The Conjuring does the haunted house movie right
Haunted house movies have become an excuse for bigger and bigger special effects, but ‘The Conjuring’ leaves most of the scares to your imagination.
I love a good haunted house movie, but so many of them have just been done so badly over the years with the advance of special effects technology allowing filmmakers to put just about anything on the screen that they can imagine, usually to the detriment of the story and the scares. In the first half-century of motion picture history, directors had to rely on imagination to scare audiences, spooking them with what was unseen rather than putting it all front and center (something a young director named Steven Spielberg also used to great effect in a little film called Jaws). Many consider 1944’s The Uninvited to be one of the greatest haunted house movies ever made, but I don’t think it holds a candle to 1963’s The Haunting, a film that relied on the heard but unseen to send shivers down the spine.
The Haunting was subjected to a woeful remake in 1999 with Lili Taylor as the young woman besieged by spirits during a haunting investigation (in the original, you never knew if there were real ghosts or if the character was simply losing her mind … or if other forces were at work), and at that time I was disappointed with Taylor’s choice in selling out her indie cred for such a bombastic piece of Hollywood trash. But now, Taylor turns up in a new haunted house movie, The Conjuring, and I can happily say all is forgiven.
The Conjuring is about a particular haunting incident in Rhode Island, but it’s more the story of two paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens have a reputation for sussing out the reasons for supposed hauntings, usually debunking them, but they had become very well-known in the 1970s for their investigations, most notably one involving a house and family in the small town of Amityville, NY. The Conjuring takes place before the events in Amityville (although there is a sly reference to that upcoming case at the end of the film) with two cases, one of which involves a doll that is being used as a vessel for a demonic possession that plays into the main story of the Perron family in Rhode Island. The Perrons have just moved into a house they purchased from a bank without any background information on the previous owners (they don’t even know the house has a basement). Once the family becomes terrorized night after night, mom Carolyn (Taylor) seeks out the Warrens to help. What they find is shocking, to say the least.
Revealing too much of the film’s plot would only serve to diffuse the scares (as has already been done with one of the best scares revealed in the trailer), so I won’t go into too much detail. What I can say about the movie is that director James Wan knows how to set up a scare and delivers without over-doing it too much with unnecessarily loud sound effects, false jumps or ominous music that telegraphs what is about to happen. Best of all, Wan refrains from showing us a bunch of CGI spooks, sticking mostly to physical effects – a sleeping child’s leg being jerked is simple, but effectively creepy – and actors portraying the spirits in deathly makeup unnervingly appearing and disappearing. Wan even manages to throw in a little nod to the original The Haunting with the familiar pounding sound effect while the camera focuses on a wall.
Taylor redeems herself from her initial “haunting” as the mom who would go to any length to protect her family and she gets put through the wringer. Ron Livingston plays the husband, but he gets relegated a bit to the background and is the one always asking “what’s going on?” Wilson and Farmiga are terrific as the Warrens, depicting the couple as two people who were put together for a reason, and when that reason endangers Lorraine’s life, Ed will do anything to protect her. The real Warrens have a long list of stories (Ed is deceased, but Lorraine is still with us) to tell, so if The Conjuring is a success we can look forward to seeing more of Wilson and Farmiga doing their thing.
In an age where haunted house movies have become excuses for overblown special effects extravaganzas or cheaply produced “found footage” films, The Conjuring serves up the scares the good old fashioned way, letting us see just enough of the horrors Lorraine is able to see while allowing us to use those visions to create even more horror in our own minds. Three cheers to Wan and company for doing the haunted house movie right, and here’s to more adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren.