Film review of ‘The Conjuring’: Conjures up chills and haunted house hokeyness

Best known for his breakthrough hit Saw, the sequel-spawning pop-horror juggernaut from 2004, James Wan has now delivered this derivative haunted house story that, like the Amityville series before it, tosses a little demonic possession into the mix. We follow two 1970s storylines: one being a young family moving from the east coast to rural Rhode Island (a tired horror trope) and the other following a man-wife team of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The two timelines converge when the Warrens arrive to battle the evil in the Rhode Island home, but until that point the cutting away from the house comes at the expense of a steadily building tension. Based on the real-life records of Vatican-endorsed team Mr and Mrs Warren, the cynics among us might presume that this ghost-busting narrative framework only exists as an attempt to validate any potential ‘conjuring’ sequels.

It’s all familiar territory, with memories of everything from The Exorcist to Poltergeist but, oddly, that doesn’t work against the film. Rather, it gives Wan a familiar base from which to toy with our expectations. In much the same vein as The Exorcist, we ‘see’ very little in the first hour, rather letting our imaginations discern shapes in the shadows as we witness an increasingly malevolent force only via character reactions. When the visual scares come, there is plenty of genuinely creepy invention. In particular, a game called ‘hide and clap’, a blindfolded version of hide and seek, is used to its full potential – such moments, away from the weak, hard-to-chew dialogue, are the film’s strongest. 

There is a faint sense of wasted potential and good intentions gone astray. Unlike Ti West, whose meticulous stylings on The Innkeepers (2011) and House of The Devil (2009) were textbook examples of haunted house, retro aesthetic, Wan half-heartedly dabbles in this 1970s cinema language (with muted colours and long zooms) only to later abandon it in favour of some fancy camera showboating. Similarly the music score, all restrained strings and icy tingles, annoyingly turns up the schmaltz for more emotional scenes. Unlike West’s films though, The Conjuring will duly reward your patience with all manner of visceral assaults, in a satisfyingly nightmarish showdown.

The Conjuring (15)

Dir: James Wan; US horror, 112 mins, 2013; Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor

Premiered September 12

Playing nationwide