National Lampoon Magazine once featured a “horror movie calculator” or something like that. I am recalling this from decades ago and I didn’t even buy the damn thing; I just read it standing in the drugstore. Anyway, it a hierarchy of choices, such as “Monster cannot be destroyed by a) nuclear weapons; b) bombs or torpedoes; c) guns; d) villagers with torches”. I saw right away that almost all the horror and sci-fi movies I loved could be easily generated by a fairly limited number of such options.
The Conjuring (2013) certainly could. Does the action take place in a) a haunted house; b) Tokyo; c) outer space? Select a. Are the primary characters a) a couple; b) a family with children; c) a group of potential heirs to a fortune; d) a group of ghost busters; e) criminals hiding out. Select b and d.
Despite that, TC is a rocking good horror movie. It has more than its share of genuinely scary moments and the primary elements of the horror craft are consistent through the film. I would point out immediately that one of the trailers is very misleading. It leaves you expecting to see one more mockumentary. Except for a few brief scenes, this is a traditional film.
The Story ****
In 1971, the Perron family, consisting of Carolyn (Lili Taylor from Hemlock Grove), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, moves into an old house. An escalating series of terrifying events convinces them that they are not alone in the house and that the ghostly presence means them no good.
The action shifts back and forth between their story and that of Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), two veteran paranormal investigators. We watch as they come to the aid of a family menaced by a genuinely terrifying ventriloquist dummy. The Warren house turns out to have a room containing the dummy and other cursed objects. Why not destroy them? It’s best to keep the genie in the bottle. They also have a young daughter.
The two stories weave together when Carolyn Perron enlists the Warrens to come to their aid. Along with their team, the Warrens unravel the mystery of the cursed house and the land surrounding it. Armed with that information (along with crosses and holy water) the battle between good and evil is joined.
The film purports to be based on a true story. The Perrons and the Warrens are real people and, so far as I can tell, Rhode Island is a real place. I doubt very much whether anything in the film really happened.
The casting was near perfect and the acting very good. Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga were equally compelling in vulnerability and fierce resolve. Patrick Wilson’s portrayal of the ghost hunting Ed Warren is crisply authentic to anyone who has spent some time in small town churches. He looks a bit like Pat Boone. The children were all very fine as well, especially Joey King.
The film is strongly scripted. The initial story of the demon doll draws us immediately and effectively into the realm of horror. The weaving together of the two sets of characters and stories is very effective. As I watched one of the stories, I kept wondering what was happening to the other folks. I can’t say that there was any moment in the film that didn’t hold my interest.
The dialogue was solid, with only a few gaps and frayed threads in the narrative. The mood of more or less ordinary people facing a steadily increasing menace was consistently maintained.
The Catholic Church plays a supporting role in the story. Ed Warren decides an exorcism is warranted but he is not qualified to perform one so he seeks the help of a priest and, in turn, the Vatican. His deference to Church orders is a small but very robust element in his character and it gives the story an old fashioned feel that is very welcome here.
Likewise, there is an element of paranormal science in the Warren’s story. We see the two giving lectures. In one lecture, Ed tells us that the worst cases proceed in three phases: Infestation, Oppression, and Possession. First, the demonic presence attaches itself to its targets. Second, it breaks down their resistance with repeated terror. Finally there comes possession. I don’t believe in demons or magic, but I like the idea of such things in fiction and such quazi-scientific demonology makes it feel more authentic.
Finally, there is a bit of demonology that is worth reflecting on. Ed Warren explains the difference between two kinds of disembodied spirits: ghosts that once walked the earth as living beings and, he can’t quite say “demons” so says only “the demonic”. This distinction gets fuzzed a bit in the plot, but it is robust enough to raise a few hairs on this neck.
Visual Effects/Action *****
The film does well by avoiding contemporary special effects. The action works by people moving down corridors, crawling through crawlspaces, and falling down stairs. Oblique camera angles and partially glimpsed backgrounds are the primary visual strategies.
There are also a number of devices that work beautifully in the context. One is a hide and seek game that the children play and the mother is enticed into. The seeker ties a cloth around her eyes and feels for the hiders. Three times she can all out “clap” and everyone has to clap twice. I am not spoiling much by telling you that there are more sets of clapping hands available than there should be.
It is not impossible for a big studio to make an effective horror film. This one is pretty damn good. For thousands of years our ancestors lived in a world populated by invisible, malevolent spirits. They depended on priests and shamans to protect them. Whether we have left that world or not is an open question. One function of horror fiction is to entertain us and perhaps enrich us by bringing the view of our ancestors back into focus. Sit down with The Conjuring for a couple of hours and see if it is like remembering something you once chose to forget.