“Before Amityville, there was Harrisville…” That’s the promise offered up by the clever marketing team at Warner Bros, and it mostly works. I love (translation: love) a good haunted house movie, and The Conjuring is largely effective in delivering old-fashioned scares with the tiniest smidgen of gore. Director James Wan has really learned how to hold his wad, so to speak, and he demonstrates a masterful amount of restraint while delivering suspense-filled moments. In fact, Wan now shows himself to be an expert of extending breath-holding instances just long enough to make his audience squirm, and then he holds a few seconds longer. The effect is, to say the very least, unsettling, but the method wears thin by the end of the movie and nearly undoes the film’s cleverness.
A cheesy yet mood-setting opener involving a super-creepy, fucking nightmare-inducing doll sets the stage for the film’s setting 1971 in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The
Pennon Perron family of seven, headed by Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor), joyously move into their steal of a farmhouse (“got it at auction,” of course). At first, things seem normal enough, but of course, the family dog knows right away that this house shouldn’t exist in the human realm. The next morning, things are a bit askew to those who’ll care to notice, but Carolyn is the type to realize little things like the clocks all stopping at 3:07 in the morning while freezing drafts and odd smells pervade. As the nights wear on and Carolyn starts to acquire mysterious and unexplainable bruises, the couple’s five daughters (including a remarkably haunting Mackenzie Foy as Cindy) begin to feel far too terrorized, so Carolyn seeks out the big guns.
Enter Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Harris. She’s a clairvoyant; he’s a demonologist of the Catholic church. The script does a marvelous job with this (relatively) fearless couple, and instead of building the main characters as stock pieces to simply fill the spots while the demonic presence does all the hard work in the movie, the four central adult characters are all drawn and shaded quite nicely. In particular, one gets a real glimpse inside the characters of Lorraine and Ed. Both are rather selfless people, and we get a very accurate sense of just how much Lorraine’s gift takes out of her each time they help someone while Ed’s guilt at this paradox is palpable. Yet they persist in their work and will carry on even after the dust settles on this current case.
One quickly grows to adore these ghostbusters. Wilson brings a solid and assured presence to his character, who has endured and witnessed starkly horrifying events as part of his profession, and Farmiga’s presence is just impeccable. She’s an amazing actress, and one can’t keep their eyes off her every move. Every turn of the wrist is not without purpose, and without saying a word, she’ll seemingly communicate entire books of history into your mind. It’s a truly haunting performance, and with such excellent emoting going on in such a gorgeously rendered movie, one wants to believe. In addition, the “dark presence” of the movie is legitimately and shittastically scary, so the movie really should work.
But then it starts to fall apart.
Here’s why I hesitate to give this film a standing ovation — and while I ordinarily find it lazy when critics mention audience members’ reactions to movies, this move seems proper now for a reason that I will attempt to adequately explain. You see, the marketing of this movie was extremely promising, and I went into The Conjuring feeling quite a bit more wound up than usual when anticipating a horror flick. I really wanted this movie to be perfect, but I could sense that something was not quite right and a bit off, yet I certainly didn’t want to admit it to myself — at least not until the experience was complete. Then, at that precise moment when I was arguing within my head (about 60 minutes into the film), the guy next to me let out a very loud but completely not sarcastic yawn. I, in shock, slowly turned my head in his direction, and he sheepishly looked over at me and muttered, “Sorry.” As much as he annoyed me at the time, that dude was correct.
With that said, the movie admittedly drags a bit too much in the first hour before the ball really gets rolling on disturbing events in the house. The entirety of the film spans 110 minutes, which is fairly long these days for a horror film, and shaving a good 10-15 minutes of build up at the beginning of the film could have made this a more effective thriller. As it stands, the pace is far too slow to maintain the momentum needed to sustain the film’s ending payoff. I get that Wan is honing his abilities of restraint with this movie (and I applaud his effort as well as his sparing use of CGI), but he takes things a little bit too far with some needless exposition in the first and second acts. Then — bam! — the third act hits and all hell (literally) breaks loose. With a tighter script, this would have been a stellar scare flick, but there’s an excess of lingering moments that leads to exhaustion. When one’s audience can sense that they’re being played, the suspense has gone too far and blows itself out much like long-abandoned candles.
The Conjuring does have its moments of excellence though. The climactic scenes at the end include a fairly effective exorcism sequence, and the resolution does a fine job of tying up loose ends and providing for a very creepy final 30 seconds; but that’s not enough to redeem the dragging moments that pull one out of the movie — especially during the lull at the end of the second act. There’s also a somewhat distracting subplot involving the Harris couple’s own daughter that does serve the ultimate purpose of the story (and builds more character-driven moments) but still feels a bit tacked onto the main plot. Audiences should expect to be visually enchanted with a fairly smart and not-at-all insulting premise and story. Two solid action scenes and a few more knee-jerk moments can be wrung out of the experience as well as a whole lot of spine-tingling that results in a fun enough experience while watching the movie. But you certainly won’t be enduring any sleepless nights after watching the film.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.