The Conjuring (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks.

“Nothing’s a toy – not even the toy monkey.”

This is how demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) describes to a journalist the artefacts, collected from countless cases, that he and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) keep locked safely away in their home. We have already been introduced to a devilish doll (named Annabelle) in the prologue to The Conjuring, and will later see an oracular music box, and a children’s game of ‘hide and clap’ being conducted between two worlds. Yet as Lorraine puts it, “Demonic spirits don’t possess things, they possess people.” So as the most everyday of things – a locket, a wardrobe, a photograph – become invested with uncanny associations of comfort or dread, director James Wan is playing his own surrealist games as a filmmaker, holding up a mirror to his viewers’ anxieties. Here, if the plumbing clangs and rattles, it’s because the pipe is not a pipe, as Wan defamiliarises everything in the domestic life of the Perron family – father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters – and conjures a creepy spirit to fill otherwise inanimate objects (and a lifeless screen).

If the room full of dangerous curios points to the Warrens’ long history of supernatural entanglement, then The Conjuring is also a prequel of sorts. For these real-life husband-and-wife paranormal researchers actually did investigate the haunting of the Perrons’ Harrisville farmhouse in the early 1970s, shortly before their better known involvement with the Lutz family which has been (twice) commemorated and sensationalised in film as The Amityville Horror (1979, 2005). Not that chronology matters much in Wan’s world of revenant phantoms and clairvoyant visions – for he looks both backwards (and forwards) to the Amityville films, while also bringing in his own anything-goes sensibility, and even alluding to his own filmography – not least Insidious (2010) with which The Conjuring shares its demonological themes, its fearsome family focus, and Wilson in a lead role.

As with Insidious, Wan builds slowly from classic haunted-house tropes (the dog dying, doors creaking, clocks stopping and things generally going bump in the night) to a full-blown pandemonium of ghosts, witches, possessions, exorcisms, and frantic crawlspace tussles. None of these constituent parts could be called original, but their panicked combination is truly dizzying. Wan may have little interest in packing his empty genre routines with subtext or substance, but he knows exactly how to ratchet up tension and craft a good scare, and he lets an excellent cast inhabit some wonderful period design. Here’s hoping for a second conjuring, this time with the toy monkey.

© Anton Bitel