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Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: The Conjuring

Horror, as a film genre, is in rough shape these days. I can count on one hand the number of horror films that I've enjoyed in the past ten years. James Wan has been anointed as a semi-savior for Horror films amongst its faithful, with "Saw" and "Insidious" obtaining both popular and critical success. I found the former a fairly interesting excursion that sequels and copy-cats took the wrong lessons from, and the latter was a mess. I went into "The Conjuring" hoping that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga could carry the day, unfortunately, it's tough to overcome a terrible script.

"The Conjuring" opens in 1971 Rhode Island, as Ed and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move into a house they recently purchased at auction from the bank, along with their five daughters. By the first night, strange occurrences start to pile up, gross smells, slamming doors, and strange voice being heard. Eventually this ratchets up to ghostly projections and terrifying nights for the Perrons, so much so, that they enlist the assistance of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Farmiga), famous paranormal experts and demonologists. The Warrens set up shop in the Perron household and begin the process of trying to rid their family of the demon, while battling a few fears of their own.

The film begins treading well-worn, but familiar enough ground. Utilizing, a semi-flashback storytelling device, the Warren's relay one of their most famous cases to an audience of college students revolving around nurses that are haunted by a possessed doll. It's an effectively creepy sequence, dilapidated toys always are and sets a nice tone for where "The Conjuring" could possibly go as the doll is part of a larger collection of toys that Ed Warren has collected in their long history of cases. The problems immediately begin to set in though when the Perron family is introduced and the movie elects to take on a standard haunted house trope-filled narrative. Rather than examining The Warrens and their longer history, they basically are no more than the Van Helsings of this tale as we as an audience are forced to split our attentions and sympathies between the titular duo and the far less engaging larger family with five indistinguishable daughters. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the haunted house tropes that Wan pulls from weren't so derivative. The story here is your standard The Amityville Horror meets The Exorcist without any of the tension of either.

Wan has one trick up his sleeve, the jump-scare, and it only works a few times in the entire 2 hour duration of the film, in a delightful scene involving a music box and a mirror. Everything else is completely telegraphed by its music cues which constantly undercut any tension. How can it be frightening to an audience when we already know that something is coming? There should be an element of surprise, but much like "Insidious", Wan doesn't have enough faith in his own imagery to not add completely clunky musical cues to ruin it. Not that the imagery here is all that interesting to begin with.

Perhaps the biggest crime, is the film's poe-faced claim to the veracity of being a true story. Again, this too would be fine, except this claim is completely undercut by elements such as Lorraine having super-psychic powers, and the utterly supernatural possession that occurs in the third act (or the idea that a state trooper would join the investigation randomly). You can either say something is "based upon" true events, or is complete fiction, but the moment you claim everything is true to life, yet add off the wall plot developments, the work becomes harder to take seriously. A better filmmaker (say David Lynch) would have cast these bits that ruin the experience aside and would have found a way to ratchet up the creepiness factor that doesn't require you to brace yourself for loud clanging noises, which is all the film offers in spades.

It's not all a lost cause, Wilson and Farmiga were the drawing card for this reviewer, and they give their yeoman's best work with what they're given and come this close to almost making it worthwhile. It's also nice to see Taylor in a film again, which is an all too rare occurrence, but no one else really acquits themselves in any way. But with this derivative a script, going through the motions seems like the obvious thing to do, except they wear period dress and bad side-burns while they do it.

I walked into "The Conjuring" hoping to finally have a horror film I could embrace within these recent years, instead I walked out thinking I had seen not much more than a derivative and overhyped exercise in everything that's wrong with the genre. I'm beginning to think when it comes to James Wan, the emperor really has no clothes. At least it wasn't as bad as "The Evil Dead" remake or "Sinister", so that's something.

I give it a C- 

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