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So-called Splat Pack filmmaker James Wan (Saw, Insidious) opts for old-school restraint over gore in The Conjuring, an involving and effective throwback to ’70s supernatural horror-thrillers. On the basis of through-the-roof reactions at test screenings, Warners and New Line moved the film’s release from January to the summer tentpole season, a decision that should pay off with sizzling summer receipts from young adults. But the handsomely shot, expertly button-pushing scare-fest, which opens on July 19 in North America with worldwide dates lined up through the season, has the polish and the cast to draw older audiences who grew up on shockers built from performances rather than CGI.
Wan says he set out to make a “classic studio horror film,” and at that, he’s more than succeeded. With its minimal use of digital effects, its strong, sympathetic performances and ace design work, the pic harks back in themes and methods to The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, not quite attaining the poignancy and depth of the former but far exceeding the latter in sheer cinematic beauty.
The film doesn’t leave a deep, lasting chill, but it excels at putting a refining gloss on cheap shocks. Until a climactic sequence that pulls out all the stops, the director’s modulation teases out plenty of don’t-go-there moments, both formulaic and innovative, for all they’re worth.
Based on a documented case from the files of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren — known for their investigative work for the Lutz family in Amityville, New York — the story opens as most haunted-house tales do: with a bright and chipper family moving into a huge old domicile, in this case a farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. But before the main action begins, screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes (The Reaping, Whiteout) provide a glimpse of an especially creepy past case of the Warrens’ involving that scariest of horror totems, a doll. Wan uses the cold opening to ratchet up the tension before the audience has a chance to get comfortable, and he weaves the doll into the central plot to excellent effect.
Until bringing together the paranormal investigators and the terrorized family, the film alternates between the Connecticut-based Warrens (the exceptionally well-cast Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) and the newly relocated Perrons: Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. The specifics remain undisclosed for much of the film, but it’s evident that the Warrens are recovering from an especially traumatic investigation. At the same time, the Perrons discover that their spacious home has plenty of hidden chambers and boarded-up corridors, and find themselves contending with awful odors, disturbing sounds and shocking visitations in the thick of night.
Wan’s decision to make the apparitions visible to only some of the characters at first, and not necessarily to the audience, is an ingeniously effective way to feed the mounting dread. In heart-stopping fashion, the demonic spirits that plague the farmhouse insinuate themselves into the Perrons’ daily life, most frighteningly in the family game of hide-and-clap, complete with blindfolds. Director of photography John R. Leonetti’s nimble camera follows the girls and their parents through the huge rooms, ever alert to danger, while editor Kirk Morri’s precise cuts deftly quicken the pulse.
Still, the Hayes brothers’ screenplay doesn’t truly develop the Perron family as anything more than innocent victims. It pays more subtle and complex attention to character development in the Warrens, whose gently take-charge, DIY investigation, with its crucifixes and Super-8 movie cameras, is a comfort to the Perrons and the audience alike.
As the clairvoyant Lorraine, Farmiga resonates an extraordinary sensitivity, conveying wordlessly that Lorraine knows the Perrons’ home is haunted the instant she walks through the front door. Upright, devout and compassionate, Farmiga’s Lorraine is a compelling and believable younger version of the octogenarian Lorraine seen in the recent documentary My Amityville Horror. Wilson, reteaming with Wan after Insidious, is compelling as a down-to-earth straight arrow who has seen the dark side.
The nature of the haunting is gradually revealed until, about halfway in, Lorraine delivers the goods in a breathless block of info that’s semi-comical in its thoroughness — a fact that the filmmakers seem to acknowledge. “Well,” Ed says in response to her research findings, “that explains a few things.” The mechanics of the storytelling are what matters here, and potentially intriguing themes — key among them the Warrens’ faith and fearlessness — are touched upon rather than satisfyingly explored.
Among the four principals, Livingston has the least defined role but is effortlessly convincing as a working-class husband and father who finds himself in unspeakable circumstances. As a maternal figure who becomes the chief target of troubled spirits, Taylor gets to occupy a broader range, and does so with warmth and ferocity. The Perron girls are well differentiated, with especially impressive work from Joey King (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as middle daughter Christine, who’s the first to be tormented.
From the re-creation of the Warrens’ collection of cursed items (glimpsed in My Amityville Horror) to the farmhouse’s cobwebby crawl spaces and an evocative antique jack-in-the-box, Julie Berghoff’s production design is nothing less than perfect. Costumer Kristin M. Burke also delivers outstanding work, placing an accent on period-appropriate earth tones that provide a lived-in counterpoint to the story’s otherworldly elements.
Heightening the mood throughout is the churn and squall of Joseph Bishara’s score (with featured vocals by avant-garde priestess Diamanda Galas), and the blood-chilling sound design, a dynamic orchestration of creaking doors and angry things that go bump in the night.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Opens: July 19 (Warner Bros.)
A New Line Cinema presentation of a Safran Company/Evergreen Media Group production
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Producers: Tony DeRosa-Grund, Peter Safran, Rob Cowan
Executive producers: Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter
Director of photography: John R. Leonetti
Production designer: Julie Berghoff
Music: Joseph Bishara
Costume designer: Kristin M. Burke
Editor: Kirk Morri
MPAA rating: R
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