by Patricia Grandjean
Jul 26, 2013
11:06 AMBox Office
Two-Bit Review: "The Conjuring"—Umm ... So What?
Horror is not an especially well-respected movie genre these days. The only times such flicks seem to matter to anybody but the hormonally overloaded adolescent audience is when they make really big money. This week, a lot of media attention has been showered on The Conjuring, supposedly because it's clobbering big-budget Hollywood clunkers like The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim at the box office. Shot for a relatively lean $13 million, in its first weekend The Conjuring collected triple that ($41,855,326) and is still climbing—respectably—into its second week.
Scarefests that seem to come out of nowhere and wind up breaking the bank are part of a long movie-business tradition. In 1984, Wes Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street for $1.8 million; six months after its release that November it had grossed $26.5 milion domestically. The Blair Witch Project, made for $60,000, cleared $29 million only a month after its July 1999 debut. Most strikingly, 2009's Paranormal Activity, put together with a chicken-scratchy budget of $15,000, ultimately earned $108 million at the U.S. box office, making it (arguably) the most profitable film ever—based on return of investment, that is.
So, The Conjuring has exceeded expectations for its financial success. Is it a "good" movie? Depends on your standards. If you're the kind of person who likes the usual steady diet of clever shocks and surprises—people falling through rotting staircases, spectres emerging and disappearing willy-nilly, a lot of amped-up screaming—then sure. If your tastes veer more towards, say, classics like Psycho or Rosemary's Baby—or recent chillers with something more than supernatural hokum on their minds, like Cabin in the Woods or Take Shelter or The Bay—this one's unlikely to make a dent.
Local interest in The Conjuring is greater than usual, because it's reportedly based on a "real-life" case handled by Connecticut's well-known ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren of Monroe. Without revealing too many spoilers, we'd say that the liberties director James Wan (previously responsible for Saw and Insidious) takes with the "facts" are—as in most movies that claim objective accuracy—as broad as the proverbial barn door. The BS starts flying from the very first scenes, when the film tells the story of one of the Warrens' most infamous cases: Annabelle, the "possessed" Raggedy Ann doll. In the late '60s this doll, the legend goes, terrorized a nursing student and her roommate to such a degree that she was surrendered to the Warrens, even after a supposedly successful exorcism of the girls' apartment eliminated whatever was making her do her voodoo.
In an interview with the Warrens in the '90s, I came face to face with Annabelle on a tour of the couple's occult museum. Now, I have to admit Raggedy Ann dolls simply don't spook me. Perhaps I'm in the minority. But I was ready to pay twice my admission to see what Wan, a pretty ingenious director, might do to convince skeptics like me that Annabelle was capable of feats like trying to strangle one of the girls' overnight guests (part of the "real story"). That struck me as a challenge akin to scaring off home invaders with a water pistol.
Alas, what Wan does is simply evade the issue. The movie Annabelle is not a Raggedy Ann, but a cross between Chucky and the clown from Stephen King's It, dressed and coiffed as though she had just starred in a remake of Heidi. No one would have any trouble imagining this doll defacing walls or banging thunderously on doors—I mean, she looks like she could go toe-to-toe with Regan from The Exorcist. Nightmarish? Sure. Campy? Yes, that too—to the point that I wondered whether the director was deliberately pulling our collective legs. Regardless, she's a cheat, because as even the movie Warrens take pains to explain, Annabelle wasn't inherently evil—just a conduit for evil spirits who are looking for a way to inhabit vulnerable humans.
The Conjuring as a whole gives one the uncomfortable feeling that the director wants it both ways—throughout the movie I heard just as much tittering as gasping. That works for a self-aware movie like Scream, but not so much when you feel like the butt of the joke. (I found myself genuinely spooked only once, during a game of hide-and-seek.) It's hard, too, to know how to take the principal characters: While Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor perform credibly as Roger and Carolyn Perron, Ma and Pa of a clan victimized by a bevy of spirits at their suspect Rhode Island home, Patrick Wilson seems almost a parody of the somewhat stiff and square Ed Warren—who's called upon to do, at the climax, something his widow Lorraine has said he never would do in real life—while Vera Farmiga clearly takes Lorraine absolutely seriously. It's a flattering, sympathetic portrayal; the kind I imagine might spring from having lived with Warren for a period of time, as Farmiga did. The movie alludes to the Warrens devout, downright reactionary grasp of Christianity—evident to anyone who ever went to one of their profitable college talks—but never really grapples with it or considers its sometimes discomfiting role in their paranormal investigations, often conducted as a type of mission.
The story goes that this movie began its rather rocky development process more than 20 years ago, when Ed Warren played a tape of an interview he did with Carolyn Perron for a Hollywood producer and said, "If we can't make this into a film, I don't know what we can." Since seeing it, I keep imagining the movie that could have been made had the story caught the fancy of, say, Martin Scorsese or Barry Levinson—or even someone who's routinely managed to bring depth to paranormal fantasies, like Joss Whedon. Guess I'll have to keep dreamng.Two-Bit Review: "The Conjuring"—Umm ... So What?