Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins
Directed by James Wan
Expectations: High. I’ve heard a lot of hot fire about this one.
Watching The Conjuring made me think about the horror genre, but that isn’t really a good thing. The film highlights aspects of the modern horror film that I feel are exactly what drove the genre into the ground, so instead of being involved and drawn into the film at hand, I was sitting there trying to figure out why I wasn’t doing just that. I enjoyed the film — it’s a fun piece of dumb fluff — but in terms of horror it’s a paltry example of the genre and it makes me sad that this (along with the remake of Evil Dead) are being championed as the 2013 high points of the genre.
The Conjuring is supposedly based on a true story from the case files of a very famous pair of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Amityville Horror was also inspired by their work, but the difference here is that The Conjuring makes the Warrens characters in the film. They bring with them a small team of ghost hunters with audio equipment and fancy cameras to capture the apparitions haunting the house. I assume that a basic haunted house story would have been seen as too easy and derivative, so the filmmakers added this layer on top to distinguish the film from the pack.
While it does do this, these ghost hunting aspects feel pandering to the modern audience obsessed with countless similar UV-light and video camera reality shows on TV. But even this aspect pales in comparison to what I feel is the film’s biggest fault: its inability to commit. The film starts as haunted house tale, similar to The Amityville Horror. Strange things are happening around the house, and it’s clearly some malevolent spirit at work. After some reveals, the film decides that the haunted house thing is boring so it turns into something derivative of The Exorcist. Along the way there’s also fringe references to The Birds and Poltergeist, and a few others I’m sure I missed. It all works if we’re involved with the movie’s logic, but it feels chaotic and unfocused if we’re not. The Conjuring throws a lot at the viewer, but quality is almost always better than quantity.
I can’t argue that the film isn’t entertaining — it most definitely is — but as a horror film I’m left with such a sour taste in my mouth. To me, the horror genre was always outsider art, something too deviant for the mainstream to ever truly get behind. Sure, there were major studio horror films such as The Exorcist or The Shining, but these films exist as anomalies amidst the sea of low-budget and most often independent horror films. The Conjuring is just as slick as you’d expect a 2013 studio film to be, so its haunted world was never convincing to me. There was never an air of raw power or believability to The Conjuring, it always feels like a slick Hollywood movie. To me slick does not equal scary, unsettling or creepy, no matter how many standard horror tropes are thrown at the screen.
I wish I could say that The Conjuring was great, but that would be a lie. As a mainstream horror film I suppose it’s good enough (it’s certainly a better experience than the new Evil Dead was), but as a horror film in the grand scheme of things, The Conjuring is as ethereal and insubstantial as the spirits the paranormal investigators within try to capture on film.