Let me say right off the bat that THE CONJURING isn’t scary, and I get scared easily. I open letters addressed to the estate of my deceased neighbour demanding service charges for non-existent electricity and gas supplies even though they know the property is unoccupied and I GET SPOOKED.
E-On: they bill dead people.
THE CONJURING is based on the true testimony of the Warrens and the Perrons, who together sound like the cast of a Kevin Costner western epic, HATFIELD AND MCCOYS. It is about an evil spirit so malevolent that it required over forty years for Hollywood to tell its story and it still comes across as PARANORMAL ACTIVITY with a bit of AMITYVILLE HORROR, POLTERGEIST and CHILD’S PLAY thrown in, without the real nasty gore.
Yes, kids who like gore fests, turn away now!
THE CONJURING goes for that EXORCIST vibe: titles black on yellow, the slow crawl up the screen. In 1971, we are told, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren confronted the aforementioned malevolent spirit and, boy, what an anticlimax!
As I write this, my computer just asked to find out my location – spooky.
The point of the film is to tell us evil exists, well, the big D-Man does. What are you doing in a movie theatre, you should be in church! The power of movies compels you.
Well, as Jonah Hill says in THIS IS THE END, it isn’t that compelling.
The story, as sizeable numbers of Americans already know, begins in 1968. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) visit a student house. There is a spirit there and it asks the occupiers permission to possess an old doll, Annabelle. Annabelle isn’t just a cute Cindy-type thing. She’s a full-on mannequin: painted eyes, painted lips and a mouth open about to speak the unspeakable.
‘Aren’t you too old for dolls?’
Yep, she is a chiller!
The doll apparently moves about by itself, scrawls all over the walls and leaves notes in red crayon: ‘miss me’.
Lorraine is a clairvoyant. She knows that evil spirits don’t possess dolls. They possess people. There really is a bad-ass spirit in the house and just taking the doll away won’t help. A full-on exorcism is required.
Cut to a lecture hall. Ed and Lorraine live to tell the tale to a sea of extras competing to raise their hands.
‘What happened to the doll? Did you, like, destroy it?’
‘It’s in a safe place.’
Yeah, a room full in bad luck objects in their house which they have to get periodically blessed - that’s safe!
The film has an odd rhythm, intentionally slow, but we know from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that audiences will put up with that. Moreover, it’s a true story – that’s like extra licence for tedium.
Ed and Lorraine have a young daughter. She is curious about THE LOCKED ROOM. Well, who wouldn’t be? Is that where mommy and daddy do nasty things? ‘Eat your oatmeal!’
At the same time as we see Ed and Lorraine go about their daily lives, the Perrons move in to an old clapboard house in the country, Mom (Lili Taylor), Pop (Ron Livingston) and five young daughters. ‘Do I at least get to pick my room?’ asks the eldest who has attitude.
The dog Sadie won’t go in the house. Animals sense evil spirits. They get scared. Really? So why don’t spirit hunters have guide dogs? Who needs UV lights when you have man’s best friend?
Spooky stuff happens. The dog dies. Birds throw themselves against the window. Mom starts getting bruises. A spirit takes part in the ‘hide and clap’ game. The clocks all stop at 3:07am and there is old stuff locked away in a basement that the family never knew existed. One of the girls sleepwalks more frequently. The youngest girl sees a boy, Rory, in the mirror of a Jack-in-the-Music-Box style toy. He’s her new friend.
At this point I shall do the decent thing and explain no more. The point of THE CONJURING – odd title – is that you should discover the truth about what’s going on and watch things escalate. We learn that evil spirits manifest themselves in three stages: infestation, oppression and possession. What these demonologists never explain is why these spirits don’t just cut to the chase? Why do they lend themselves to the gradual ratcheting-up of suspense? Do they have agents?
If you are frightened by loud noises and face biting, this is not for you. There is nothing in THE CONJURING that I had not seen before and I am not even an aficionado of these movies. I can warn you that it takes the Warrens a long time to meet the Perrons. Director James Wan really stretches it out. This is a date-friendly ‘horror’ film because it isn’t too bloody. If it has a subtext, it is that men are afraid of women, their abrupt mood swings and their bi-polarity. Women were treated as witches in the 18th Century; they are treated as bitches now, but in this kitsch version of horror, they can, with some help, get over it. THE CONJURING is about a reinforcement of patriarchy. So why exactly are audiences lapping it up?
Reviewed at Cineworld, Trocadero (Shaftesbury Avenue), London 18:40 screening, Friday 2 August 2013 (opening weekend in the UK)