Movie: The Conjuring; Director: James Wan; Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures; Rating: R; My finding: 4 out of 5 stars.
"The Conjuring" is one of the best genre films to come out in recent years.
And it is decidedly a genre film. Some may find the plot, scares and even characters derivative of much we have already seen. But there is a real difference between being tired and being derivative, as "The Conjuring" will show. That difference is how well director James Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes combine all the best elements of classic horror movies into a complete, genuinely thrilling and suspenseful package.
The film starts out in 1968 with the face of a somewhat molten and terrifying doll, slowly panning out as some young women share their experience with a spiritual entity. They believed it was the ghost of a young girl who was murdered and wanted nothing more than to share in the life she had been taken from. The two young women, being nurses, are a sympathetic pair who enjoy bringing comfort to the afflicted, so they allow the ghost to embody the doll.
This opening scene is perfect framing device for the rest of the film and sets an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, with the interview audio used as a narrative function over the image of the doll they speak of. But Annabelle the doll is not the villain in this film.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively played by Vera Farmiga (2009's "Up in the Air") and Patrick Wilson (2010's "Insidious"), were real-life paranormal researchers and demonologists best known for conducting the investigation and cleansing of the alleged haunted house in Amityville, on New York state's Long Island. The use here of another supposed haunting they worked on assists with the initial documentary-like framing device.
It turns out that initial interview was used as teaching material for their lectures on demonology at colleges, which further cements the period in which this film takes place: the very early 1970s.
Those college students, or anybody else in the period this film takes place, had yet to see classic fare like 1973's "The Exorcist" or 1982's "Poltergeist," with only Roman Polanski's 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby," a ghastly take on Satan's own immaculate conception, to inform their understanding of demons. Wan expertly frames the story to make demonology and exorcisms feel fresh for the audience, too, by prominently featuring these two, Catholic Church-recognized academic experts and practitioners rather than crackpots.
The Warrens have a family of their own, with a daughter and a quaint home in New England. There's very little kooky about them, save for the fact they save artifacts from every cleansing they've performed. Ed Warren says that the spirits still haunt these artifacts, and that's why it's better to keep them under lock and key in a place where they can do no more harm. A priest, Father Brown, their link to the Vatican for reporting demonic possession, comes by once a month to pray over the room to keep the spirits in check.
In all, they are earnest, average people with maybe a touch of clairvoyance to give them insight on the devil who walks the earth in what they feel is the very real war raging for millenia between the loving God above and his fallen angel below.
But simpler still are the Perrons. Roger (Ron Livingston of 1999's "Office Space" and television's "Sex in the City") is a good father of five girls with his wife, Carolyn (Lili Taylor of 2000's "High Fidelity" and television's "Six Feet Under"). They've just moved into a home in rural Rhode Island that they got cheap. They have to live inexpensively, though, because it's not cheap feeding a family of seven. And sometimes Roger's bids for trucking routes don't quite come to what he expected.
But soon their dog quits barking.
The introduction to the Perron home includes all the tropes of haunted-house films. They've just moved in. The property was inexpensive. There's a secret room or staircase. There's an imposing tree in the backyard. Their dog inexplicably will not enter the home. A daughter finds a creepy relic of a past generation's playthings (a music box, no less).
For an audience well versed in how horror is made, the initial setup seems destined to support another ho-hum experience.
But we need to let that slide from our minds. Let the film wash over you in whispers. Accept that witches in New England would declare their love for Satan before
publicly hanging themselves to live with the Dark Lord for the rest of time. Accept the controversial idea that if God can produce miracles, then the Devil can manipulate the souls of earth, as well.
If you're the type of theater-goer who likes non-stop action and as much gore as a filmmaker can pack into a film (like Wan's earlier effort, 2004's "Saw"), then you'll be terribly disappointed in the complete lack of gore here. This is a different kind of scare.
Wan expertly builds tension and doesn't let it slide. There are a few jump-scares in the film, but at one point I felt taken from the cinema and that the film itself had embodied me. When a woman in the audience screamed I was jolted back to the fact of my own life, and found myself leaning over heavily, my mouth open and my heart rate inclined.
In fact, there is so much tension built up over the course of the film that I couldn't help but appreciate seeing the film in a packed theater, where people would talk to the screen and the woman in front of me would slap her forehead several times in what she perceived as dangerous moves of those on the screen. You need the communion because shouldering such tension alone will keep you awake with all the lights on.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)