'Fact'-based ghost story from James Wan, director of Insidious, Saw and Dead Silence
'Based on a true story' has become the most over used cliché in horror cinema. It's become such a regular within the genre that viewers have become cynical, dismissing it almost as soon as it flashes upon the screen. The Conjuring has slightly more claim to 'the truth' as it's based on the case files of renowned supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Celebrity ghostbusters (though they prefer the term demonologists) who appeared regularly on TV, in the tabloids and on the lecture circuit, they're most famous for their research on the Amityville 'House of Horror' and co-authoring books with incendiary titles such as Satan's Harvest and Werewolf: A True Story of Demonic Possession. Of course many skeptics, academics and writers refute their wild claims but, whatever your view on the supposed reality of ghosts and demons, it's a great jumping off point for a movie.
Set in 1971, this particular case involves the Perron family, who have just moved into an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. As soon as they arrive you can tell something isn't quite right: their dog refuses to enter the house, temperatures fluctuate wildly and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) wakes covered in mysterious bruises. Soon clocks are stopping 3.07am every night while something nasty is grabbing the children while they sleep. The supernatural activity quickly accelerates until Carolyn contacts the Warrens and they decamp to the house, bringing all the usual ghost hunting equipment (UV lamps, trigger cameras, mics, etc) with them as they attempt to exorcize the evil spirit.
Having recently directed Insidious you can tell James Wan feels at home in the haunted house genre. However The Conjuring does feel a bit like a rerun of Insidious, almost like a prequel, especially as Wilson plays a lead role in both. There's been a spate of superior ghost stories in recent years (Paranormal Activity, Sinister, Mama and the aforementioned Insidious) which in many ways felt like a backlash to the gory excess of the torture porn era (first popularised by Wan's own Saw series) and while The Conjuring is incredibly well made, the shocks and scares are slickly delivered, there's little we haven't seen before. A real plus is the quality of the acting involved, Farmiga and Taylor in particular really commit to their roles through the dark and twisted narrative. Modern films always reach that point where they have to finally show the audience the malevolent spirit; the slow build is always more satisfying than the final reveal, and it all gets a bit frantic and goes a bit Evil Dead II in the closing reel. Admittedly there are some deeply creepy moments and several terrifying jump scares that will jolt the audience as intended but there's little that will linger beyond the end credits.
Screening at Filmhouse, Thu 27 & Sat 29 Jun as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2013. General release from Fri 2 Aug.