The haunted house movie is a genre nearly as old as film itself, and one that, much like its typical subject, hasn’t undergone much renovation. While technological advances (Steadicam, home video), trends (“found footage”, true crime) and tweaks to the basic format have brought us a few variations in make and model over the past 100 or so years, the basic idea is always the same: people move into a place where bad things happened, and bad things start happening to them.
It’s a story that we’ve all seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times. So when a haunted house film comes along that is able to tell us what we already know in a way that still gets under our skin, it is both a admirable achievement and a deliciously thrilling excuse to get the living shit scared out of you with a bunch of shrieking strangers.
The diabolically effective mid-summer surprise The Conjuring tells two stories, both based in fact. The first is that of the Perrons, a family who moved to a rural farmhouse in 1971 and soon found themselves at the center of a host of strange events. The other is the story of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, a deeply devout couple who devoted their lives to assisting those besieged by the supernatural from a home base of rural Connecticut.
We meet Carolyn (Lili Taylor – doing considerable penance here for that godawful remake of The Haunting) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron on the day that they move into their new home with their five adorable daughters. Right off the bat, something is wrong: the family dog won’t come in the house, and youngest daughter April becomes strangely fixated on a found music box. Before you can say “They’re here…”, all sorts of ominous occurrences begin scaring the wits out of the displaced family.
Meanwhile, Ed (Patrick Wilson, sporting some seriously sexy mutton chops) and Lorraine (the always-luminous Vera Farmiga) Warren are building their careers as the It Couple of Exorcisms. Aside from traveling all over the country to meet with people afflicted by hauntings and demonic forces (as introduced in a campy but effective case about a possessed doll tormenting some nurses), they keep a vault of cursed and possessed items locked up in their house and speak at colleges, explaining what they do and showing footage from their investigations. But their clearly strong marriage and working relationship has recently been upset by an unnamed event that affected Lorraine – a gifted clairvoyant – very deeply.
Pulling from the Warrens’ case file on the Perrons (their files also include the cases that inspired The Amityville Horror and A Haunting in Connecticut), sibling writers Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes keep things relatively simple: strange things happen, the family desperately reaches out for help, and the pros come in to try to dispel the boogedies. But there’s enough intrigue surrounding the house’s history and the ghostly goings-on to keep us guessing as to exactly who (or what) is doing what to whom. While we’re eager to learn more about the Warrens and their work, a shoehorned side story about their own daughter seems a bit forced, and is a bit of a distraction from the main event.