According to the demonologists in The Conjuring, there are three stages of demonic activity: infestation, oppression, and possession. I don’t know about the other two, but the sound design of the movie is oppressive beyond belief — this goddamn thing is louder than Pacific Rim. The soundtrack rumbles and moans ominously, doors creak open at the volume of the earth cracking open, doors slam shut with the impact of a bank vault falling five stories. Once, a few framed family photos crash to the floor with such aural aggression that they could wake up people in the next county, though most of the household sleeps through it. And that’s all before the main event begins, with the shrieking and the howling and the Latin-shouting and the deep-bass Dolbying.
Most of the power of The Conjuring derives from its use, or overuse, of sound and shadow and menacing mood. The director, James Wan (who issued the surprisingly lucrative demon flick Insidious two years ago), seems interested lately in spooking audiences the old-fashioned way; the movie is rated R, though there’s no sex/nudity, scant swearing that I can remember, and pretty much no blood except for a cop who gets bitten on the cheek. Indeed, this was a big story in the online film-geek press some months back: it seems that The Conjuring is simply too scary for a PG-13 rating. The MPAA’s official decree as it appears in ads is that the R indicates “sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” which I guess is true, if by “disturbing violence and terror” they mean “the same jump scares you’ve seen in a hundred PG-13 ghost/demon horror flicks, only really loud.”
The movie is allegedly drawn from the real-life attempts of the paranormal-crusader couple Ed (demonologist) and Lorraine (psychic) Warren, played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, to contend with otherworldly bullies making home life hell for a Rhode Island family in 1971. The demon appears to be the shade of a “witch” who hanged herself from a tree in the front yard centuries ago, and has since amused herself by making mothers kill their children. To this end, the demon targets Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor in her first major-release haunted-house film since 1999’s The Haunting remake; at least The Conjuring is better, and I’m always tickled to see a one-time indie-film goddess like Taylor in a summer creepshow for the masses, though she spends most of the climax in a burlap bag. Even The Haunting didn’t treat her so disrespectfully.
Ron Livingston, looking like a cross between Kyle Chandler and Paul LeMat, is the lumpily amiable and useless husband, and the family is rounded out by five daughters I could never tell apart, except for the youngest, who’s always talking to a little-boy ghost via the mirror in a music box. The movie runs for a while on minor portents gradually ratcheting up, sometimes cutting away to show the Warrens at home with their daughter, who, fortunately for her always-on-call ghostbuster parents, has a nanny to look after her. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make a pleasant and intriguing team — I might sit for a TV show about the Warrens if they reprised the roles. The Warrens seem admirably cool in the face of demonic hissy fits — they’ve seen it all, though Lorraine is haunted by something she saw during an exorcism. What was it? “I don’t know and I won’t ask,” says Ed, and the movie — to its credit, or perhaps saving something for a sequel — is equally taciturn about it.
I don’t know much about the actual Perron case, other than that weird stuff happened and the family lived in the house for ten years. As the movie has it, they’re there for maybe a few months or even weeks, and it all builds to a climax in which a scissors-wielding Lili Taylor chases a little girl through a hidden passage in the walls. This, I am reasonably sure, did not actually happen. I also cannot comment on whether the thing that truly saved the family was not the power of Christ but the memory of a really nice day at the beach. In some ways, The Conjuring, set in the ’70s, seems to have been made in the ’70s; all it needs at the end is a heartwarming freeze-frame of the happy, no-longer-demonized family. But the score cheeses things up quite enough as it is, leading to a final onscreen quote from Ed (dead these seven years now) admonishing us to believe in God and Satan. Wait, and here I thought all you need is love and a family beach photo.