Hair-raising. The Conjuring is one of the better haunted house movies ever made, mostly due to the directorial triumph of James Wan (“Insidious”) who uses long held steadicam shots that move gingerly throughout the ramshackle New England home. The screenplay is good B-movie work, plausible characters, good suspenseful set-ups, intrigue and mystery of the supernatural. It’s never as deeply rooted or convincing as the screenplay for “The Exorcist,” the immortal 1973 classic which is still ten times superior. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, as the Warrens, are demonologists specializing in paranormal activity who go to work on Perron family’s haunted house. I’ll be damned if the movie didn’t actually convince me the Warrens existed in pretty much how they are portrayed – it’s based on a 1971 case.
The Perron family is played by father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and five daughters in teen and pre-teen ages. They are living under a new house mired with century old possession where multiple horrible satanic murders took place. How the history of the house is uncovered and explained is rather plausible. For a half hour or so, there are claps behind doors and bumps in the night (no found footage gimmicks!), but is it doctor prescribed iron deficiency or ghosts bruising Carolyn’s arm at night? Hmm, there are also rancid stenches, one girl sleepwalking, leg-pulling on one of the girls, a creepy wind-up music box and clocks that stop at 3:07 every morning that oozes ominous foreboding.
Some of that seems tacked on a little heavy. No matter, we’re involved with this case and particular threat of possession. The Warrens inform the Perron’s to help them they need to put an exorcism on not an individual, but on the house. Because the Warrens are non-Catholics, persuading the Vatican to approve an exorcism will be a diplomatic problem, so they need Super 8 camera proof of paranormal activity to get sanctioned approval. The process, alas, takes too damn long and the ghosts are getting more and more restless. And it becomes feared the ghosts want not the house but to host a human body.
Wan, who is partly responsible for the torture porn craze by directing “Saw” (but none of its sequels), has transcended his shameful roots by going old-school classical horror here. Movies like 1961’s “The Innocents” get a lot of praise for the haunted house genre, but “The Conjuring” is more eventful and playfully wicked than that. A work of “Exorcist” level genius it is not, but it’s a potent step up in artistic and commercial movie progress. And in truth, the last twenty minutes are, um I’ll admit it, a nerve-rattling powerhouse.
112 Minutes. Rated R.
HORROR / SUPERNATURAL / FRIDAY NIGHT SCREAMFEST