Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie Review: "The Conjuring" by David Pretty

The Conjuring proves that its not how original your premise is, it's how well you execute it.  Director James Wan and his writing partners Carey and Chad Hayes patiently set all of the pieces in place, subject us to a rising crescendo of escalating frights and then deliver a satisfying conclusion.  And, thankfully, unlike Wan's Insidious from 2011, this one stays right on target and doesn't make you pine for its superior influences.  In fact, this one can stand proudly along such classic spook stories as The Changeling or Poltergeist.      

Stop me if you've heard this one: a family gets a cut-rate deal on an isolated farm house and weird shit starts happening as soon as they move in.  Eventually they're forced to enlist the aid of paranormal investigators in order to combat the rising tide of evil that begins to assail them in increasingly terrifying ways.  If this doesn't sound very promising, you'd be forgiven.  But I'm here to assure you that The Conjuring is tight, focused and distressingly convincing.

One of the film's few welcome innovations is making the husband and wife investigative team the main focus of the story.  Ghost tracker Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his psychically-sensitive wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are shown tangling with demonic dolls and possessed victims long before they come to the aid of the Perron family.  Even better, they're actually shown debunking a case as nothing more malevolent then some water damage and bad piping.

But for earnest parents Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), their story is far from a cautionary about the importance of retaining a good home inspector.  Before a speck of dust lands on their dining room table they're immediately plagued by an intense case of the wiggins.  The family dog drops dead.  Birds kamizake the side of the house.  One daughter habitually sleepwalks into an armoire and another is convinced that someone is pulling her leg.  A creepy basement is revealed with a player piano that isn't a player piano.

It isn't long before the Perron children are assaulted by the physical manifestations of demonic forces inhabiting the house.  In a last, ditch effort to stem back the tide of darkness, they retain the Warrens to stock the house with a gauntlet of temperature-sensitive cameras, UV lights, audio equipment and religious paraphernalia.  But instead of deterring their supernatural opponents, the attacks escalate, leading to an all-out battle for the family's collective soul.

Even though most of it is likely staged, I'm a real sucker for spooky reality shows like Paranormal State and Ghost Adventures.   And although my faith has long since lapsed, there's something inherently creepy about Catholic dogma.  Since the film is set in 1971, references to God, demonology and spiritual faith all feel era-appropriate.  Wiccans will likely roll their eyes at the negative evocation of witches as evil, forgetting that crazy people have done a lot of legitimately nutty things over the years in the guise of every religion, including witchcraft.

I'm also an easy mark for any movie that evokes the phrase "based on a true story".  Unfortunately, when most flicks roll out that crusty little cliche they either bore the audience to tears with creaking doors and flying bedsheets or generate enough CGI to give George Lucas a raging semi.  Mercifully James Wan and his crew strike a perfect balance between the manipulation of their inherently creepy environment and the escalating manifestations that follow.

As if acutely aware that their premise is shaky, Wan and chief cameraman John R. Leonetti overcompensate with a veritable playbook of excellent set-ups and innovative cinematography.  The camera is often wielded in-hand, infusing many shots with a discordant and unsettling mood.  Often we're pulled into a character's perspective via some truly immersive over-the-shoulder POV shots.  Wan also employs some really bold angles, such as the disorienting scene in which the camera pivots on the ceiling overhead, tracking Lorraine like an omniscient, malevolent spirit as she rushes to Carolyn's aid.  There's even a touch of Kubrickian symetry during the scene in which dark forces use object transference to menace Lorraine and Ed's daughter. 
Jaded audiences might roll their eyes at the tired idea of "found footage" but the concept is used very sparingly here, resulting in a unique scene that's memorable instead of conventional.  When Ed, Lorraine and company venture down into that creepy basement with their recording equipment for the first time, there are just enough weird little occurrences to set up the truly terrifying solo delves that follow.  The film stock is authentic, the camerawork is faithful and the cast really helps to sell the scene.

It's this attention to detail that keeps us invested as the increasingly-intense frights pile up.  The house is a character unto itself, with plenty of cavernous bedrooms, dark corners and distressed surfaces.  The Seventies era-clothing, decor, vehicles and props are all spot-on.  Various creepy incarnations, from the demented witch, to the young boy, to the maid to the creepy devil doll Annabelle are depicted with minimal prosthetics and make-up effects and no CGI.  The scene in which the rocking chair-bound Bathsheba and the doll terrorize Ed and Lorriane's daughter is truly the stuff of nightmares.

This effective visual assault is augmented by an equally intense audio component.  Surround sound is used to peak effectiveness, particularly during the hide-n'-seek clapping game, frantic moments in the basement and during the manic conclusion.  Autonomous piano notes, disembodied giggling, and inexplicable voices and white noise heard on the monitoring equipment all add to the effect.  Throw in a soundtrack by Joseph Bishara which is rife with ominous strains, sadistic build-up and spine-jangling stings, and you've got an auditory experience that's just as effective as the visual.

The performances are a solid match for the film's measured tone.  Vera Farmiga is particularly good as the psychically sensitive Lorriane Warren.  Given the character's ability to see manifestations of spiritual and demonic forces, Farmiga plays Lorriane Warren as someone constantly threatened with mental and emotional distress.  She does an incredible job portraying a woman who has seen some unspeakably horrific things but is obliged use her gift in the service of others.

Patrick Wilson is a great match as her husband Ed Warren.  Although he's fiercely protective of his wife, he also knows that she might slip away from herself if she were to become idle.  As such, he's an endless source of support and protection.  Wilson delivers a boundless font of determination and sympathy to the role.  Perhaps most importantly, can deliver reams of dialogue about ghost, demons and cursed objects with a perfectly straight face.  In fact, he's able to crank out the paranormal lore with such gravitas that it's as seamless as the visual effects.      

As haunted mom Carolyn Perron, the infinitely-talented Lily Taylor is given the most challenging task out of all the cast.  When the story begins, she's the typical hopefully mom, trying to acclimate her five daughters into a new environment and parley this experience into a new beginning.  But when she starts waking up with mysterious and angry-looking bruises and her kids get attacked in the middle of the night, she segues into a fierce and formidable guardian.  Taylor is so perfect in this capacity, it makes the last third of the film extremely difficult to watch.

The only actor that seems slightly out of place is Ron Livingston as Roger Perron.  Notwithstanding my own inability to disassociate him from Peter Gibbons in Office Space,  Livingston seems oddly nonplussed by everything, including the film's batshit-crazy climax.  Although his on-screen chemistry with Lily Taylor isn't particularly convincing, I don't consider this to be a liability.  Since Roger is a long-haul truck driver and absentee dad, this hints at some niggling resentment lurking just below the surface of his relationship with Carolyn.  The bottom line is: he's perfectly fine in the role.

The talented young actresses called upon to play the Perron children are equally convincing.  Bitter and intuitive, Shanley Caswell is great as the eldest daughter Andrea.  As Nancy, Hayley McFarland seems oblivious to the spooky stuff until her first encounter with Bathsheba renders her acutely horrified.  Joey King is particularly sympathetic as the eternally-besieged Christine.  With her somnambulistic habits and ghostly ESP, Mackenzie Foy actually helps contribute to the early atmosphere as Cindy.  And finally Kyla Deaver evokes shades of a young Drew Barrymore as Gertie in E.T. in her turn as April. 

Thanks to some disciplined writing, patient direction, solid performances, great camerawork and dedication to time-honored terror techniques, The Conjuring is elevated above and beyond its hackneyed premise.  Gorehounds and torture porn fans beware: there's not a lot on display here for you.  But for folks like myself who are desensitized to viscera and are just looking for a creepy, immersive horror experience, The Conjuring is one of the best examples to come down the pike in a very long time.

Tilt: up.

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