Roeper: ‘The Conjuring’ a house in move-out condition
In virtually every haunted house movie, there comes a moment when we want to scream: “WHY DON’T YOU PEOPLE JUST MOVE OUT OF THAT HOUSE?”
Doors are slamming. Ghastly images are appearing in bathroom mirrors. Whispers are heard in the night. The children are talking to imaginary “friends.” The dog keeps barking — because dogs always know. So what’s it gonna take to get them out of there?
Credit “The Conjuring” for addressing that issue twice. First the dad explains they can’t move because they have five kids and no money, having poured all of it into purchasing this giant old house in the middle of nowhere. Later we’re told it wouldn’t matter anyway because the house’s demonic spirits have attached themselves to the family, and they’ll just move with them.
These attempts at semi-rational explanations for inexplicable (and often stupid) human behavior tell us “The Conjuring” knows what it is, and knows you know what it is — but let’s try to make it something more than another standard-issue, scary-movie thrill ride, shall we?
And it succeeds on most counts.
Set in the 1970s and “based on the true story” of a haunted family and the husband-and-wife team of demon hunters who tries to save them, “The Conjuring” is never above mining familiar territory for jump-in-your-seat-and-then-release-a-laugh moments — but it’s often framed in a uniquely twisted way by director James Wan.
Example: When a little girl musters up the courage to look under the bed in the dead of night, the camera spins and we get the little girl’s upside-down view, which ratchets up the anticipation factor. It’s a moment of giddy tension.
Reliable everyman Ron Livingston is Roger and Lili Taylor is wife Carolyn. Along with their five adorable daughters, they move into a farmhouse in Rhode Island. It takes all of about six hours for them to discover a hidden cellar that looks particularly forbidding — and that’s just the beginning. Long before the week is out, all the clocks are stopping each night at 3:07 a.m., mysterious bruises are surfacing on Carolyn’s arms and legs, the youngest daughter is sleepwalking and banging her head against an armoire, and ...
Well. Let’s just say, you’d move, even if you had five kids and no money. Sleeping in the station wagon would be far less traumatic.
Meanwhile, the well-known demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are working the lecture circuit and investigating reports of haunted houses, demonic possession and other otherworldly occurrences. (One of their clients was the Lutz family of Amityville. The horror. The horror.) They’ve got a daughter of their own, who is told time and again to never enter a certain room in their house in Connecticut. That’s because the room is filled with dozens of objects housing the contained spirits of various demons and ghosts.
And you thought the half-finished basement in your childhood home was a bit scary at night.
Once the Warrens are convinced the case in Rhode Island is authentic — and that doesn’t take long — they set up camp, “Poltergeist” style, with recording equipment and various other tools designed to track and, if possible, remove demonic spirits. Suddenly we’re plunged into an “Exorcist”-type story, as the Warrens explain to the family that the demon in this house is latching itself onto Carolyn so she’ll kill her children, just as previous mothers in this home have done.
Even after the house is crowded with the entire family plus a half-dozen demon hunters, “The Conjuring” manages to place individuals in one isolated situation after another, where the editing and music are perfectly timed to capitalize on the payoff scare moment. We also get a level of writing and acting rarely seen in this genre, particularly when the mothers bond over the fiercely protective love that a parent feels for a child. Taylor and Farmiga give standout performances, playing every inch of this film as if they’re onstage in an authentic drama and not in a movie in which they’re to exorcise a hideous spirit occupying one of them.
Even with all the “evidence” presented in the film and in a closing-credits montage in which we see the real-life family and ghost detectives, and the newspaper headlines of the time, “The Conjuring” feels like a familiar scary movie.
I still say they should have moved out earlier. The dog was trying to tell them.