Ed Warren was the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Vatican. His wife Lorraine claims to be clairvoyant. The couple founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952 and made a career out of conducting investigations into—and, when required, interventions with—the paranormal. If their names ring a bell, however faintly, it’s probably on account of their most famous case, one involving a house in Amityville, Long Island, the subject of a movie I used to sneak behind my parents’ couch to watch late at night when I was a child and it seemed to be on TV all the time.
The Conjuring, on which Lorraine Warren served as consultant, renders another of their remarkable cases into a “based on real events” horror film. To what degree those real events have been exaggerated or wholly invented, either by the Warrens or by screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, is hard to say. There were times in the second half of The Conjuring where I felt that more restraint would have gone a long way toward helping me suspend my disbelief. Still, the film, directed by James Wan, is easily one of the most effective entries into the haunted house subgenre in years.
The Conjuring takes place on Rhode Island in 1971. The Warrens are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, costumed to resemble Puritans making some lame attempt to look semi-hip. Their performances exude respect for the Warrens and their claims, though Wilson’s willingness to let Ed come off as something of a well-meaning square imbues the role with some pleasing texture. The Warrens’ services are solicited by Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), a working-class couple who recently moved into an enormous bargain-priced farmhouse with their four rambunctious daughters. The house needs many repairs, but such tactile concerns are quickly dwarfed by inexplicable rancid odours, pictures that keep falling off the walls, and clocks that keep stopping at 3.07 a.m. Carolyn starts developing enormous bruises she can’t account for and one of the girls sees a figure standing behind her bedroom door declaring that it wants her family dead. For a while, at least some of these unnerving developments could be regarded as manifestations of the sorts of anxieties any family might feel when relocating to a secluded place and starting a new life without much financial security. Like so many ghost stories, The Conjuring plays as a cautionary tale about dubious real estate investments.
Of course, the creepy incidents accumulate well past the point of ambiguity, and things get bad enough for the Warrens to call in an exorcist. But even as The Conjuring starts to exhibit full-on supernatural phenomena, Wan wisely measures the atmospherics. In keeping with the period, the film derives a certain flavor from horror films of the ’70s, in its use of devices such as ostentatious push-ins, for example—though an incredibly elaborate follow-shot feels very much of this century. There’s a clever POV shot taken from under a bed, and a sequence in the Perrons’ basement that shrewdly limits the soundtrack to only what is picked up by Ed’s microphone. Wan’s mature style (as opposed to the style employed in films like Saw) is put to much better use here than it was in the overrated, undercooked and fussily designed Insidious, and thanks to Taylor especially—who really gets put through the ringer—the film’s engagement is sustained to a substantial degree on account of the cast, which is not a claim most contemporary horror films, so often dependent on tired tropes and boo moments, can make.