The Conjuring reminded me of when I was a young teen (maybe even younger than that) watching The Amityville Horror (1979) when it was first aired on British TV. I remember hiding behind a cushion every time the angelically-voiced signature score warned of the imminent arrival of a supernatural event, gagging at the infestation of filthy flies that choked the priest (Rod Steiger) as he tried to bless the house, and being repulsed by the gluey blood seeping from the walls and stairs. I thought it was a great film (I knew nothing about movies back then, or did I?).
I understand now why The Amityville Horror is regarded as an inferior film, but I don’t understand why many of the ‘haunted house’ movies in the last half decade want to be The Amityville Horror. Is James Wan’s (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) The Conjuring any different?
Set in 1971, The Conjuring involves real-life supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively), who were involved in investigating the ‘true’ supernatural events of the Amytiville story (The Conjuring is another true story taken from their files). We’re introduced to them as their skills are sought by a couple of female flatmates who have naively allowed the ghost of a dead girl to ‘possess’ a particularly ugly doll (Wan clearly has a thing for dolls). Imagine their shock when the Warrens tell them that the ghost is actually a demon planning to possess one of the two friends.
The Warrens take the doll home and lock it away in a room set aside for the countless scary relics they’ve collected during their many years of paranormal investigations (yep, we know exactly what’s going to happen to this doll later in the film, don’t we?).
Skip a few years later to Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) as they move into their new home, along with their five daughters and pet dog. After an unusually long introduction to these characters, during which their dog is killed, the odd suicidal pigeon flies into their house (Hitchcockian reference, anyone?), and we’re left to wander whether everyone’s just being paranoid, a daughter is finally dragged out of bed by an unseen entity and the furniture begins to fly.
Enter the Warrens once again, who have withdrawn from their paranormal investigations and now tour universities giving lectures about their work. A nice scene shows them investigating the ghostly happenings on a farm, a separate case that they soon wrap up by explaining to the nice owners that the evil howls and cackles they’ve been hearing during the dead of night is simply the wind blowing through some pipes in the barn. The Warrens of The Conjuring are not out for financial gain or fame. They’re the real deal, true professional paranormal investigators. So when Carolyn Perron approaches them for help, the Warrens are reluctant. They’re thinking about retiring in order to spend more time with their daughter, and traveling to the Perron house will just prove to be more pipes in the barn. Yet, there’s more to Ed’s reluctance than first meets the eye. He feels his wife becoming distant and is worried that the years of paranormal work have taken their toll on her. His priority now is to protect her, but when he realises that evil spirits are truly terrorising the Perrons, he knows that he and his tired wife have no choice but to help.
The logical solution would be for the Perrons to move out, but Ed explains that the spirits would follow them – “It’s like treading in gum…” (the real-life Perrons remained in the house for ten years, hmmm…). So the Warrens set up shop in the Perron’s home, placing cameras throughout the house and rigging up sensitive listening and recording equipment (in a sequence that riffs on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist). They soon discover that the first owner of the house was a witch condemned in the Salem Witch trials, who killed her child, proclaiming the Devil ordered her to do it. Oh dear.
The movie then climbs into overdrive, enlisting every horror cliché seen since The Amytiville Horror – doors that open and close on their own; things under the bed; children with invisible friends; psychic premonitions; crawl spaces; an eerie cellar; a doll; a music box; ghosts; possessions; exorcisms, ghostly faces invisible to the naked eye reflected in mirrors and windows, etc., etc. The most effective of the scares are when Carolyn plays hide and clap with her youngest daughter, only for the ghosts to join in (which made the first trailer so effective), and a spectral witch skulking atop a wardrobe, only to leap on one of the unsuspecting daughters. Unfortunately, this is when The Conjuring falls short – it does nothing new with these genre conventions. We’ve seen them all before. Maybe they’ll prove effective on an inexperienced teenager (that is, somebody who hasn’t watched a lot of horror movies and who is clearly the target audience here), but for somebody who has seen almost everything this genre has to offer, the jumps and scares don’t work. And that’s currently an intrinsic problem for the horror genre – how can it deliver new and fresh scares for this type of audience?
When the scares arrive, we genuinely care about what happens to them, heightening the horror and suspense.
Wan, and screenwriting siblings Chad and Carey Hayes, simply choose to circumvent this problem by using a very basic technique – pacing. The first half of the film is given over to introducing the Warrens and the Perrons, an unusual decision in an age where audiences crave immediacy. Any newbie director or screenwriter using this slow-burning technique would undoubtedly be forced to alter the structure, but Wan can get away with it because he’s already established. The effect is that the story then has time to develop character, to get the audience to sympathies with their situations, and bring us a lot closer to these people than most other horror films do. The result is that when the scares arrive, we genuinely care about what happens to them, heightening the horror and suspense, even throughout the more clichéd set pieces. The action is ramped up at the end when the spirit of the witch possesses Carolyn’s body with the intention of repeating history by killing her children (isn’t this The Amytiville Horror?). Ed and Lorraine, at a loss as to what to do, perform an exorcism, even though the Catholic church forbids it.
Ed is terrified that this drama will permanently injure or even kill his wife, but when the demon threatens their only child, the Warrens persist regardless. Carolyn is cured but the narrative takes a huge turn here to concentrate on the Warren’s daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins), who is at home being looked after by grandma, in the same house as – you guessed it – the demonic doll from the opening sequence.
This brings about another narrative problem. Yes it’s right that the writers ultimately bring the horror home to the Warrens – they are, after all, the main protagonists – but wouldn’t it have been more effective and more emotional to focus the horror on Lorraine Warren? The writers have spent the majority of the movie building up the fact that she’s mentally weak after years of psychic interaction with the paranormal, and that one more bad experience could kill her. Yet they allow this narrative strand to dangle and instead go after the daughter, who hasn’t been in the movie for the last hour or so. The audience has forgotten about her. She’s not been built up as a character so the audience is expected to have sympathy because she’s an innocent child. That technique will only stretch so far, and in this instance, that’s not far enough. Wan downplays the flashiness of his earlier films, instead coaxing anxiety through motionless framing, ambiguous perspectives, camera glides, tracking shots, and a lack of digital effects or gore that, once assembled, heightens the reality of what we see on the screen and turns The Conjuring into a homage of 70’s cinema.