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25 Jul 2013

'The Conjuring' Offers Enough Effective Scares to Make It Worthwhile

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Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring.

I got a couple of good jolts out of The Conjuring, the latest from director James Wan.

I have deeply divided feelings about Wan. I sort of hate him for starting the whole Saw thing, and I sort of like him for twisted films like Insidious, Death Sentence and, to some extent, this one. No doubt: Wan is capable of constructing some good scare scenarios, and this haunted-house tale has its share.

This is one of those films that claim to be “based on a true story.” Whatever. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, well-known paranormal investigators who try to help out a family that has just moved into a Rhode Island house. They are like ghostbusters, but without proton packs and one-liners.

The family, shortly after moving in, finds their dog dead, birds smashing their heads into the house, and a ghost playing hide-and-seek. The dead dog would’ve been my cue to say “Screw this!” and head for the nearest Motel 6, but these dopes stick around to deal with ghosts, demons and whatnot. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), the mom, is getting mysterious bruises all over her body and experiencing strange dreams in which ghosts puke blood into her face. Roger (Ron Livingston), the dad, keeps finding dead animals and spooky parts of the house he didn’t know about. And no matter how many of his kids say that something just pulled at their feet during the night or wrestled with them on the floor, HE KEEPS THE FAMILY IN THE FREAKING HOUSE.

I forgive stupid horror-movie families if the film manages to scare me good at least twice. The Conjuring got to me at least five times, which is a damned good score for a routine haunted-house film. Actually, this is a haunted house film with demon possession and exorcism thrown in for good measure. As Wan showed with Dead Silence and Saw, he likes evil puppets and dolls as well. One particularly malevolent doll contributes to the mayhem, making this film a veritable stew of horror genres.

The Conjuring starts with the cheap sound and sight gags that plague most haunted-house movies. I thought for sure we were getting another low-budget flick in which there are a lot of moving sheets, closing doors and sudden sounds, as in the stupid Paranormal Activity movies. Wan, the evil bastard that he is, knows that many movie-viewers are jaded and will let their guards down. Then some pretty freaky visual stuff starts happening, and The Conjuring is off and running. This film is not afraid to show you who is making all those noises and screwing with those doors.

Wilson and Farmiga are good as the Warrens, the folks who allegedly investigated this ’70s haunting, along with the Amityville Horror. (The characters comment on needing to check out some problems on Long Island at one point.)

Both Wilson and Farmiga are doing good things in the horror genre these days, with Wilson starring in Insidious, and Farmiga making the rounds as Mrs. Bates in the Bates Motel TV series. Heck, Farmiga’s sister is kicking ass in the genre as well, starring in the first and third seasons of American Horror Story.

It’s good to see Taylor get a meaty role. It’s been a long while since she’s really factored in a movie, which is a shame, given her talents. Looking back at her resume, I am reminded that she appeared in The Haunting back in 1999. The Conjuring puts that pathetic remake to shame, and Taylor proves she can scream her ass off during a demonic possession and exorcism.

Wan and company deserve props for doing a lot of the effects the natural way. Wan has figured out that the more “real” something looks, the scarier it is. Actors and actresses in freaky makeup with the lighting just so can often out-creep CGI megabytes. There are a few instances in this movie in which gray and green makeup is the scare tactic of choice. It probably cost the makeup guys less than $50, and it scared me just fine.

Wan is in the midst of a busy movie year. After this, we shall get his Insidious: Chapter 2 in time for Halloween, and he just got the gig to direct one of cinema’s scariest creatures of them all: He’ll be helming Fast and Furious 7 starring the repugnant, naturally frightening Vin Diesel.

I’m scared already.

The Conjuring is playing at theaters across the valley.

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