Currently sitting atop its 84% positive throne at Rotten Tomatoes and boasting a rare four skull rave from Bloody Disgusting, all this lavish praise leaves me feeling like a jerk for not loving this middling James Wan thing. But, if history holds true, that Rotten Tomatoes score will drop as more real critics chime in (not that you're not awesome, St. Paul Pioneer Press). And Bloody D is Bloody D, world's lightest-grading horror professor. Let's talk about what went right and wrong with THE CONJURING.
"""Based on a true story""" in that the Warrens are real people and have probably been to a house sometime, the movie throws us right into the paranormal mix as demonologist Ed and psychic wife Lorraine crack the case of a demon that goes to intricate lengths to insert itself into an all-girl household. It inhabits a gnarled, creepy doll, because they are sure to welcome that into their home rather than another object like a puppy in a basket or a bouquet of flowers. The movie plays its hand early, signaling with booming pride that we can expect loud noises to inform us when we're supposed to be scared.
Meanwhile, trucker Roger and his wife Carolyn and their collection of daughters and a dog move into a decrepit old manse. Insidious and sinister things start happening, spooky enough for the midnight movie on Lifetime, but not intense enough to upset anyone. So the dad, the wife, and the daughters ask the Warrens to bust their ghosts. Said ghosts/demons/whatever are rendered in a nonmonsterlike fashion, basically just unkempt hairdos and pasty skin and bad teeth. You could see the same in many sections of West Virginia. Maybe THE CONJURING is an allegory about class friction and provincialism?
Or maybe it's just ye olde standard family-horror film. There's not much to differentiate this from the glut of "Demons are after my kids!" movies that the past few years have produced. The most horrific section, the finale, is basically a run-through of exorcism movies' greatest hits, with the solitary innovation arising from the coarse editing. Don't get me wrong, this isn't really a bad film, it's just very bland (and you've seen it before). The restrained tone, the jump scares, even the sad-prom piano music during the family-reunited aftermath—it's been done to death lately and it's weird that this template hasn't been assigned a genre name the way that "torture porn" and "postmodern horror" were. How 'bout Domestic Horror? It feels like a retread, especially when it gets hyper-Jesusy. I'm not surprised that there were no young boy children cast, as the film is so Catholic that they would have probably come to a terrible end.
Some stuff worked well. The actors all acquitted themselves nicely, although it hurt my heart to see Lili Taylor wasting herself in this. Wan has a decent eye for wide shots and landscapes. Word is that he's departing horror and I could see him doing nice things with family dramas. Overall, this seemed very middle-of-the-pack. But, who cares, there's already a sequel planned! This whole approach of hyping things to death prior to release, then planning sequels based on artificial success is probably not going to be a good long-term strategy. We'll see how naive moviegoers are when the returns for EVIL DEAD THE REMAKE 2, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D2, and MORE CONJURING arrive. For now, I'd counsel lowering your expectations to matinee or DVD level. This ain't magical enough to spend $8 on it instead of a pizza.