Review: The Conjuring (Silly/Scary/True)

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Scan your mind for dumb horror movies and Chucky, the killer doll, is likely among them. So when this true story begins with a 16mm (or should I say 1666mm) recreation of a 1968 case featuring a possessed doll, you may laugh down your nose at it, but as you question why you’re in the theater, The Conjuring takes you in its clutches.

The real world and all its ghosts weigh heavy on The Conjuring, a truthy story about real life ghost-busters Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens were consulted in a great many of America’s hauntings and gained TV notoriety for it, which makes their earliest apparitions in The Conjuring (on video, 16mm and simulated newsprint) feel important—as if repetition by the press equates to credibility (also silly/scary/true). That 1968 doll case happened in the bedroom of two nurses just two years after Richard Speck happened to eight nurses and made the space beneath the bed seem safe. Call it sacrilege to remember a real outrage when describing a potentially fake one but there are reasons things get under our skin and logic isn't one of them.

So The Perrons (Ron Livingston and Lilli Taylor) move their brood of beautiful daughters into an idyllic fixer upper in Rhode Island. It’s there the game of knock-knock-boo begins, very far from the nearest town or nosy neighbor. This is where the film traps a family of seven, three paranormal investigators, one cop, three ghosts and one demon with us, the viewing audience. The house is a vessel and the demon’s a housewife, just like Lilli Taylor’s character.

As we wait in anticipation for spectral happenings to erupt, the camera scans the living room and settles for a nostalgic moment on a TV in static, but unlike Poltergeist, the ether seems friendly and free of spirits. Painted family portraits on the stairwell recall Disney’s Haunted House ride. The Warren’s museum of haunted relics feels like an encyclopedic reference to everything Stephen King ever published. The glowing porch recalls John Carpenter’s Halloween, a horror that suggested the comforts of home are fertile ground for accidental evil. (I wonder if Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” lent us permission to wrench hell from a suburban hand basket.)

Director James Wan knows we know some of this, and doesn’t seem to think we should be ashamed we’re not innocent.

Repeatedly we see forces trapped, faces in windows, banging in crawlspaces and rotting eyes in mirrors. In one beautiful moment, Farmiga takes sheets off a drying line and the wind catches it long enough to show the outline of a body. It’s glorious and a reminder that the scares of a haunted house are visceral and, like Chucky, live on the cusp of childhood, frivolous and frightening. Now that we’re older, shouldn’t we know better? I don’t know. Should we?

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