Warning: the following review contains spoilers. It also happens to be the only review on the web so far (as far as I could find) that doesn't talk about this film in glowing terms. Therefore the fact that I didn't like it may well be my failing rather than the film's. It's not due for release in the US until July and the UK until August, so in the interests of fair play, if you do not wish to have what I thought was the somewhat mediocre viewing experience that is James Wan’s latest horror film spoiled, please look away when you get to the SPOILER WARNING sign. However, if you have seen at least one exorcism flick in the last couple of years there’s really not much here that you’re going to be surprised by.
THE CONJURING is ‘based on the true case files of the Warrens’. I had no idea who these people were until I saw the film. I therefore assumed that they must be an American cultural phenomenon until I asked Lady Probert, who hails from the US, and she confessed to having no knowledge of them either. Maybe you needed to be of an impressionable age in 1971 (ie a long, long time pre-birth to what is this movie’s presumed 15-certificate-targeted audience) to have even heard of them. Or perhaps they just couldn’t think of anything else to put on the poster. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that their most famous "case" was The Amityville Horror, which has me wondering if the whole thing isn’t an elaborate hoax in the showmanship style of William Castle. If it is, then bravo to the film-makers, as that’s about the most original thing THE CONJURING has to offer.
Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are paranormal investigators. Ed is the demonologist who spends his time dealing with the more practical side of claimed paranormal phenomena. He also knows how to do exorcisms, although usually a priest gets called in for that. Meanwhile his wife is the psychic member of the pair, with each genuinely supernatural encounter leaving her with a little less of herself, although in this film she doesn’t seem to display any ill effects that look worse than a mild hangover.
OK SPOILERS NOW! KEEP READING If YOU DARE!!!
Boring Roger Perron (Ron Livingstone) and his insipid wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) have money problems. They move into a great big old farmhouse that has a boarded up cellar filled with scary paraphernalia that they get for a song at auction. Almost immediately their five daughters begin to experience weird goings-on, including seeing the old lady who looks suspiciously like the one from Wan’s DEAD SILENCE & INSIDIOUS. It turns out she’s some devilish witchy baby sacrificer from Long Ago who possesses the mother of the house and gets her to sacrifice her own children to Beelzebub. What a great set up - except that we never get anywhere near anybody, certainly not any of the five (FIVE!) children being anything more than mildly threatened. Ed and Lorraine get called in. Ed doesn’t want Lorraine to come on the latest case as he’s worried it may be too much for her. “God brought us together for a reason,” she says early on, at a point where I was convinced they were charlatan-cum-evangelists who were going to turn out to be the villains of the piece but no - this stuff is all dead serious.
Ed explores the cellar with the lights turned off and when he does need light he strikes matches. “The Catholic church need concrete proof of a possession,” he explains to the non-religious Perrons, but at no time do either of the victims of a possible possession question why an organisation based entirely on faith needs evidence when it’s made an entire belief system out of anything but.
Carolyn needs to be exorcised, but a priest isn’t available so Ed has to do it. Anyone who has watched AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION, or anything vaguely Italian from the 1970s will get a warm feeling of nostalgia as blood flows, slightly scary demon makeup is applied, and various things fly around. It all ends happily, with not a single person dead or even severely injured. In fact the only living thing to die in this film is the family dog, and the insult is compounded by the fact that it’s by far the most likeable living creature in the picture.
THE CONJURING has had a lot of good reviews and I may well be coming across as a grumpy old git with mine, but that’s because I actually have a lot of time for James Wan. I loved SAW and INSIDIOUS and I really liked DEAD SILENCE as well. But if anything THE CONJURING feels like a step backwards. Every shock moment, every jump, is accompanied by the most appallingly loud noise on the soundtrack, just to make sure you get the point. John Carpenter called them ‘stingers’ and reported that he was embarrassed how many he recorded when he made HALLOWEEN. Well HALLOWEEN has nothing on this in the cheap scare department.
THE CONJURING feels like a safe, reassuring film for middle-class and very religious Americans, who will be able to nod sagely at the fact that the non-religious Perrons are initially denied church aid because, well, they’re not baptised (and goodness me they’re poor as well), and that’s the whole reason they’re in this mess in the first place. I’m sure Mr Wan didn’t mean to make a film like that but by the time I left I expected to see a caption stating ‘You Have Just Seen a Public Information Film On Behalf of the Catholic Church.’
I’m being unduly harsh, but James Wan can do better. So much better, and I will watch his next film. But despite some halfway decent scares and a bonkers exorcism climax, I cannot honestly recommend this one. We’ve seen it all before.