Modern horror directors aren’t easy to come by. The glory days of the George Romero’s and John Carpenter’s seem all but lost; only a handful of well-known horror-centric directors exist today and “well-known” can be argued given that many mainstream audiences may not recognize the likes of Xavier Gens or Ti West offhand (though they may have seen some of their movies). Arguably, the biggest name in horror currently is James Wan, the man responsible for sparking one of the biggest and most popular horror franchises today. With movies like “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Dead Silence” under his belt, he has proven himself, despite his critics, as one of the most stylish and interesting horror directors working today, yet his latest, “The Conjuring,” feels lackluster. The frights from his previous films are all but lost here and all ingenuity has dissipated. You’ve seen this movie dozens of times over and even Wan can’t do enough to reinvigorate old clichés.
This supposedly true story takes place in the late 60s and follows a team of husband and wife demon hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). They’re the same folks who tackled the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings (which should give you a good indication of whether or not this is actually real), but this time they’re investigating a possible demonic entity in the household of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who have just moved into a new farmhouse with a dark history along with their five girls, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Cynthia (Mackenzie Foy), Christine (Joey King) and April (Kyla Deaver).
Lights are flickering on and off, birds are inexplicably crashing into their windows, televisions go static, loud noises go bump in the night and doors are creaking open all by themselves. And I mean lots of doors. I’m fairly certain that if we counted the number of creaking doors opened by an unseen entity,” “The Conjuring” would set the record. This tactic is indicative of the film as a whole: it has nothing new to present. It relies so heavily on obvious horror movie tropes that it never finds its own identity and, aside from a few effective moments that come forth through a game called “Hide and Clap,” it certainly never gets the heart racing. Unless you’ve never seen a horror movie before, you’ll quickly become aware of its tricks.
In fact, the film’s biggest asset doesn’t come from the horror atmosphere at all, but rather from its surprising focus on the characters, not unlike last year’s excellent “Sinister.” The build is slow and takes the time to develop them, not simply tossing them into a spooky house as fodder for jump scares. While they’re not necessarily interesting characters in and of themselves, it’s a welcome change of pace for a genre that regularly struggles to tell a meaningful story, which is mainly due to its skewed focus on things other than the people. Unfortunately, much of its attempts to build them into people we can care about, which come complete with soothing music and cheesy dialogue, are awkwardly wedged in between scenes of horrific nightmares, never segueing convincingly into and out of each other and throwing the whole tone off.
What “The Conjuring” boils down to is a talented and underrated horror director working with substandard material, though much of that talent undoubtedly stems from an outside source. So much of his style matches so well with frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, who has written all of his horror outings, that many of his flaws shine through here. Take the finale of “Insidious” as an example. While the movie certainly had its issues, the ending took place in a surreal dreamlike state, almost like a cross between “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Silent Hill” video games. This gave Wan some room to breathe and interpret as he saw fit. The frightening visual environment he created was haunting and unforgettable. “The Conjuring” has no unique moments like it, nothing that allows Wan to flex his creative muscle.
It even falls prey to the same typical dumb mistakes so many characters make in these things. While the ghost obviously needs to stay with the characters no matter where they go for the purposes of storytelling, an attempt to escape still needs to be made. In “Insidious,” the characters left the house as soon as things got too weird, an ultimately fruitless decision, but welcome in a genre so heavy laden with idiotic decisions. Comparatively, “The Conjuring” writes the notion off with one quick line of dialogue, a metaphor about stepping in gum so thin, it comes off as laughable, especially when it comes from the so-called demonologist experts who should be able to explain it better.
When all is said and done, “The Conjuring” is a huge disappointment. Early buzz was positive and it was reportedly deemed so scary by the MPAA that despite its lack of language, sex or violence, it was given an R rating (though this was said by the film’s executive producer and could very well be a clever marketing ploy). But if anything, that’s only going to raise expectations on a film that is anything but terrifying. Horror newbies may get a kick out of it, but if you’re looking for something to truly unnerve you, “The Conjuring” isn’t it.
The Conjuring receives 2/5