Oppressed by vapid characters, hapless storytelling and one-note thrills, James Wan’s The Conjuring is yet another unsatisfying entry in the supernatural horror genre. This is the sort of picture that is very hard to pull off decently, with most paranormal-based films swerving too far over the line and into goofball territory.
Wan’s movie is no different. Perhaps the appetite for decent horror in North America is so overbearing that anything that doesn’t rely on visual effects or good old-fashioned gore is lapped up like syrup-covered pancakes, but it’s almost impossible to argue that The Conjuring does anything new for the genre.
In the year 1971, Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron move into a new home with their five daughters. A series of strange events pile up, including the death of the family dog and a pigeon. Carolyn is experiencing strange bruises and the kids are complaining of sounds in their room. When things really get nuts, the family seeks help.
That help comes in the form of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, a pair of “ghost hunters” who never resist an opportunity to promote themselves. The Warrens immediately detect a hellish presence and set up shop. It is determined that the home will need an exorcism, which means that authority from the Catholic Church is required. But before the Vatican can answer the bell, the fiend tightens its grip.
The Conjuring takes its elements in earnest and never questions the demonic or the repulsive “literal” reading that the Salem witches actually were schoolmarms of Satan. All the characters trust in the narrative and there is no reason to suspect any other explanation because Wan doesn’t plant any uncertainty.
In using all of the typical genre elements, Wan’s film walks the beaten path on its way to some rather primary “scares.” A continual horn blast that sounds like it could come from either a far-flung train or a Viking ship is jogged out where necessary, while door-slamming, leg-pulling, hair-pulling, and jump scares form the bulk of the visual frights.
With these disappointingly well-known cliches in place, it’s up to the characterization and the story construction to set things right. Unfortunately, the ungainly and littered screenplay makes that impossible. From the get-go, the script went through difficulties. It was initially designed to focus purely on the haunted family, with eventual changes shifting the focus back to the Warrens.
The screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes therefore tries to serve two masters. It doesn’t focus on any character group long enough to generate emotion or concern, so the audience is left vaulting between a demonic doll that’s a far cry from the “real” Raggedy Ann it’s supposedly based on, the ceaselessly shilling Warrens and their daughter (Sterling Jerins), the Perron family, and an eventual link to the spirit of Bathsheba. It’s all very messy.
Despite a decent performance from Farmiga, nothing links the audience to the characters. They’re almost breathlessly insipid, with no identifiable characteristics or quirks outside of a stock day at the beach. There’s little reason to care about what happens to the Perrons and little reason to care about the Warrens, especially given the lack of any scepticism or discourse about what they believe.
For all the daffy efforts to sell The Conjuring as some sort of atmospheric roller-coaster, the fundamentals don’t work and the Warrens’s 20-year quest to make something out of their questionable tale flops around like a dead fish. Wan’s movie is another in a long line of “real life” paranormal kicks at the haunted can, adding nothing to a bleary genre but more flavourless bumps and thumps in dark corners.