‘The Conjuring’ Review
Some film directors were sent to us, by divine right, to perform certain tasks. Much like Martin Scorsese had a calling to stitch together long, swooping takes of criminal behavior set to the tunes of the Rolling Stones, director James Wan also has a providential purpose. It's a very specific way of giving you a heart attack.
It's not just the “jump scare.” That's far too simple. As Wan showed in 'Insidious' - and does so even more so in his new film, 'The Conjuring' - he is the unrivaled champion of a specific sort of hold-your-breath scene, where you know the jump is just about to happen. But he holds it. And holds it. And holds it just a little bit more. And just when you think it's a goof or a head-fake, BLAM!, the thing you knew was going to pop out at you, pops out you - and there's a good chance you just shouted and made a fool of yourself.
This makes for a great time at the movies – or even for watching at home with the lights off. In this regard 'The Conjuring' is a success. The other side to this, however, is the story. It's no dumber than the usual supernatural horror flick, but it also isn't any better. You've seen it before, you'll see it again.
In broad strokes: Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) move into an old house with their five daughters. They discover a hidden cellar. Then everyone starts smelling rotten things. Doors shake. One of the girls is sleepwalking like crazy and, ohmygod this place is definitely haunted.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are the "real life" demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. You first meet them as debunkers a la "Red Lights," but you'll soon see that their tussles with evil have been real, and they are taking their toll on this couple.
Carolyn is able to convince the Warrens to come to their house and very quickly, the psychic Lorraine knows this is no joke. All the dialogue in the film (and it is rather silly dialogue) is nowhere near as effective as just seeing Farmiga get twitchy and turn cold in the presence of "dark forces."
The Warren team springs to action, setting up cameras and microphones. You are led to believe the spectres will refrain from revealing themselves (like last year's 'The Awakening,') but, no, 'The Conjuring' is pretty quick to go all-in with the freaky.
In time you'll learn the mystery of the house, but it is almost comically anti-climactic. There's an old tale of a crazy, possessed mother, and when Farmiga's character starts shouting revelations its hard to know if this is supposed to mean anything or if she's just reciting the synopsis to 'Mama.'
Luckily, the big finish is very well shot, with furniture flying everywhere and Lili Taylor acting her guts out, and the entire movie has a high contrast/color desaturation that makes every frame look beautiful.
The twist to 'The Conjuring' is that there is no twist. Wan asks you to stare into the spiraling mirror in a creepy-ass musical box that slowly plonks out its out-of-tune melody while inside you are thinking, "Aw, hell no." Obviously there's going to be something spooky in the reflection, so clearly the gag will be that something else will happen. But when nothing happens for just the perfect amount of time for you to let your guard down, that's when the face appears. It's as if Wan got this formula devised by NASA or something.
So what does this all mean for 'The Conjuring?' Isolate and examine it and, much like things that go that bump in the night, it won't hold up. Take it as part of a larger event with friends and good laughs and 'The Conjuring' is a great time at the movies. Move how your spirit guides you.
'The Conjuring' opens in theaters on July 19.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.