Typically, when a film begins by stating it’s based on a true story then you expect some grounding in the truth. When it comes to the supernatural and the skepticism that runs parallel, it feels an injustice to describe the film so. A true account, perhaps. But a true story? No. However, in a movie that delivers spooky goings on as fact, its veracity is always going to be questionable. Such is The Conjuring (2013, 112 mins.), a movie by James Wan that takes on the haunted house horror trope and delivers a sturdy but generic scarefest that rises above other horror offerings by virtue of their lesser quality.
After an opening gambit involving a possessed doll that serves as introduction to main protagonists, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the story quickly moves on to the Perron family, a couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with five daughters and a dog. It’s Rhode Island, 1971, and the family have picked up an old farmhouse at auction and are in the process of moving in. Minutes barely pass before secret areas are discovered and the dog, exercising a sixth sense, refuses to come inside. Thereafter the disturbances come thick and fast — unnatural bruising, clocks stopping in harmony, doors opening unaided — although the pace never feels rushed. Eventually it all becomes too much for the Perrons, now sleeping communally in the living room, and they call in the Warrens to help.
Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), a demonologist and clairvoyant wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), whose case files inform the story, move in with the family, seeking evidence of the supernatural so as to convince the Vatican that an exorcism is more than certainly necessary. Some research on the house provides back story to all things bumping in the night. And from there it’s event after event, either supplementing the back story or ratcheting up the frights until the denouement.
Areas where The Conjuring succeeds are twofold. First is the main cast, in so much as they put on convincing displays. Even the children, when experiencing the horrors around them, are individually given time to let their distress shine. When the actors believe, the audience believes too. As a result of this, the quality of acting is greater than can typically be expected from a horror film — perhaps because as a franchise stretches itself thin, with its stars long since abandoning it, roles are filled with lesser actors. Secondly, the scares, while not original, are for the most part solid. While the unsteady camera roams the house, offering up unnerving angles or the sense of always watching or being watched we get traditional scares such as ghosts reflected in mirrors, whispering voices, and doors slamming shut. We’ve seen them all before in countless horror movies. For the most part, they just work better here.
The steadfast focus on scares works however to the movie’s detriment. In looking to frighten his audience Wan neglects to offer a deeper thread that can resonate with the viewer long after the end credits. Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking but it’s a consideration that shouldn’t be brushed aside. With the current slew of horror remakes and spin-offs mostly treading familiar ground, there’s a need for an The Exorcist (1973) to suit our times. A film that goes deeper into exploring the nature of horror. The Conjuring is definitely not that film. Its characters go no deeper than being involved in its action. Possibly because, being angled from the Warrens’ point of view, the Perrons are just another case. What they do and where they go from here is not their concern. But even the Warrens, for all the actors’ efforts, need an extra dimension to truly flesh them out.
In one early scene, while the Warrens lecture a university crowd on their investigations, they suggest that people refer to them as both ‘ghost hunters’ and ‘kooks’. The Conjuring takes a side on this debate, opting for the former description. However, while it’s risible to suggest that the supernatural events depicted in this movie actually happened, a willing suspension of disbelief works in the movie’s favour. It’s a finely seasoned stew of horror tropes that too many kooks don’t spoil.