Business as Usual: James Wan’s The Conjuring
The Conjuring is a remarkably traditional film in both style and content; once again exorcism and possession are ramped up for the usual thrill ride, complete with objects flying around the house, children in peril, a possessed mother, ghosts from the past tormenting the living, with special effects that seem remarkably similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film that really kicked off the whole trend nearly half a century ago. Indeed, the film itself is set in the early 1970s, and everything about it seems linked to the past; one might easily imagine that it was shot in the 1970s, as well. And, of course, it’s based on a true story!
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a crumbling isolated house in the middle of nowhere because it’s the best deal they can get; they don’t have much money, and the house is a real fixer-upper. Having gotten the property from the bank in a foreclosure proceeding for a song, they haven’t really inquired too closely into the house’s past – like, for example, the fact that it has a walled off cellar that apparently no one ever told them about, or that several murders and suicides have taken place on the grounds, but hey – a bargain is a bargain.
The family dog, Maisie, is too smart to even enter the house when the family first arrives – people should pay more attention to their pets, you know? – and the next morning is found strangled to death outside the front door. Oddly, nobody seems too upset about this – they just bury the dog and keep on moving in. But soon mysterious happenings start to take place; all the clocks in the house stop at roughly 3AM, moaning sounds are heard coming from the basement, and doors open by themselves (always a bad sign). Carolyn wakes up each morning with unexplained bruises on her back, hands and legs.
One of the daughters starts walking in her sleep, repeatedly banging her head against a huge armoire in her bedroom in the process. Pictures of the family fall off the wall in the middle of the night with a terrific crash. Whispering voices are heard in the distance. A haunted music box is discovered by one of the children. There’s also a demonic doll that comes into play. You get the idea.
But soon, things take an even more serious turn as whatever-it-is starts pulling the children out of bed and throwing them around the room, lunging at them from behind closed doors, and locking them into closets. The house is always freezing no matter how high Roger turns up the thermostat, and after a while, Roger and Carolyn decide that something’s up. After a few more “gotcha” visitations of hideously decaying corpses and ectoplasmic phantoms manifest themselves, the Perrons decide it’s time to call for help, and ask famed psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to investigate.
At first the Warrens turn a deaf ear, but after Carolyn pleads for their help, they practically move in with the Perrons, set up 16mm movie cameras, hidden microphones, tape recorders, and still cameras rigged with temperature sensitive trip wires all over the house, and sure enough, more things start to happen.
One of the daughters is dragged across the living room by an unseen force. Birds fly into the house and smash themselves to death. Strange noises are heard. Things go bump in the night. Lorraine Warren starts seeing visions.
Yes, the house is definitely haunted, or more accurately cursed, but more than that – the Perrons themselves are in danger. As the Warrens explain, even if they move out, which they can’t afford to do, the demons will just follow them – “it’s kind of like chewing gum, you know?” Ed explains. “Sometimes it just sticks to you.”
The Warrens take the footage of these various manifestations to their friendly neighborhood priest, who is at first reluctant to intervene, but eventually promises to take the matter up directly with the Vatican himself. Incidentally, much is made of the fact that the Perron family apparently has no religious faith, and the children have never been baptized, which seems to have exacerbated the situation.
But events are moving swiftly. The Perron children are taken over by the various evil forces that live in the house, as is their mother Carolyn, who tries to kill one of her daughters. Thrown around the basement of the house like a rag doll while bound, gagged and strapped to a chair – which levitates, of course, just like Regan’s bed in The Exorcist, and even turns upside down – Carolyn succumbs almost completely to the demons who seek to possess her, while Ed Warren, deciding that it’s too late to call in a priest, performs the exorcism himself.
There’s the usual final reel in which nearly everyone in the cast seems in jeopardy – “You’re all going to die!” hisses the possessed Carolyn at one point – but in the end everything turns out all right, the sun breaks out in full force (for most of the film, it seems permanently overcast outside, and inside the house, the lights flicker dimly for much of the film’s duration), and the Warrens succeed in driving out the demons.
The film ends almost like something out of the 1950s, with the Perron family restored to Brady Bunch normalcy – there’s even a clip from the Brady Bunch television series in the film to drive this comparison home – while the camera backs off for a final omniscient overhead crane shot of the house, letting us know that all is well, the Perrons can now live in peace, and we can go home now and forget about whole thing. I know I will.
The Conjuring, which runs slightly under two hours, is a perfectly pleasant way to pass a hot summer afternoon, and although it’s rated “R” it’s difficult to see why; in contrast to the some of the Saw films, which Wan also directed, there’s very little gore here, just the usual rotting dead bodies in Dick Smith style 1960s makeup, along with the dusty basements, trap doors and hidden passages that one usually finds in such films.
Not surprisingly, Lili Taylor steals the film, and it’s really good to see her in a film that is a genuine box office hit; after years of working in indies, she’s in a film which is clobbering the competition at the local multiplexes, easily beating out bigger budget films like Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger on a fraction of that film’s budget.
At the screening I attended, a 1PM on Friday, the theater was packed, while other films in the building unspooled with almost no one in attendance. Clearly, this is what the public wants.
There’s nothing really at risk here, and I guess that was perhaps the most surprising thing about the film. It’s a very safe, retro vision. Everyone survives, and the whole film seems more like a William Castle film from the 1950s than anything else, or perhaps Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), with all of the “shock” sequences of the “coming at you from out of the darkness or at the edge of the frame” variety, perfectly serviceable direction, and little originality.
But perhaps that’s the film’s ultimate lure; set in the past, it’s safe and comfortable, and Wan seems almost relaxed behind the camera, setting up one highly predictable shot after another with detached efficiency; he knows where all the “scares” are, and also clearly knows all the various tropes of the demonic possession film inside out, and can thus recycle them without too much effort.
In the end, there’s nothing really visceral or even shocking about The Conjuring, which seems to float by on the screen with by-the-numbers certainty. Just like the endless wave of zombie films that flood the cinema screen and television, exorcisms will always be with us. I really wouldn’t be surprised if Wan is already mulling The Conjuring II: The Reckoning, or something like that; I know a franchise when I see one.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University of Kentucky Press, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted in 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 6 times through 2012, with a new edition in 2013). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.