The Conjuring

The Conjuring

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

James Wan's latest sees the Saw originator move even further away from his torture porn roots and deeper into traditional ghost story territory, but the recycling of already derivative ideas from his previous films Dead Silence and Insidious eventually leads to diminishing returns. Luckily for the foolhardy viewer, his increasing confidence with this kind of material and a solid human dimension keep The Conjuring from feeling too stale, while the expertly evoked period setting and old-school style prove even more appealing than in Ti West's similarly retro-tinged spook-fests House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers. How much further Wan can peddle this schtick may be tested with his imminent (and arguably unnecessary) Insidious sequel, but for now he's bound to have another hit on his hands.

Stop me if you've heard this one before... Carolyn and Roger Perron are overjoyed with their new country home, a sprawling farmhouse that their five daughters instantly fall in love with. Soon, however, their idyllic home is beset by inexplicable occurrences, leading to Carolyn enlisting the aid of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. A cursory sweep of the property has Lorraine's clairvoyant abilities detecting an oppressive presence, which will follow this family wherever they go. The Warrens take it upon themselves to rid the Perrons of their affliction, bringing in a disbelieving cop and an eager undergrad to help. It's not long though before the demon's attention is drawn to their own family, suddenly making their mission a more personal affair.

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Wan walks a fine line during the first half between classical scares that never fail to raise the roof in the right hands, and outright plagiarism that's only made tolerable by the period atmosphere and beautiful burnished cinematography. Several shots craftily reference everything from Poltergeist to The Evil Dead, but there are enough surprising camera moves and widescreen-enhanced creep-outs to keep the viewer on their toes. If it sometimes feels like Wan's falling back on the tricks of the trade, he's also often able to spin something unexpected out of the familiar, although the most crowd-pleasing moments are less rule-breaking than the frights he pulled off in Insidious.

Like that sleeper hit, The Conjuring is let down by a messy second half that just becomes dumb, and it's lacking the intriguing realm of the surreal that Wan previously evoked. The threat is both too vague and too cliched, while the continued reliance on non-CGI effects is admirable but but not quite as effective here. By the time the family are being flung about like rag-dolls and bombarded by kamikaze pigeons, it becomes hard to care, which means it's also hard to be scared. Too many other recent genre flicks - from The Pact to Dark Skies - have worked these angles, and arguably more effectively.

Fortunately the performances are solid across the board, particularly from the child actors, who really sell the fear despite becoming somewhat interchangeable in the second half. There's a nice sense of balance between the two central couples, although a little more dramatic tension wouldn't have gone amiss - there's no sense of dysfunction beyond the present fantastic events, nothing to relate to other than their palpable affection for their loved ones. This is a refreshing change from the usual tactic of domestic drama intermingling with and abetting the demonic interference, but it also makes each family feel like a one-note unit. The reliably earnest Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and Ron Livingstone are all a little bland, while Lily Taylor gets more to do than the others and certainly attacks her role with gusto, but some of the latter half theatrics grow unintentionally laughable.

It's nowhere near as ambiguous or imaginative as Insidious - the title is a misleading distraction for something so obvious - and it's pretty clear why the script has taken 20 years to get pushed through: it's hopelessly unoriginal, and simultaneously right on the money for the post-Paranormal Activity fad-fans. It's perhaps also indicative of studio string-pulling and double standards that Daniel Radcliffe vehicle The Woman In Black was granted a 12A cert - it's pretty much on a par with this in terms of intensity, although Wan's more refined sensibility definitely leads to more effective suspense sequences, and his fans would have been put off had this been anything less than a 15.

The veracity of such a hokey 'true story' is dubious given the assembly line of TV shows and pictures the Warrens can be linked to, from The Amityville Horror right through to underwhelming 2009 effort The Haunting In Connecticut. To his credit though, Wan wrings some real emotional investment from his characters, backing up his claim that it was the chance to portray real people that drew him to the project. It's this solid dramatic backdrop that elevates The Conjuring out of its ghoulish ghetto, making it something more than a fairground ghost train. It could arguably do with being 15 minutes and a few boos shorter, but it's a crowd-pleasingly old-fashioned thrill ride, sure to please horror fans and mainstream punters alike, though it certainly won't be remembered as a classic.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2013
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A family find that their new rural home is already occupied - by something supernatural.
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Director: James Wan

Writer: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Year: 2013

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

EIFF 2013

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