Overview: Based on a real-life investigation files of Ed and Lorraine Warren; the two paranormal investigators must help a family victimized by a malevolent spirit. New Line Cinema; 2013; Rated R; 112 Minutes.
Corrective Measure: That doll in the expository narrative? That vile, gnarled plaything that haunts its owners? In real life, that was a Raggedy Ann doll. The story recounted by the actual Rhode Island family that is subject in this film—the story allegedly kept secret for thirty years—doesn’t contain full-figured ghostly entities or attacks, just dreadful feelings and “apparitions.” And, frankly stated, the Warrens were just con-artists preying on people’s mortal insecurity and grieving.
Why That Matters: The easiest rebuttal to that, of course, is that horror movies can’t be accurate to reality or they stop being scary. People go to horror movies to be made afraid. That’s all well and good if we’re content clearing lowered bars. Gifted horror direction, however, could have made the Raggedy Ann doll scary, or could have probed into the questionable intention of the Warren family in a way that enhanced a frightening narrative. Jump scares, this movie’s one repetitive technique, are just one sort of fright afforded to us by movie going experiences. But they are the easiest form of delivery, if you’ll excuse the athletic metaphor: they are the uncontested layup. We wouldn’t celebrate a ticket paid to watch basketball and accept audience to a lay-up drill. Really good horror provides the jumps as an entry point, then goes deeper—slaps the nerve endings and then rides the nerve all the way to the brain, where it menaces and upsets after the movie ends. Great horror is residual, haunting, scarring. In five years, I won’t be able to remember the difference between Insidious, this, or any other formulaic offering.
In Fairness: My objection to this movie isn’t that it’s horrible. It isn’t. It’s certainly James Wan’s best and one of the few decent exercises in horror of 2013. My objection is that it’s celebrated, that Wan is held as a standard of low-budget horror accomplishment and yet this is the best we have from him. Horror is the hardest type of film to make great, but it is also the best type of film to explore the roots of human nature. We won’t get that until we demand it.
Additional: The worst side effect of Wan’s reputed limited budgets has to be his condensed production cycle. His scenes often feel constructed of limited takes, etched together out of the best that time permitted. Here, that stifles quite a collection of acting talent.
Overall: The Conjuring is a mildly entertaining, by-the-book haunting story built to appease horror fans’ satisfaction with mediocrity and cheap scares.
Grade: C +