So here I am, late at night, writing my review of haunted house horror flick The Conjuring. It’s dark, quiet and the dull glow of my laptop screen fills the room, yet for having just seen a ‘scary movie’ I don’t find myself with the sudden urge to check over my shoulder every few minutes. That’s not to say that The Conjuring fails as a horror film – on the contrary, director James Wan (Insidious, Saw) clearly displays a technical mastery of the genre. This is a movie from a skilled filmmaker who doesn’t resort to cheap scares and tired tricks. Unfortunately, the story itself is old hat and Wan’s thoughtful composition fails to overcome the fact that The Conjuring is merely a more competently told version of a story that we’ve seen dozens of times before.
It’s a haunted house flick, and comes with all the plot trappings that you’d expect: strange noises, loud banging sounds and other creepy occurrences which escalate to full-on poltergeist action and even flying chairs. Throw in a bit of exorcism and you’re golden. It ticks all the boxes but doesn’t invent any new ones, so as far as the plot goes Wan is really banking on the ‘based on a true story’ card to give it that little extra flavour. The true story being that of renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played here by Patrick Wilson (Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Safe House) respectively. The two find themselves helping the besieged Perron family, who have recently moved into a country home with a terrible hidden history.
Honestly though, you could remove the ‘true story’ element and Chad and Carey Hayes’ screenplay would still read like every other haunted house movie. What really sets it apart is Wan’s direction. Much like in Insidious, Wan spends the first half of the film slowly building the tension. He does this not by relying on ‘boo!’ moments like jump scares but by establishing a thick and palpable atmosphere of fear and unease through the core cast. Camera tricks and practical effects are used to great effect. Indeed, where lesser directors would opt for a jump, Wan lingers on an image or scene with something usually just off to the side or out of shot. You expect the scare to come but because it doesn’t you’re left teetering at the edge of your seat, the suspense still high.
Thankfully, the acting is also strong – both Wilson and Farmiga carry themselves well, as does Lili Taylor (The Haunting) as Carolyn Perron. These are believable characters and not slasher-film caricatures, which helps to draw you into the experience. That said, they’re not particularly deep or endearing enough to stay in the mind after the film’s end. It’s a shame then that The Conjuring doesn’t truly surprise you, since all its core scares have been seen and done before. The presentation might be improved but it’s not enough; conjure up something I haven’t seen before – show me something original and show it well!
A technically proficient haunted house movie that doesn’t reinvent the wheel.