970’s feel. They don’t want to reinvent the wheel – rather, they want to make it as close to perfect as they can, fitting in as many references to the “good old days” of the genre as possible along the way. And in this they have been successful; within the genre of haunted house horror films, you’re unlikely to find a more superior film released in the last few years than this one.

The film follows two families – a feature unusual for the genre, but something that makes it an immediately enticing tale. We start off by meeting the Warrens – played by Vera Farmiga (Up in the AirBate’s Motel) and Patrick Wilson(WatchmenHard CandyInsidious – also directed by Wan), who are best known as the demonologists from The Amityville Horror story and the resulting (ten!) feature films. The Conjuring is based on another of their “files” and in this instance, those behind the film have opted to give the Warrens as much of a focus as that of the tormented family. We get a look at the way the Warrens work and how their work effects their lives. As for the tormented family, they are found in the Perrons, with Lily Taylor (Six Feet Under and the similar The Haunting) and the always brilliant Ron Livingston (Office SpaceSwingers) as the matriarch and patriach.

The film indeed has some impressive names attached. Usually, though not always, this is a strong indicator that a solid script has attracted them to the project. If of a higher budget, sometimes it just means they just followed a good paycheck, but in this case their talents are far from wasted. All involved in the film manage to make a story that sits so far outside what the average person would consider “reality” into something relatable and engaging… well, as relatable as a story about a demon toying with a family can be, anyway…

The story starts the same as any haunted house story does: a family moves into a reasonably old, large and secluded house in the American countryside. They discover a basement, start having nightmares. They wake up with bruises, their daughters – there are five of them – start sleepwalking and having visions. The visions have names. The family, frightened to sleep in their own house, seek out the help of the Warrens, who were speaking at a nearby university about their experiences as demonologists. Reluctant at first thanks to a recent incident endured by Lorraine (Farmiga), the couple head along and immediately know they need to help bring this family’s torment to an end.

By this point, the audience has enjoyed plenty of scares as we followed the Perron’s stuggles, but it’s the introduction of the Warrens to the scenario that sees the film get really interesting, becoming something of a detective story… of the paranormal variety, of course. We are also introduced to characters such as a local cop who doesn’t believe in any of it, until he sees it for himself; a discovery – and a character – which adds humour to the situation. They balance these aspects of the film well.

There are a few weak points to the film – firstly, the score didn’t work for me, with the timing never feeling quite right. Perhaps on purpose, though possibly a decision made in the editing room that just didn’t pay off. The songs they chose were usually quite clever for the story, but again the timing was always a bit off. But it never got in the way of the telling of the story.

Then we get to the part of these sorts of films that often inspires criticism: the ending. In this case, it’s a bit abrupt and at the point at which the demon takes over the host, things do get a bit silly; though they surprisingly decide to take it to the extreme here, not holding back in the slightest. It’s that perseverance of content that gets it across the line. Sure, one could argue the whole concept is “silly”, but at the same time there are plenty of people out there who take what happens in these stories very seriously, so it’s all relative to our own judgement and perception of the topic at hand. All that matters for most of us is that we’re scared and entertained, and this film ticks both boxes in its stride.

Like with all of these films, though it’s based on a “true story”, you’re never sure what to believe. It’s the nature of most of us to question these sorts of stories as nothing more than “superstitious” or the tales from the diaries of a “religious nutjob”. But given the fact there is both photographic and video evidence of a lot of what was seen on screen, plus interviews like this with the subjects, you can’t help but leave the film wondering what really happened here – and that’s not a bad quality for a film of this nature.

What Wan has put together here is an incredibly enticing version of events that will truly excite fans of the genre. It’s been a long time since a genuinely decent haunted house film has hit our screens – Cabin in the Woods being the only exception I can think of. With that in mind, The Conjuring might just be the must-see horror film of the year.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Conjuring is in Australian cinemas as of today, in wide release.