“Smart and very entertaining..."

Amityville Flavor Permeates Wan's Conjuring

(072613) "The Conjuring" is a film that does not exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to cinematic depictions of haunted houses, demonic possessions and other forms of big-screen paranormal activity. However, it more than makes up for what it lacks in originality in terms of sheer storytelling skill. This is a film that takes some of the oldest clichés imaginable and infuses them with such energy that it actually pulls off the seemingly impossible task of breathing new life into the material. The end result is not just one of the few genuinely worthwhile films of an otherwise lackluster summer, it is one of the most effective movies of its type to come along in quite a while.

Based on a true story, we are assured, "The Conjuring" tells the tale of the Perron family--dad Roger (Ron Livingston), mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and five young daughters--and the horrifying events that occurred after moving into a rambling lakeside farmhouse in a remote part of Rhode Island in 1971. The family has hardly begun to unpack when strange things begin happening to them--on their very first night, the youngest daughter comes across a mysterious old music box in the backyard, there is an awful smell that seems to be moving from room to room and when the morning comes, their dog--who flat-out refused to enter the house at all--is found dead in the yard. From there, things get exponentially worse as Carolyn develops a series of mysterious bruises all over her body, all the clocks stop at 3:07 AM every morning and the family photos hung on the wall are all knocked down at once. A round of hide-and-clap (imagine Marco Polo sans the water) takes on a terrifying new dimension as the participants go about it without quite realizing that someone. . .something. . .has joined in the game with their knowledge. By the time the girls are getting yanked awake in the middle of the night and Carolyn is lured into the newly uncovered cellar and trapped, it becomes clear that the house may not have been quite the bargain that it once appeared to be.

With nowhere else to go, Carolyn turns to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married pair of demonologists with a room in their home stuffed with haunted relics from earlier investigations into the paranormal--one of which is glimpsed initially during the creepy prologue and then makes an unexpected return at a particularly inopportune point in the proceedings. Most of the time, Ed and Lorraine find themselves dispelling myths about the occult but it only takes a few moments inside the Perron house to realize that there is something very wrong with the place--clairvoyant Lorraine in particular sees hideous visions virtually everywhere she turns. With the aid of a research assistant (Shannon Kook) and a local cop (John Brotherton), the Warrens set up shop with the Perrons in order to gather enough evidence to get the Vatican to authorize an exorcism of the house. During this time, however, the attacks become more frequent and violent and after making some discoveries about the sordid history of the house and its previous occupants, the Warrens finally realize what their ultimate goal is and are forced to take matters into their own hands before it is too late.

On the surface, "The Conjuring" may sound like little more than an amalgam of previous films of the genre as "The Exorcist," "The Amityville Horror" and "Poltergeist." However, while the basic elements may be familiar, the film pulls off the seemingly impossible task of making them seem fresh again. For starters, while most films of this type tend to feature weak screenplays that consist of little more than big shock scenes tenuously lashed together with cheese-ball exposition, trite dialog and characters who are forced to act lobotomized throughout in order to get from story point to story point, the script offered up here by Chad & Carey W. Hayes is a smartly conceived work that avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre. It takes the time to give all the characters distinct personalities so that when all hell breaks loose, we actually have a rooting interest in them. Another interesting thing is the way that religious beliefs of the Warrens are deployed into the storyline--although most films of this type use religion as a prop, this one, without being heavy handed, actually takes it seriously and this aspect serves to enhance both those characters and the story as a whole.

"The Conjuring" was directed by James Wan, who made his debut with the original "Saw" (the type of torture-porn horror film that I have no use for ) and whose previous credit was another haunted family saga, the 2010 surprise hit "Insidious." With this film Wan shows promise at utilizing all the various tricks of his trade to manipulate and unnerve viewers at every turn without relying on the kind of cheap and stupid shocks of the kind found in the dreadful "Paranormal Activity" movies. He quietly but effectively pulls viewers into the story so completely that they will quickly find themselves as unnerved as the characters on the screen. He also avoids the trap of falling into a rut in regards to the scare scenes by varying between long and expertly drawn-out suspense set-pieces and brief but smartly executed "BOO!" moments in which the mere sight of a pair of clapping hands sends popcorn flying into the air. What is most impressive, especially considering how Wan helped inspire the odious torture porn horror sub-genre with "Saw", is that the film is basically free of blood and gore--it may have an "R" rating but that is almost entirely due to its sheer intensity that Wan brings to the material and not because of anything gruesome that it contains.

One of the biggest surprises of "The Conjuring" is how strong the performances are. Under normal circumstances, the acting in a horror movie comes as an afterthought as the actors tend to either be unknowns who have been cast largely for how well they can scream and/or take off their clothes or over-the-hill veterans slumming in exchange for some quick cash. Here, the actors are all top notch and, more importantly, they approach the material with respect instead of condescension--although the film may not necessarily be award-worthy material, they treat it as seriously as if it were top-level Oscar bait. The two key performances are the ones delivered by Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor and both are as good as can be in the way that they play smart, sensible and completely recognizable people, even when they are screaming or dangling in the air, instead of the walking clichés that women in horror movies are usually forced to play. As their counterparts, WIlson (who has worked with Wan on "Insidious" and the already-filmed "Insidious 2") and Livingston are quietly compelling as well and there a number of equally good performances from the supporting actors who manage to portray characters instead of clichés.

Smart and very entertaining, "The Conjuring" is (I can't believe it's me writing this) easily the best major studio film of the summer and one of the finest American horror films of recent vintage, the kind that is good enough to hook even those who ordinarily have little use for the genre as a whole. It has already been deemed an instant classic in some circles and while it might be a tad early for such a designation, this is the kind of film that could warrant it. That said, there is so much confidence that this will become the sleeper hit of the summer that a sequel, presumably based on another on of the stories from the Warrens' case films, has already been announced and if it lives up to expectations, it could kick off a brand-new horror franchise. In most cases, such a thing would be something to dread (Yes "Saw" and "Paranormal Activity". I'm looking at you) but if those proposed continuations prove to be only half as effective as "The Conjuring," it could be the best thing to happen to the genre in a long time.

Directed by:    James Wan
Written by:    Screenplay by Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Starring:    Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor
Released:    07/19/13 (USA)
Length:    112 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and

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