Conjuring up Mediocrity
Review of The Conjuring (2013)
By Adam Tawfik
On paper, horror entrepreneur James Wan’s The Conjuring had many things working in its favor. The MPAA uncompromisingly issued it an R-rating (as opposed to the typical PG-13 rating given to summer horror films), not because of violence or gore (like Wan’s Saw franchise), but on the grounds that the overall film was too psychologically scary, and no cuts could be made to remedy that.
With heaps of critical praise and a leading cast that includes Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, two of the most consistently unique actresses working in independent and off-beat films, plus solid actors Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson, this seems like a perfect commercial and artistic union.
Once again, the censorship board makes an arbitrary and idiotic ruling and that elusive union is yet again unattained. Unfortunately Conjuring only (marginally) lived up to its potential in its first act. Following an atmospheric retro 1970’s horror opening sequence, we meet paranormal husband-and-wife team Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Farmiga) as they deliver a lecture about their dealings with an uberly demented porcelain Annabelle doll dominating the apartment of two kindly nursing students.
Then we cut to the Perrons (Livingston and Taylor), a salt-of-the-earth couple with five daughters who buy a suspiciously inexpensive house somewhere way out in booneyville Rhode Island. From the get-go the insidious but unseen spirits terrorize the womenfolk (and kill their dog). After bearing abuse for thirty minutes or so, Mrs. Perron begs for the Warren’s help.
It is around this juncture that Conjuring loses its steam. Although the Warrens become more integral characters, Chad and Carey Hayes’ screenplay provides a most superficial overview of the methodology of their paranormal investigations further butchered by the fact that it is primarily conveyed through a series of unambiguously prosaic dialogue exchanges rather than allowing the mystery to uncover gradually through a visual lens.
Wan badly overcompensates the second half’s plot deficiency with ostentatiously grotesque CGI ghosts whose obviousness ruins the low-key ominousness established by unseen terrors. Added to the clutter are two superfluous stock characters: an initially skeptical, but kindly and slightly bumbling police officer (played by John Brotherton in an annoyingly Seth Rogian style) and the Warrens’ handsome but dull assistant (Shannon Kook).
Regrettably, most of the acting is on par with the rest of the film. Patrick Wilson gives a robotic performance as the protagonist while Ron Livingston and the daughters (played by five interchangeable actresses) are all monotonously bland.
But the biggest disappointment is Vera Farmiga, who normally excels at playing otherworldly characters. Here she is surprisingly glib and acts more like a B-movie scream queen than an accomplished expert of the supernatural.
In its favor Conjuring provides the inexplicably underutilized Lili Taylor with her most significant part in a long time. Delivering the sole three-dimensional performance, Taylor vividly captures the essence of a loving and protective mother progressively crumbling under the mental and physical strain of fighting demonic forces co-opting her body. Even at her most demented she infuses her character with humanity and vulnerability that singlehandedly rescues the third act from total banality.
Making matters worse, the sub-plots are more interesting than the main story. The Annabelle doll vignette has a bounce and energy that the rest of the film lacks, and its story could have inspired a quirky and enjoyably trashy flick.
A tragic séance that led a disturbed man to murder and suicide (and left Lorraine with PTSD) is the film’s most promising element, but its underdevelopment (the scene was thirty seconds tops) made it devoid of any meaningful impact. Had it been properly fleshed out, an engaging and taut cinematic experience with rich characterizations could have emerged.
Conjuring is indicative of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking in that it is a polished, competent, and perfectly generic product. That critics and audiences have so widely flocked to it enables blandness to fester in popular culture in favor of other creative filmmaking expressions enlivened with personality and dynamism that have made several seminal 70s horror films (most notably The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie) and tons of fantabulously campy exploitative ones by schlock auteurs such as Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, and Jack Hill enduring classics.
Before you settle for this lifeless, middle-of-the-road trite or the upcoming sure-to-be lackluster sequel imaginatively entitled The Conjuring 2, be sure to check out some contemporary Asian horror. Films such as The Isle (South Korea 2000), Audition (Japan 1999), and the definitive haunted house story A Tale of Two Sisters (S. Korea 2004) are foremost character studies around which a subtle but taut narrative is constructed that relentlessly keeps tension bubbling before reaching a chaotic psychological and visceral closing that offers closure while leaving us reverberating in shock. Better yet, many of these films are available on Netflix waiting for a widespread appreciation.