Following last year’s The Cabin in The Woods, traditional horrors have started to seem seriously out of date. Thankfully, with Saw director James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), a return to the traditional tropes are as fresh as ever in what is an unnerving, albeit kitsch horror of remarkable finesse. Purportedly based on a true story concerning paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, dressed as if they’ve just fallen off the cover of a Carpenters album), we are thrown head-first into a homage to the haunted house and possession chillers of the 1970s and 80s.
After a seemingly purposeless opening involving the spook hunters and a murderous doll (that gives more than a slight nod to 1988’s Chuckie debut Child’s Play), we meet the homely Perron family. The Perrons have recently moved into a tumbledown farmhouse on Rhodes Island, and before long the all-American family find themselves the victims of poltergeists and demonic forces. Desperate to protect themselves and their children, Ma and Pa Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) call up the Warrens, who set about exorcising the malevolent spirits that are stalking the family’s brood of daughters.
What follows is a veritable spinning-top of a movie, where no matter how much visual trickery Wan bombards us with, the onslaught of terror never loses its momentum. The film’s title hints at what the now well-established genre director set about to achieve. Wan’s aim appears to be much more than simply invoking an impressive amount of tributes to films such as Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), but also to cast a horrifying spell over his audience for The Conjuring entirety. Yes, the devices employed are conventional. However, thanks to Wan’s slight of hand, these are rapidly elevated from being mere hackneyed clichés into urbane, Hitchockian frights of fancy.
All this wizardry is undoubtedly aided by his choice of cast, with both Wilson and Farmiga pitching themselves well as wing-collared ghostbusters of great skill and aptitude. The star of 1999 remake The Haunting, Taylor is appositely chosen as the fragile victim of the piece as she offers up borderline hysterical shrieks; a limp matriarch who latterly turns into something much more petrifying. Chad and Carey W. Hayes also deserve substantial praise for their taut and tight screenplay, that strips away any unnecessary frills for an old-fashioned, straight-talking tale of terror.
This being said, some moments of the dialogue are awkwardly corny. We don’t need to hear the anachronistic term “groovy” to realise that we are based firmly in the decade of beads and tie-dye. Yet, these remain minor criticisms of what is a cacophony of spine-tingling tension. Few would have thought that in the aftermath of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s subversive horror, the genre could survive in its former form. Happily, Wan’s The Conjuring has proved to be the exception to the rule.