Film Review: The Conjuring

A haunted-house chiller that, despite technically accomplished direction and earnest lead performances, sabotages any traces of terror by endlessly referencing the horror films upon which it’s based.

Haunted-house tales don’t come more imitative than The Conjuring, which doesn’t emulate demonic-infestation and possession tales like The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist so much as operate as a veritable compendium of their myriad tropes. There isn’t a scary movie cliché unloved by James Wan’s film, which offers up (among other things): creepy dolls; eerie music boxes (with clown faces!); hidden basements; gnarly trees; desolate piers; cracked and peeling home interiors; ominous clock chimes; flocks of menacing birds; clotheslines blowing in stormy winds; ethereal figures spied in upstairs windows; pictures falling off walls; unsettling children’s games of hide-and-seek; familial lockets; crucifixes and holy water; mysteriously opening and closing doors; loud crashing noises; unholy wailing; ominous whispering; and paranormal experts equipped with professional equipment that records wacko audio voices and takes photographs of ghostly figures. There’s even a malicious female demon with a ghoulish face and a penchant for dousing others in vomit.

From innumerable shoutouts (including, notably, to The Changeling and Poltergeist), to its 1971 period trappings, The Conjuring deliberately takes up residence in the shadow of its genre predecessors. Alas, for all its references—as well as sleek direction full of methodical pans through underlit hallways and cobwebby subterranean spaces—there’s virtually no terror to be found in this supposed based-on-actual-events tale. That concerns the Perron family, whose lives are thrown into disarray after they relocate to a secluded Long Island house rife with supernatural phenomena. Mysterious bruises begin appearing on mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor), while her five daughters are menaced by specters who pull at their legs while they’re sleeping, cause them to sleepwalk directly into armoires, and drag them around the living room by their hair. Traumatized, Carolyn turns to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), noted paranormal experts whose own home hilariously contains a room chockablock with cursed trinkets, and whose credentials are initially established by a lecture they give (with accompanying film footage) of an earlier case involving a malevolent doll that seems straight out of Wan’s prior, laughable Dead Silence.

What follows is ghostbusting of a goofy sort, full of oh-so-serious talk about the legitimacy of otherworldly spirits and bodily takeovers, and a plethora of cheap jolt scares enhanced by a thunderous soundtrack that hammers home each crash and boom. The Conjuring roots itself in the horror of matricide, with regards to both Carolyn and Lorraine, whose own daughter randomly winds up preyed upon by evil forces. Yet by transparently basing every moment on previous likeminded sagas, Wan’s film calls such attention to its own artificiality that there’s never any sense that his characters are in the least bit of danger—or that he’ll have the nerve to follow through on his material’s endless suggestions of child murder. While Taylor frets and freaks out with convincing relish (thereby somewhat atoning for her last haunted-house dud The Haunting), Wilson and Farmiga simply go through the overly earnest motions as, respectively, a noble true-believer and a susceptible-to-possession clairvoyant. End-credits photographs of the real-life Perrons and Warrens strive to legitimize the proceedings as believable. Alas, they just come across as the film’s final, vain stab at aligning itself with its Amityville-era ancestors—a misguided tack that makes The Conjuring less bump-in-the-night frightening than bang-your-head-against-the-armoire derivative.