I’m typically dismissive of horror movies that open with a disclaimer that it’s based on a true story, especially when it’s said that the story has remained classified until now. But in the case of The Conjuring, a haunted house movie, I think I can make an exception. It’s odd; although the filmmakers in no way reinvent the wheel, relying on just about every cliché movies like this are known for, they nevertheless keep it engaging. Perhaps it’s a matter of good casting, or director James Wan knowing how to keep the atmosphere consistently creepy, or both. But less successful haunted house movies have relied on the exact same tactics. So what is it about this particular film? How was I able to look past its total lack of originality and simply enjoy what I was watching?
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star as Ed and Lorraine Warren, who in real life were paranormal investigators best known for looking into the case that would later be known as The Amityville Horror. For the purposes of watching this movie, a ghost story that in all likelihood has been dramatized to the point of near total fiction (assuming it wasn’t that way from the start, which I’m sure my more skeptical readers fully believe), it’s best to think of them as characters rather than as real people. That way, you won’t be tempted to keep in mind that their work has been heavily criticized, the Amityville case especially, which remains a point of contention nearly forty years later.
In the film, the Warrens investigate the case of Perron family, who, in 1971, move into a Rhode Island house and immediately begin experiencing bouts of paranormal activity. Here we go with the clichés, and I mean apart from the New England setting: The family dog senses something and refuses to enter the house, and eventually … well, you know what inevitably happens to family pets in movies like this; the clocks in the house stop at a very specific time; the wife, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), feels something tug at her leg; there’s something strangely ominous about the entrance to the cellar, which has been boarded up; the mysterious sounds of clapping and laughter echo down the hallways; and, of course, the cellar door, once unboarded, will eventually open on its own, enticing anyone passing it to enter.
Would you be surprised if I told you that the climax involves an exorcism? And that the haunting is directly connected to horrible events of the past? And that, in order to gather evidence, the Warrens set up a series of cameras and bells around the Perrons’ house? And that the Perron children (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver) are always in danger? You might as well walk into the film with a checklist. The thing is, I normally say that only when I’m being critical. This time around … I’m not exactly paying the film a compliment, but dang it, I can’t sit here and say that the clichés didn’t contribute to the film’s success.
But that confuses the matter even more for me. James Wan is best known for horror films – the original Saw, the first two Insidious films, Dead Silence – and they too have been reliant on well-established conventions, providing entertainment that was mediocre at best, unappealing at worst. And this past February, I had to endure The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, a film so predictable, so unbelievably trite, and so overbearing in its insistence that it was based on a true story that I repeatedly had to stifle groans. So again, what is it about this particular film? Why does it work when it relies on the exact same conventions? The more I think about it, the more opaque the issue gets for me.
Maybe, and I’m just grasping at straws here, it has to do with the fact that, although it tells an unoriginal story, it nevertheless has a story, period. Some haunted house films reveal not plot, but a preoccupation with creating the right atmosphere. It might also have to do with the fact that, although the characters are little more than cardboard cutouts, they’re played by actors who are competent and engaging. Wilson and Farmiga are convincing as the Warrens, perhaps because they were aware of how hackneyed the film is and therefore put no undue pressure on themselves. But the truth is, I just don’t know. All I can say is that The Conjuring works, and works well.