When it’s all over, when the dust has settled, the rattling has stopped, the screaming has ceased, when the floorboards have stopped shaking and the wind has died down, The Conjuring turns out to be a ball of empty air. I’ve seen it three times now and every time I am left with the same sinking feeling that while it is expertly crafted with loving care there’s a central element missing that is keeping me at bay.
The Conjuring looks and feels like the pieces and parts of a great haunted house movie from the dusty old floorboards, to the unkempt moors, to the creepy old basement containing that unsettling doll. There’s even that boarded up entrance to that special room that the realtor reasonably should have presented to the new owners. The production here is of the highest order from the set decoration to the sound to the lighting. I wouldn’t have complained if these people had gotten Oscar nominations.
But what is it all for? Its brilliant work at the service of a story that I couldn’t care less about, mostly because it is a story that nobody really had any intention to tell with a narrative that gets us involved. The Conjuring is directed by James Wan whose work I’ve not come to like all that much. He was the architect behind the first Saw movie, which again was good looking but at the service of a story that left me sad. His other known property is Insidious, a lesser knock-off of Poltergeist; Death Sentence, a lesser knock off of Death Wish; and Dead Silence, a lesser knock-off of the old Anthony Hopkins thriller Magic. Do you see a pattern here?
The Conjuring is based on the allegedly true case of Ed and Lorraine Warren, real life paranormal investigators who are said to have investigated haunted houses all over the country. He’s a demonologist and she’s a clairvoyant and they are portrayed here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga not as individuals but more or less as fixtures to stand by when the furniture starts flying around the room. We see them in the beginning apparently teaching a class before an ominous text crawl reminds us that this movie is about their most disturbing case, followed by the giant letters of the title in bold yellow text. Subtlety is not in the repertoire.
The subjects involved are Roger and Caroline Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) a nice couple with five daughters who have just bought the creepiest and most unsettling house in Rhode Island and yet, like all subjects of a haunted house movie, they look on this unkempt gothic pile as the stuff on which they will build great memories. They’ve hardly unpacked when the kids notice things moving around by themselves. There are doors that open an close on their own, and one of the girls sees something in the corner that is apparently visible only to her.
If you have to wonder what the girl is seeing or why things are moving around by themselves, don’t worry, the characters will explain it all again and again and again and again. Seriously neither Ed and Lorraine nor Roger and Caroline ever stop explaining the plot to each other even when everybody in the room is aware of what is happening.
Ed and Lorraine come upon the disturbing information that the Perron house is not actually haunted – they are. There are ghosts in the house, lots of them and they seem focused on members of the immediate family. Every few minutes something happens, whether it be a possession, the manifestation of a ghost, or the umpteenth explanation of the nature of a haunting.
None of this would matter if the characters, the dialogue, or the narrative had any real sense of order or interest. The characters are hard to care about because they’re just pawns to move around the special effects. The dialogue doesn’t matter because it’s all boilerplate nonsense tacked on to add an excuse for some explanation of what’s going on.
The great special effects, the sound design, the set decoration are brilliant, but they are just window dressing. The Conjuring is the beginning of a haunted house movie with a big hole in the middle where the story should be.