Death Warmed Up
Imagine you’re a man with a penchant for violence that moves into a dilapidated farmhouse with his wife and five daughters. You’re mentally unsound: an abuser, a sexual predator. By day you present yourself as a normal, happy go lucky Dad; you play with the Dog, you ignore your children and fix appliances, you pet your wife. By night you beat your spouse until she’s the same colour as your favourite rock band. You interfere with your kids while they sleep and when the family hound tries to intervene you snap its neck to keep it quiet. Your wife, brutalised by the abuse, wants to leave you and take the kids. When you veto the idea she threatens to kill them.
Neither you nor your brood can face up to the reality of what’s happening of course, it’s far too awful, so instead when your youngest daughter claims to hear things go bump in the night (it was you), you see your chance and lend credence to the idea that the house is besieged by a demonic force, which in a manner of speaking it is.
This evil sprite gets the blame for everything; your wife’s bruises, the “thing” your daughters claim they can see in the corner of their rooms after dark and the dead dog. It also takes the wrap for all the things you smashed while meandering around the house in a drunken rage. Later, when you learn the previous owners died under suspicious circumstances and the house’s bad reputation is part of local folklore you can hardly believe your luck. You find two local cranks that think they have a connection with the dead and get them to verify your story. You’re going to get away with this and better yet, one day some fool’s going to buy the film rights and shoot it the way you told it. You’re one lucky bastard.
Of course there’s no evidence that’s the real story behind the alleged 1971 household enspookment of the Rhode Island Perron family; the basis for James Wan’s latest house possession yarn. My version, for the benefit of the family’s lawyers, is clearly absurd – based on the outrageous proposition that demons don’t exist. It can’t hold a flickering candle to the official account, retold here with the usual genre refinements.
The one storey farmhouse the Perrons occupied for a decade (condensed into a few months for the purposes of dramatisation) is given more floors, a creepy cob-web strewn basement, a surfeit of creaking doors, a steadycam friendly layout with corners aplenty, sinister bric-a-brac and ‘70s horror lighting. Wan, perhaps channelling the spirit of many a boo-merchant, handles this documentary material with the manipulative tendencies of a well-practiced horror director. His camera moves furtively though each half-lit room, sinister houseguests appear fleetingly or in soft focus, his adult characters demand to know what’s going on and his kids already know but lack the audience’s adult wherewithal and subsequently can’t articulate their fears in any meaningful fashion. It is, in short, a house of clichés; the story you’ve seen in one iteration or another in Wan’s own Insidious and many more, including Sinister, Mama and Dark Skies, but here’s the spooky thing – The Conjuring’s really rather good.
Familiarity can and perhaps should breed contempt, yet any temptation to lapse into Wan puns – a wan story, wan characterisation – are frustrated by the director’s irritating insistence on delivering in both departments. It may be as subtle as a glory hole but at least all concerned had enough sense to establish both sets of characters, that’s the besieged family and investigating husband and wife team Lorraine and Ed Warren, before going hard on the scares.
Wan employs a highly effective slow-burn strategy, foreshadowing the shocks and dropping in a couple of false alarms before putting his audience through their ordeal. When the nastiness commences it’s brutally efficient; polished scaremongering that attests to his assured touch and the enduring efficacy of malevolent sound design and ear bleeding orchestral cues in creating vivid psychological effects, often in the absence of any substantive horror on screen.
That polish belies the fact that The Conjuring’s a sausage made from the ground-up leftovers of other movies. Said offcuts are fact based of course, assuming your belief in the supernatural has not yet been tainted by cynicism from the empirical brigade. In that event you probably believe the film’s true grounding to be older horror films and their stock shocks. If so it surely must be time to start thinking about new and innovative ways to scare the bughuul out of us – you know, imaginary ways, as well as arresting Mr Perron. His luck has to run out some time.