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Entries in Conjuring/The [2013] (1)


The Conjuring (2013)

Boo Operator

It's fitting that James Wan has been tapped to direct the next Fast & Furious movie. His decade-long filmmaking career has been marked by repetition, a deliberate sketching and rearranging of familiar elements into homogenized blockbuster fare. I imagine he'll fit right in with Vin Diesel's gang of daredevil-criminal pensioners.

As copycats go, Wan is hard to beat. Like Quentin Tarantino, he adds just enough personal flair to make audiences believe they're seeing something quasi-original. Tarantino at least dabbles in different genres, whereas Wan appears to be stuck in a haunted-house version of Groundhog Day. Excluding Saw (which put him on the map) and Death Sentence (which nearly took him off it), Wan's filmography has been comprised largely of spooky-house/possessed kid movies--four, and counting. This would be fine if they were unique, or at least interesting, but these carbon copies are differentiated only by marketing materials and star power. They're also naked homages to 70s and 80s supernatural thrillers--a style the director pulls off handily, but which traps some audience members in a perpetual state of deja vu.

Though Wan's latest, The Conjuring, is no different, it is at least the most perfect state of derivation he is likely to achieve in this genre--which may be why he's moving on to greener (or at least different) pastures. To clarify, when I say "most perfect", I mean the film only works if you happen to be eleven years old or a transplant from a newly discovered jungle tribe. No, The Conjuring simply takes all of the narrative and visual elements that Wan and others have thrown at the silver screen for the last forty years and paints a coherent mural of creepiness (how effective the scares are depends, again, on your exposure to such films and the quality of your theatre's surround-sound).

Let's run down the check-list, shall we? Bonus points for picking out Wan's signature elements versus stuff from, say, Poltergeist (aka "the cheesy, old version of Insidious"):

  • Loving family moves into a house with a terrible secret
  • Family terrorized by initially harmless phenomena that become increasingly violent
  • Paranormal entity latches onto a five-year-old kid
  • Family seeks help from weird paranormal investigators
  • Paranormal investigators set up cameras and other recording equipment in the house
  • Ghost messes with one of the investigators when he wanders off alone

Did I miss anything? Oh, yeah...

  • Jump-scare in the form of something creepy appearing behind a clueless Patrick Wilson
  • Creepy, scuffed-and-battered ventriloquist doll that's probably alive
  • Possessed doll attacks a child while parents struggle to get into the room
  • Red-and-white spiral designs inspired by circus iconography
  • Rainy, pre-climax mad-dash to a motel where it is discovered that a possessed main character has driven back to the haunted house*

One could argue that other popular sub-genres have similar lists of tropes that don't keep them from being entertaining (or even original, occasionally). That's a fair point. But in, say, the slasher genre, audiences return for the creative kills; zombie movies play on various social dynamics that often have nothing to do with the threat at hand; even Creepy House movies can be fun, provided we're not just looking at another eerie kid appearing in a second-story window. Wan is in full-on rinse/repeat mode here; his only innovation is sometimes not having something scary jump out of the shadows as his camera whips back and forth.

Despite my boredom with three-quarters of this movie, I'm still kind of recommending it--though certainly not as a theatrical experience. The reason to see The Conjuring is its terrific adult cast. As the ghost-chasing/debunking Ed and Lorraine Warren, Wilson and Vera Farmiga are mesmerizing. They store cursed artifacts in a sealed-off vault that takes up a good portion of their house,** and entrust their pre-teen daughter and live-in mother-in-law to stay out of trouble while they roam the country searching for poltergeists. I would've loved to see a movie (perhaps a comedy?) about this wacky family dynamic.

Instead, I had to settle for the Perrons, Carolyn and Roger (Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston), and their five rowdy daughters. Again, the adults stand out, offering up a portrait of a couple with troubles that came about long before their new house began whispering to the kids. But the movie isn't about them; it's about things that go bump in the night and all manner of...ahem...paranormal activities (yeah, put that series out of your head, too, before venturing to the multiplex for this one). In fairness to the performers, I really bought into the characters' emotional struggles for about fifteen of the climactic twenty minutes--a weird phenomenon I attribute solely to the actors' ability to sell writers Chad and Carey Hayes' weak material.

Much like Insidious (and, for that matter, Pacific Rim), your enjoyment of The Conjuring relies entirely on A) the number of similar films you've seen in your lifetime, and B) the degree to which you can convince yourself that you've never seen any of them while watching this movie. James Wan has made his latest haunted house movie about as thrilling and unpredictable as a fourth-tier carnival spook show. The best supernatural thrillers follow us into the parking lot afterwards, heightening our senses beyond all rationality and turning the slightest noise into ghostly provocation. All that followed me out of The Conjuring was a nagging feeling that I could've spent the previous hundred minutes in a much wiser fashion.

*Whoops! That one's from The Last Exorcism.

**This reminded me a great deal of Curious Goods, the antique store from Friday the 13th: The Series--though the Warrens' "real life" story came first.