“The Conjuring” (2013)

To conjure:

Transitive verb

1: to charge or entreat earnestly or solemnly
2: to summon by or as if by invocation or incantation 
b (1) : to affect or effect by or as if by magic 
(2) : imagine,contrive —often used with up <we conjure up our own metaphors for our own needs — R. J. Kaufmann> 
(3) : to bring to mind <words that conjure pleasant images> —often used with up <conjure up memories>
 intransitive verb
 1: to summon a devil or spirit by invocation or incantation 

 b : to practice magical arts

2: to use a conjurer’s tricks : juggle
[from Webster]

I’m not entirely sure that anything that occurs in The Conjuring counts as a conjuring, strictly speaking. I mean, it seems to imply, first and foremost, some kind of deliberateness. To conjure something is to willfully call it to you. The Conjuring does have a scary supernatural presence, and at some point, prior to the events in the film, somebody did sort of do some [spoilers] devil-worshipping. So I guess you could stretch it to say that somebody way down the line, you know, got their conjure on. Or it could just be used quasi-metaphorically as a way to impart a sense of spooky mystical supernatural-ness. Or something.

I’m not really such a stickler for definitions as the foregoing paragraph implies. I point out the vagaries of the title, to set the stage for the film itself. It isn’t bad. It’s pretty good, actually. Way, way the hell better than that piece of crap, SinisterAnd way better than the slightly less crappy–but still fairly crappy–Insidious. But I feel it’s important to stress that director James Wan (who also did Insidious) has a very fixed set of concepts when it comes both to the supernatural as a thinga force or forces and the various traditions that deal with it, and to filmmaking that approaches it. There’s something to be said for consistency, and Wan has made some major improvements since Insidious’ “I call it the Further” line nearly made me Linda-Blair-pea-soup-vomit all over the people sitting in front of me in the theater. I still think there are some kinks to work out, but this is a definite step up.

“I call it ‘the Further’.” *sploooorf* (Fearnet)

I was excited for this one, I’ll admit, and for a change I wasn’t entirely disappointed. I’ve even held off on reading The Wolfman’s review, because I didn’t want to be influenced by it.  I like Lili Taylor, whom I hadn’t seen act since–I swear–the unforgivable remake of The Haunting. [EDIT: I forgot that Taylor is in Hemlock Grove. Oh Lili. I forgive you.] And Taylor gives a good, likable, believable performance as blue-collar mother-of-five Carolyn Perron. So does Ron Livingston, who is an excellent Everyman kind of character as husband Roger (complete with plaid flannel shirts). The casting was fairly solid, with one or two notable exceptions, and helped distract from some of the more glaring issues.

In 1971, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are hard at work being demonologists and exorcising things. Simultaneously, Carolyn and Roger, with their five daughters and dog Sadie, move into a beautiful old farmhouse in Rhode Island. As one expects in these situations, becoming a homeowner has dire ramifications for the unsuspecting Perrons. Spooky stuff escalates, you know the drill (honestly, summaries aren’t really necessary at this point, right?). Eventually Carolyn tracks down the Warrens and enlists their aid, at which point shit really gets hellacious(puns! Mmmmyes!).

The cast is the major strength here. The scares are utterly, totally predictable: jarring sound effects and fake-out jump scares abound (“Oh, it’s under the bed! Don’t look under the bed! Oh wait, there’s nothing there? OH CRAP IT’S SOMEWHERE ELSE oh wait, not there either…” The only thing new is that the fakeouts are like three or four deep). The one slightly scary experience I had was when my ladyfriend–who scares easily, the peach–grabbed my arm so hard that she inadvertently slammed it into the armrest. Pain is an effective way to enhance the horror movie experience, let me tell you.

Taylor and Livingston are solid and sympathetic, and Patrick Wilson is good, if weird (which I suppose is appropriate) as demonologist Ed Warren. (Notably, Wilson was also the male lead in Insidious.) The gaggle of little girls are good enough, as nearly all children in horror films are, at being innocent and cute some of the time, and running and screaming and being possessed by demons the rest of the time (amirite, parents? eh?). The only downside in terms of acting, due more to the script than any fault of her own, is Vera Farmiga‘s performance as Lorraine. I swear, her dialogue is so similar to Insidious’ psychic lady (played by Lin Shaye) that the two are nearly interchangeable. No further’s here, thank god, but almost as annoying.

All in all, the film is a solid, enjoyable ride. And I use the term “ride” advisedly, because that’s precisely what The Conjuring is: a haunted roller coaster ride, from one scary set piece to the next, with perhaps too much expository dialogue in between. Competent, but not brilliant. Oh, and it has, seriously, the sappiest, lamest ending in horror movie history. For reals.

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But wait, there’s more! The really interesting thing here, at least for me, is the presence of the Warrens as characters. The Warrens are real people (Ed passed away in 2006, but Lorraine is still among the living), and The Conjuring is based on one of their cases. They’ve been involved in a ton of famous cases, including, if the Wiki is to be trusted, the infamous Amityville haunting. While I think I’d probably heard their names before, I really know nothing about the Warrens. I think I might need to change that.

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10 thoughts on ““The Conjuring” (2013)

  1. Glad to hear this wasn’t too terrible. I was curious, though I probably won’t see it until it’s out on DVD.

    Your comment that “becoming a homeowner has dire ramifications for the unsuspecting Perrons” made me wonder if you have any thoughts/had read anyone’s thoughts about the role of home ownership in horror. So many horror stories are about haunted houses, of course, but I wonder if ownership, specifically, plays a part? If it weren’t so late, I’d try to formulate some theory, but it is too late and I’m too lazy.

  2. I think The Conjuring is out at the end of the week here, its definately on my list, I loved/hated Insidious and Sinister (sometimes you just have to go and see cheesy horror films even if you know they are going to be crap!).

    In relation to the early part of your article about the definition of conjuring, I read a very scary short story by Philippa Gregory called The Conjuring Trick which plays on the definition of the word. PG usually writes historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl) etc so finding this genuinely creepy tale was a real surprise. Naturally enough it focuses on couple who buy a house that they can’t afford – but there is a very clever and terrifying twist at the end.

    • That sounds brilliant. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

      Yeah, “Conjuring” was very similar to “Insidious” in a lot of ways–Wan’s style really shines through–but it was slightly toned-down, which I appreciated. There are still a few over-the-top moments, such as the scene where (this is in the trailer, so it’s not a spoiler) a ghostly old woman leaps down off an armoire onto a little girl. You see her sail through the air a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Kind of ridiculous. But overall, good.

      The only other gripe I forgot to mention in my review is the weird treatment of witches. They link the antagonist to the Salem witches, and there’s satan-worshipping and human sacrifice involved. But the Salem “witches” weren’t witches at all (by any definition), and the “tradition” of witchcraft that the film is referencing is based less on history than on the historical witch-scares that flared up from time to time over the last few centuries. I’m not that knowledgeable on this point, though, so somebody more in the know than myself will have to judge.

      • I don’t mind when old films make those assumptions (hammer horror practically thrived on stereotypes and the tabloid version of history) but these days, you’d expect a more informed view. Still gonna watch it anyway obviously!

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