Scary scenes for the susceptible
The Conjuring Only God Forgives
(MA15+) ★★★✩✩ National release
✩✩ IKE most supernatural horror films, The Conjuring is said to be based on real events. And as usual, I have a problem. Those willing to believe in ghosts, ghouls, evil spirits and demonic possession may accept that everything in The Conjuring actually happened, and may find the movie a great deal more frightening on that account. It proclaims its bona fides in the opening credits, which assure us that the events of the story are authentically based on the case files of Ed Warren, the most respected ghost hunter in the US. But for those of a sceptical frame of mind, this is rather like saying the events of the James Bond movies are authentically based on the writings of Ian Fleming. You can make of them what you will.
Ed Warren wouldn’t use the term ghosthunter. He calls himself a demonologist — the only one officially ‘‘ recognised by the Catholic Church’’ (as those credits point out). He lectures on demonology at a university in Massachusetts (more than once we see him before a class of attentive students) and maintains a private museum stocked with ghostly memorabilia acquired during his investigations. In The Conjuring, Ed and his wife, Lorraine, are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and come across as eminently sensible, level-headed folk, not easily taken in by rumour, hearsay or hysteria. Together they founded the New England Society for Psychical Research. How could we doubt their word?
Among the first cases investigated by the Warrens was that of the Lutz family, whose story was told in The Amityville Horror, the classic Hollywood supernatural thriller that has spawned no fewer than a dozen sequels, remakes and spin-offs since its release in 1979. It’s a fair bet that much of what you see in The Conjuring you will have already seen in The Amityville Horror. And if you missed it in The Amityville Horror you will have seen it in The Exorcist, or The Shining, or The Omen, or The Haunting, or in Sinister, or in one of the many instalments of Paranormal Activity. There’s a certain timeless quality about ghosts and ghoulies; like supernatural horror films, they never really change.
According to the standard formula, a couple move into a house only to discover, too late, that it’s haunted. Instead of heading for the nearest motel while they look for another place to live, they stay where they are, eager to explore basements, attics and other forbidding places in the dead of night. The couple in The Conjuring are Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who move into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island with their five daughters. The year is 1971. Like the Warrens, the Perrons are real people — straight-up, unhysterical all-American types — and with five daughters we know they’re in for a rough time.
Makers of horror films love having small children in their casts. With their vivid imaginations kids are easily scared; young audiences readily identify with them and share their terrors. The most traumatic images in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park were targeted at kids. I have often thought that subjecting small children to terrifying experiences, even in works of fiction, is a form of child abuse. Who knows what horrific impressions the films leave on young minds?
The good news is nothing in The Conjuring is very scary. As I say, we’ve seen it all before. The director is the Australian James Wan, pioneer of the phenomenally successful Saw franchise. The Saw films (six at last count) are exercises in sado-porn in which innocent people are tortured in hideously inventive ways.
But good supernatural horror demands something more subtle than blood and gore. Watching The Conjuring, I had the impression Wan would have loved to have thrown in some graphic beheadings, dismemberments and impalements, instead of having to rely those authentic Warren case files with their creaking doors, dark corridors, locked cupboards and things that go bump in the night. (Why is it so cold in here and what’s that funny smell?)
The film has a certain visual elegance and the characters are engaging. Wan made a passably effective supernatural thriller in Insidious, which also starred Patrick Wilson. But is his heart really in it this time? He wraps things up with an overwrought exorcism sequence, performed not by the local priest (Steve Coulter) but by Ed