Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Directed by: James Wan (“Insidious,” “Saw”)
Written by: Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes (“Whiteout”, “House of Wax”)
The best way to describe “The Conjuring” is to call it old school, which is an easy way to say that it’s a horror movie free from the excessive CGI, herky-jerky editing, or creepy Asian kids that have come to signify what modern horror filmmaking has become. Instead, director James Wan’s ’70s-set haunted house story goes for the slow burn and forgoes the laundry list of cheap scares typically awaiting moviegoers looking to jump out of their seats.
“The Conjuring” opens with the story of three roommates and an incredibly disturbing doll. The year is 1968, and strange things are afoot in the apartment they share. When the creepy doll starts doing predictably creepy things, the roommates call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), paranormal investigators with a knack for tracking down evil spirits. Three years later, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into an old farm house. The discovery of things around the house like a boarded-up basement and a spooky music box give way to a full-fledged poltergeist, putting the entire family in danger. Left with no choice, the Perrons enlist the help of the Warrens, hoping to rid their home of the infesting evil.
As the first reels unwind, “The Conjuring” tiptoes on the edge of feeling routine. Family moves in to an obviously creepy old house where spooky supernatural things start happening? That plot line is like a well-worn shoe. Evil spirits start manipulating objects and/or members of said family? Seen it. But instead of going the contemporary route, ramping things up and populating the film with computer-generated terror, Wan keeps things simple and grounded. The 1970s color palette and musical selections complement the locked-down camera work, while the entire cast plays it straight, keeping the performances low-key and matter-of-fact. Wilson and Farmiga come off especially well, maintaining calm and realism in what could be scenery-chewing roles. And, in what could be the most pleasant surprise of all, that creepy doll featured so heavily in the prologue doesn’t figure into the climax whatsoever. She doesn’t wield a knife, doesn’t throw anyone down the stairs—nothing. When was the last time you could say something like that about a horror movie?