James Wan’s The Conjuring – which has, by default, become the summer’s runaway horror phenomenon in the States – turns out to be a laboured 70s throwback possessed of the spirits of a thousand other films, most of them more interesting and terrifying. Allegedly based on a (yawn) true story, it finds Wan attempting to do The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist in one go for the benefit of those who’ve previously ventured no further than the Paranormal Activity series, and therefore have little idea where the next round of bangs, crashes and general gimcrackery is going to come from.
Yes, it’s yet another haunted-house movie, organised around a roomy, deceptively sturdy two-and-a-half storey property situated on the banks of a misty lake in woodland Rhode Island. The new owners, as of autumn 1970, were Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, possibly trying to atone for the Haunting remake), who installed themselves and their many interchangeably rosy-cheeked daughters, all blissfully unaware that Something Bad had happened there some years before.
Signs of possible malevolence racked up early, however: a dog who refused to cross the threshold, a clock that stopped each morning at precisely 3.07am, a boarded-up cellar full of junk (horror musicologists will appreciate the piano that plays but three atonal notes: dum-dun-durrr…), plus a variety of nocturnal bumps, bruises and nasty niffs. Enter demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his psychic wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), who collectively form a brow-furrowing variant on the ghostbusters Wan’s 2010 hit Insidious (which starred Wilson) played for laughs. Like the sinister children’s toys dotted around these sets (themselves a holdover from Wan’s Dead Silence), they’re another element that suggests we’re watching the same story being rejigged.
Welles, famously, saw the cinema as the best train set a boy could have; for Wan, it’s become a doll’s house. Ever since setting the endlessly reconfiguring Saw franchise in motion with 2004’s ingenious original, Wan has been content to use the mid-range multiplex budgets available to him to rattle or rearrange the furniture, and find different angles from which to observe those perennial shadows under the bed and behind the bedroom door.
There’s a degree of craft involved in this. Saw hinted at the importance of narrative to Wan’s thinking; he’s still commendably sparing when it comes to CG spectacle, and smart enough to retain the services of proven actors like Wilson and Farmiga, rather than the cheaper neophytes running round inside the Paranormal Activities. Yet they’re still passengers on a rollercoaster, expected to shriek whenever the film wants to go faster, and frantically gabble exposition in those lulls where everybody pops out to empty their bladders or visit the popcorn counter.
At nearly two hours, there are plenty of these in The Conjuring, and you’ll have to forgive me if I prefer Ti West’s generic revisitations (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), which sought to apply fresh licks of paint to tired horror formats, rather than merely rebranding the same old ingredients. The Conjuring’s US triumph again indicates that an awful lot of teenagers are prepared to blow their disposable income on whatever’s being pushed in their direction loudest – but, really, these bumps in the night are getting so regular and rhythmical as to be no more perturbing than the average Stomp concert.
The Conjuring is available on DVD through Warner Home Video; a sequel, The Conjuring 2, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.