Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver
This Renegade reviewer has a bit of a fascination with paranormal investigation, the occult, and the Warrens. Having lived in the New England region in a past life for about half a decade, one of my greatest regrets was not attending one of the annual ‘Warrenology’ events. Every year around Halloween paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, founders of NESPR (the New England Society for Psychic Research), put on a lecture event that included footage, photos and discussion of some of their more famous cases (including but not limited to the Smurls and Amityville). Buying a ticket also got you a tour of the Warren’s occult museum, a room in their house where Lorraine still keeps objects from past possessions that may serve as links to the other side (Ed passed away in 2006 but Lorraine still puts on the yearly event with her son-in-law, Tony Spera). For anyone interested in this type of research, it still offers some “up close” time with folks who have seen some…interesting phenomena.
While the Warrens have popped up on television reports here and there (tends to happen more locally in New England around Halloween for a holiday-related puff piece these days, one would guess) and Lorraine has been on a few paranormal investigative shows such as A&E’s Paranormal State, The Conjuring marks the first time that the couple is profiled on the big screen. And judging by the quality of the film and the reaction of audiences and critics (85% of critics and 90% of audiences like it on Rotten Tomatoes, and it is projected to win the weekend box office opening with over $41M), it won’t be the last. (The film does end with that suggestion — not a cliffhanger or smash cut or anything like that, just a suggestion — that it won’t be.)
Let’s be honest up front: there’s nothing particularly new going on in James Wan’s latest horror film. But the classic ideas and methods of building suspense and jump scares employed are exceptional, due in no small part to the director. Wan frames things deliciously with many slow burn scenes that ratchet up the tension to sometimes uncomfortable levels, letting the camera dance back and forth in a crowded basement or along a hallway, left to right and up and down until the viewer is dreading the eventual reveal. When jump scares are used, they are earned and don’t come off as cheap. The only drawback to some of these (actually, perhaps some of the best of them) is that they have already been revealed in the trailers. And fans of Wan’s work will be happy to hear that things don’t fall apart in the second half of the film like many felt happened with Insidious; the high levels of acting, direction and pacing are maintained throughout the film with the minimal amount of hokey moments. (There’s really only one scene towards the very end of the film that was a bit over the top which took me out of the movie for a second, and it had to do more with a bad makeup/dialogue choice more than anything else.) James Wan is really hitting his stride as a horror director that can do a lot with a minimal budget (The Conjuring cost about $20M to make and will more than double that in its first weekend), and it is this reviewer’s hope that he knocks it out of the part on Fast 7 and then returns to his roots to do more films like this.
In addition to the direction, the acting on display in The Conjuring is also top notch. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Lorraine and Ed Warren are nothing but believable in their paranormal convictions and commitment to each other. Given their line of work, this is crucial to the success of their onscreen portrayal; luckily there are no actors present, including these two, that give any inclination that performing in a horror film is somehow beneath them. Lili Taylor, God bless her, is great; quiet, sweet and meek with just a hint of crazy as always seems to be the case for most of her roles, it’s great that someone of her ability steps wholeheartedly into a film world like this but I often wonder why she keeps taking those meek/crazy parts. In this instance, the way her character changes towards the end of the film may be one reason; she ends up with what must have been the most fun role to play on set. Her onscreen hubbie Ron Livingston is also earnest enough to make us forget about his days at Initech.
Special mention must be made of the child actors in the film. A little plot summarization would probably be of benefit here: stay-at-home mom/wife and long haul trucker husband Carolyn and Roger Perron (Taylor and Livingston) move into an old, slightly dilapidated country house in Rhode Island with their five daughters. Bad stuff starts happening, Ed and Lorraine get called in, more bad things happen, etc. (Once again, it’s all in the way it’s done.) The girls of varying ages playing the five Perron daughters are, quite frankly, amazing in their roles, another testament to Wan’s abilities as a director. They were all utterly convincing in moments of play, joy and terror, another reason the film works so well.
And that’s really what it comes down to. The shocks and suspense of The Conjuring deliver, primarily because of the viewer’s investment in the characters. The Perron family is genuinely likeable onscreen, and as a result we feel their dread and want them to be okay, would help them if we could like the Warrens do. And as a fan of the real-life Warrens, who by all accounts were as kind, determined and utterly devoted to each other and their research as their onscreen interpretations, it’s Farmiga and Wilson who shine the brightest. I noticed in the credits that Lorraine was a consultant on the film; I hope she is proud of the movie and happy with both her and her late husband’s depiction.
Do yourself a favor and go see The Conjuring, especially if you’re a horror fan. It’s an enjoyable, fun ride. If you’re not a horror fan, go see it anyway; because of the talents and commitment of everyone involved, The Conjuring is a great horror film but also much, much more. It hearkens back to days of The Exorcist and The Omen, which held elements of familial drama just as much as scares.
Epilogue: The only real issue I had with the film is the Annabelle doll. The doll they came up with certainly was creepy, don’t get me wrong; however, had it been my call, I would’ve went with the real life Annabelle – a huge, oversized Raggedy Ann. To me, that’s just much more creepy. (My daughter has a small one; they can be disturbing if you look at them too long.)