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In Theaters: THE CONJURING (2013)

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THE CONJURING
(US - 2013)

Directed by James Wan.  Written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes.  Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Joey King, Hayley McFarland, McKenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins. (R, 112 mins)

James Wan may have directed 2004's SAW, one of the key horror films that kicked off the much-maligned "torture porn" subgenre, but he's used it as a means to an end.  Upon turning that franchise over to others, Wan has revealed himself to be an old-schooler when it comes to genre fare.  He hasn't always been successful--2007's DEATH SENTENCE was a good idea, but ended up a tired and uninspired DEATH WISH throwback that had one memorable chase sequence and little else, and the same year's DEAD SILENCE was a seemingly archaic "evil ventriloquist dummy" movie that flopped because it seemed too tame and passé for SAW fans but might be worth another look in retrospect.  Wan took some steps in the right direction with 2010's sleeper hit INSIDIOUS, which was a great fright flick for 2/3 of its running time before collapsing in the home stretch.  With THE CONJURING, Wan finally gets it right with a haunted house/possession film that's shockingly light on the gore but earns its R rating the old-fashioned way:  by masterful audience manipulation and sheer, nerve-wracking tension relentlessly ratcheted up to a point where you'll find yourself holding your breath on several occasions.  Wan doesn't break new ground here, but he's studied the classics and he knows what works and exploits it to its full potential.  Wan knows that the real horror lies in the unseen and the suggested.  He lets that build over the course of 80 or so minutes until it finally explodes in a horrific onslaught that's almost a relief because we're no longer dealing with the anticipation of shadows, slowly creaking doors, faint whispers, pounding on walls, a chair rocking itself, a bouncing ball, or the piercing, almost mocking glare of a creepy doll.

Based on the experiences of controversial husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), best known for their investigation of the Amityville house in 1975 and since labeled everything from groundbreaking paranormal researchers to hardcore right-wing religious zealots and outright kooks, THE CONJURING focuses on a pre-Amityville case in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1971.  Trucker Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters move into a lakeside house made cheaply available at a county auction.  First their dog Sadie refuses to enter the house, and is found dead outside the next morning.  Then all the clocks in the house stop at 3:07 am.  Roger finds the basement sealed off, with the previous owner's possessions still there.  One of the daughters starts sleepwalking and another has a new imaginary friend named Rory.  Another daughter sees a figure standing behind a door and another is attacked by a ghostly specter that vanishes.  Carolyn starts developing unexplained bruises all over her body.  She attends a Warren seminar and pleads with them to come and look at the house.  Instantly, the clairvoyant Lorraine senses malevolent forces in the house and on the surrounding property, including one particular spirit that she describes as the angriest and most hateful she's ever encountered.  Convinced of the validity of the Perrons' story, the Warrens and two assistants set up shop in the house to conduct their investigation, as Ed believes the house may be possessed and an exorcism required.  But the spirit has other ideas, zeroing in on a particular individual to possess while also latching itself onto the Warrens.

There's no plot details in THE CONJURING that you haven't seen before.  But where Wan succeeds is in the way he presents it.  With the exception of a few instances of incidental CGI (one involving a bed sheet that briefly takes human form), it feels like a movie that could've been made 30 or 40 years ago, and not just because of the impeccable period detail.  It takes time to build the characters, allowing us to get to know both the Warrens and the Perrons and making their mutual ordeal that much more emotionally involving as well as balls-out terrifying.  Too many of today's horror movies don't take the time to do this and they suffer for it (also note the several long and intricately choreographed, uninterrupted tracking shots of the Perron home early on, done to both show off and make sure the audience gets a grasp of the layout of the house). The performances, particularly Taylor, who's really great here, are top-notch.  The film is so defiantly old-fashioned in many respects that when there actually is a bit of over-the-top violence, it seems out-of-place and just a little shocking simply because we then realize just how effective it was without any of that.  And while the work of the Warrens themselves--Ed died in 2006; Farmiga consulted with Lorraine for the film--has been scrutinized over the years and much of it, especially the Amityville case, has been deemed suspect, it doesn't take away from the effectiveness of the film overall.  Take out the opening crawl with "Based on the true story," and you still have one of the most solid horror films to come down the pike in quite a while, perhaps not quite on the same "classic" level as THE HAUNTING (1963) or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), but still the source of some powerful jolts that you don't see much of anymore, proof that a modern horror movie doesn't always have to be all up in your business and rubbing your face in it to show how "intense" and "real" it is. 






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