Things That Go Bump, by James T. Sheridan
A sleepwalking little girl. An eerie pond in the backyard. The world’s most ominous tree. A hidden cellar. Scores of birds crashing into the house. The list goes on and on and on. Despite its seriousness in presentation and effective frame narrative, James Wan’s new horror film, The Conjuring, contents itself with being encyclopedic, rather than bold, leaning hard on its “Based on a true story” bona fides and an increasingly chaotic second half. Still, it is a mostly well-crafted and occasionally exhilarating film; Wan’s work might be best appreciated with a crowded summer audience that jumps, laughs, and gasps en masse.
The Conjuring introduces demonologist and clairvoyant couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) through the lens of an interview involving another case with an evil doll that seems to move and torment two young women. From the onset, Ed and Lorraine listen intently and earnestly, taking in the tale with a gravity that seems to set the tone for the entire film. The Warrens love each other deeply, and they speak with great intensity, whether to a college auditorium or just each other. True believers, their history of battling evil, as well as their confidence in their own abilities, are reflected in an early scene in their room of possessed objects containing the debris of untold adventures. They allude to getting too close to their last case and the damage done on them each time they come to battle with darkness.
Gradually, Wan brings the Warrens into the orbit of couple Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) who have just moved into a large, spooky house in Rhode Island with their five adorable daughters. Early scenes in the house have an ominous undercurrent of dread as the camera follows characters in and around the rooms and hallways during the daytime, knowing full well that in the dark, those same spaces will transform into a maze of shadows and darkness. The crisis starts slowly; one of the daughters feels a slight tug on her leg as she dozes and tells her sister to knock it off. Another girl sleepwalks and is found in a corner, steadily hitting her head against an old wardrobe. Carolyn notices strange bruises on her body that seem to have no origin. Wan balances these early scenes of growing terror with the girls playing a hide-and-go-seek game involving clapping and the discovery of a piano and old furniture in the cellar. In a way, part of the fun of the film involves seeing how Wan introduces a concept and then trying to figure out how he will milk suspense out of it. Soon, the Perrons experience doors that open and close on their own, the appearances of figures in their rooms, and worse; all this leads to a shaken Carolyn seeking out the Warrens after a lecture and begging them to take a look at their case. Sympathetic to her plight, they agree to take a look, uniting the two stories, and the remainder of the film becomes the Warrens’ investigation of the house, its history, and its torment of this family.
Farmiga and Wilson display a workmanlike gravity about their characters, and Taylor and Livingston deliver fine performances as the distraught parents. Wan injects humor into the film in much-needed small doses through some supporting characters, and he evokes the atmosphere of the early 1970s nicely through fashion, cars, a snippet of music here or there, but nothing overly distracting. The relentless, claustrophobic nature of the film means that nearly all scenes transpire in the home of the Perrons or the Warrens, accelerating the creepiness of staircases, long hallways, and open doors. By keeping the focus inside the house, the film has clear boundaries, and this anchor allows the filmmaker to invent ingenious ways of scaring the audience. At times, Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti invert the camera, offering a child’s eye perspective under a bed or perch the camera on the ceiling above a staircase to create disconcerting images of characters. Many of these shots work quite well, though the film has a penchant for overdoing it with the opening and closing doors for shock scares. There is a charm in watching Ed Warren work a cassette recorder, mammoth headphones, or a huge microphone; setting up a camera for one shot is an elaborate process and seems quaint when compared with our Paranormal Activity films now and omnipresent cameras.
The Conjuring’s throw-everything-at-the-audience-plus-the-kitchen-sink ending prevents it from becoming a truly great horror film and ultimately undercuts the film’s power. It becomes generic rather than specific and rooted in its place. Instead of making the choice to stick with one or two primary threads and play them out fully, the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes unravels by the end, offering up every possible scary idea at the audience. These decisions deflate the previously established story. The film’s climactic moment seems rather murky, offering little insight into how a main character reaches this level of power and collapsing a bit under its intensity. The Warrens remain enigmatic and curious characters rooted in something, though Wan never quite fleshes out what that is.
I have no doubt that the film will summon a giant audience this weekend. For the most part, The Conjuring delivers creepy thrills and dark moments, never expecting too much from its audience other than a grueling, albeit temporary, intensity.