Review: James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is a Smart, Thrilling Horror Film

THE CONJURING

I was a bit petrified to attend a screening of James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” but I’m glad I did. It was a fresh, fun horror flick that has become one of the summer’s surprise hits. Here is my 3 ½ star review from the Buffalo News.

True story. I was a fan of the first grimy, ultra-violent “Saw” film, and a few years later made a trek to the multiplex to see one of its sequels. By this point, any real creative juice in the limb-loosening series had leaked out, and things grew increasingly foul.

The film’s most memorably icky sequence was a long brain surgery episode, and it was so visually revolting that I took my glasses off, happy to stare at the screen and see only moving shapes and colors with a dopey grin on my face.

That was gross horror, and it was cheap and ugly. But good horror — like “The Conjuring” — has the ability to involve an audience like no other genre. It’s so fun, so wonderfully goosebump-inducing, that you won’t even think about taking your glasses off.

James Wan’s film is a smart, thrilling reminder that there is no cinematic experience as cathartic as a real scare. A good laugh and a bit of blubbering might come close, but to be genuinely frightened amid a crowd of gleeful fear-mongers – that is some kind of bliss.

That is why a movie like “The Conjuring” deserves more respect from the critical establishment than it will likely get. Wan’s modern haunted-house tale is a wonderfully old-school creation, a “Don’t go in the basement!” treat that might be the best pure horror film in years.

It is the early 1970s, and the cash-strapped Roger (Ron Livingston) and Caroline Perron (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters are moving into a rickety old farmhouse they bought at auction. Within minutes, there is reason to be weary (why won’t the dog enter the house?) And how come all the clocks stop at 3:07 every night?

What follows is a slow, methodical build. Wan does not rush the chills, letting them develop with ease over the first 30 to 45 minutes. When they do, they hit hard. Enter Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The paranormal investigators are quasi-rock stars in their field, having handled everything from demonic possession to the creepiest doll this side of “Poltergeist.”

When Caroline finds them, she and her family are a bundle of nerves, forced to huddle together every night for support. Over the film’s final hour, Ed, Lorraine and their team must find a way to “cleanse” the house and save the Perrons from a grim fate.

There are many reasons why “The Conjuring” is so impactful, and one of the keys, believe it or not, is its charm. Wan plays off genre tropes with expert precision — the creaky doors, stories of murdered children, creepy old toys. The audience knows what’s coming, but the director succeeds in making these scares feel fresh.

The setting also maximizes the creepiness, and not just because the ’70s fashions look so silly, but because of the technology of the time. At one point, Wan shoots a scene through a camera filming the Warrens in the home’s (gulp) basement, and it is handled so expertly that it renders the recent cluster of found-footage horror films truly useless.

But just as important as the setting and style are the performances. As Ed and Lorraine — the real-life couple known for their involvement in the Amityville Horror case — Wilson and, especially, Farmiga, are passionate, driven, yet wounded. As Ed explains, each case “takes a bit” out of his clairvoyant wife, and we can see that in Farmiga’s eyes.

The supporting cast, too, makes an impression. All five daughters are believably spooked, and I especially liked two members of the Warrens’ team, the square-jawed Officer Brad (John Brotherton) and the wry Drew (Shannon Kook), perhaps the unsung hero.

“The Conjuring” solidifies Wan’s spot near the top of the modern horror filmmakers’ list; last year’s “Insidious” and the original “Saw” (the original still packs a punch) were certainly among the more memorable of the last decade.

In fact, next, Wan will bring us “Insidious 2.” Prepare for more horror catharsis. And prepare for me to contemplate taking my glasses off.

Photo from Buffalo News review

 

Weekend Preview: “The Godfather” is Screening … Plus, Killer Horror and a Sure-Fire Bomb

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The best film showing this weekend in Buffalo? No brainer: On almost any weekend, if “The Godfather” is screening somewhere, the answer is going to be “The Godfather.”

The 1972 classic will be showing at The Screening Room for the first time ever on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday at 7:30, but note that the Saturday (July 20) show is a “‘Godfather’ food and film event,” an idea that is very fun in theory, at least.

Meanwhile, at the multiplex, we are nearing that strange point of the summer blockbuster season when most of the biggies have been released, and some of the iffier commercial propositions start dropping. Sometimes these are simply films that needed a wide berth from the major blockbusters. Such is the case with “Turbo,” the animated film coming out a few weeks after “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2” cleaned up. But “DM2” is SUCH a hit that perhaps a few more weeks would have helped …

“Turbo” should hit No. 1, but the other new releases this week — “The Conjuring,” “R.I.P.D.” and “Red 2” — could then fall in any order. I reviewed James Wan’s “Conjuring” for the Buffalo News, and, quite honestly, loved it — one of the finest horror films in recent years. These flicks tend to overperform, and I believe that will be the case here. Considering how cheap they cost to produce, it is rather shocking there are not more horror films being turned out.

On the other end of the spectrum is “R.I.P.D.,” a movie that has carried the whiff of a disaster for months. This one will flop, big, I believe, and that is a major dent in Ryan Reynolds’ career. It might even lose to “Red 2,” one of the more puzzling sequels of the year. “Red” was likable, and had a fine premise, but … “Red 2”? Really? It could prove a draw to over-40s, though, and might end up a solid earner.

Yes, it’s a weird week, indeed, although you can’t say there is not something for every demo.

Interestingly, the Elmwood Regal brings to town two Indian films, “Ramaiya Vastavaiya” and “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.” The latter is three hours long!

One of the year’s most buzzed-about indies, the Sundance hit “The Way, Way Back,” opens at the Amherst and Eastern Hills Dipsons, and I’m a bit torn. It looks hugely likable, and very “Adventureland,” yet its hard to summon up much enthusiasm. Its likable writer-directors, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, should be enough to draw me in, and I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise.

Also opening at the Amherst Dipson is the Kristen Wiig-starring “Girl Most Likely,” a so-so film I saw at TIFF 2012, and reviewed for the Buffalo News. “Girl” is also opening at the Quaker Crossing in OrchardPark.

In addition to “Way,” the acclaimed documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” and the is-this-still-up? Pierce Brosnan romance “Love is All You Need” are continuing their Eastern Hills runs.

Interestingly, Nicholas Winding-Refn’s “Only God Forgives” did not open at any local theaters, but it is available on VOD starting today. You can bet I’ll be ordering.

Ang Lee’s Best Director-worthy — to the Academy, not to me — “Life of Pi” is this week’s choice at Bacchus , while the UB North Campus features Tom Cruise in “Oblivion” on Friday and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” on Tuesday (July 23), both at 9:15, and the UB South Campus offers up the crappy, but timely, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on Wednesday (July 24).

Yes, “The Wolverine” is on its way. In a summer of some surprise flops, it looks like a safe bet … But that’s what they said about “White House Down,” isn’t it?

Poster art courtesy of Paramount Pictures