When Hollywood tries to handle the demonic, it typically does so in one of three ways: as camp (Night of the Demons), as a supernatural thriller (Fallen), or as religious-themed horror (The Exorcist). The first category is easily identifiable. What distinguishes the latter two is the film’s decision to deal with demons as just another creepy monster or as they are in reality. If the story takes the path of reality, the Church is the go-to as the antidote for the demon’s evil. This can be good if handled properly. However, moviedom tends to be squeamish about letting the Church or God get away with being the hero in such matters, so there is often a lot of hedging done in order to make sure that credit isn’t really given where due (Exorcist III, for example).
Keep in mind that this whole thing is supposed to be a true story and that actual participants in the events were consultants on the movie. Whether or not that makes it accurate, I have no idea.
The Conjuring (2013, rated R) is the story of a family, the Perrons, who move into a new house. They are soon attacked by the evil spirits that live there. In an effort to combat these forces, they call on the aid of Ed Warren, a well-known demonologist, and his wife Lorraine, who is a clairvoyant. The Warrens agree, and the battle begins.
Full stop to provide some context. The Warrens are definitely real people (note: Ed passed away back in 2006) and pretty famous, mostly for looking into the whole Amityville deal, which they always claimed was a real haunting. Nothing in this review is meant to act as approval for the Warrens. While they have always claimed to be Catholic, and the movie certainly portrays them that way, the fact that Lorraine claims not only to be clairvoyant but also a medium should be concerning to everyone. I think that God can certainly give people gifts like clairvoyance. Being a medium, though, is something that has been universally condemned as far as I’m aware. Her status as a medium isn’t really in the movie, by the way, but I think it’s worth mentioning in that it should make one question the Warrens a bit. The movie claims that Ed is the only lay demonologist ever recognized by the Catholic Church. I have no clue what sort of recognition this is or who gave it. I very much doubt any official recognition was ever granted.
End of tangent.
As a horror movie, there isn’t a lot in The Conjuring that is all that original. Much of it is straight Amityville redux. Still, director James Wan, manages to keep things tense enough to be scary without turning the whole show into an endless series of jumps or gross-outs, crutches upon which far too many horror films rely.
That being said, there is a major pacing problem that threw off the entire middle third of the production and left you wondering where everything was going. This seems a hallmark of Wan’s work as both Saw and Dead Silence had the same issues. In this case, it was worsened by (at least) one worthless subplot that seemed wholly engineered just to add to the run time. In a nutshell, Wan did fine when he was asked to make things scary. He did less well when asked to tell a story.
If you look at the roster, the main cast is recognizable even if you don’t know their names. Because of how the plot develops, the leading ladies are charged with carrying most of the water for the film and unfortunately don’t. Lili Taylor (Mama Perron) just isn’t that good and never has been. Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren) really isn’t somebody you can hang a whole movie on. Portraying a psychic and dealing with issues of this magnitude is going to require conveying a lot of complicated emotions. Instead of that, her delivery often drifts into the same stylings one might expect from reading out of the phone book. Pair her up with Taylor, and the combination is not good. On a side note, I think Patrick Wilson is heavily underrated and does a good job as Ed Warren even though he’s really the second fiddle. Ron Livingston (Papa Perron), while a great actor, is very scarce. You almost forget he’s even in the movie at times.
From a content standpoint, naturally, no kids should be see this film. Way too scary for that. The sexual content is limited to some mild innuendo. There is a good bit of minor swearing that escalated into 3 or 4 instances of blasphemy. The overall intensity of the scares and the violence rules this out for anyone other than adults and even some of them. If you can’t take a run-of-the-mill slasher flick, stay away from this one.
Most Catholics I know are very interested in The Conjuring because they know it has a lot of Catholic stuff in it. It absolutely does. For the first 75% of the movie, it’s pretty standard stuff as far as what demons are, how they operate, and what they do/don’t do. The Warrens use holy water and crucifixes. They work with a priest to get exorcisms approved. They even mention to the Perrons that they need to get their kids baptized, though the recommendation is kind of in passing and they don’t press the matter. A lot of this is great stuff and shows (1) how seriously the Church takes the demonic and (2) that lay people should stay away from trying to handle demonic activity on their own. It all looks like a very loyal illustration of Catholicism. Until it stops.
MINOR SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH
After having spent the whole movie emphasizing how laity shouldn’t engage in an exorcism on their own and how important formal exorcisms are, the final act abandons all of this. The initial rite of exorcism is indeed by a layman. Why? Because they didn’t think they had time to go get a priest. What the hell kind of reasoning is that? Moreover, the exorcism winds up being pretty worthless. The victim is saved by an action that has nothing to do with all that allegedly important Catholic stuff we’d been hearing about. In the end, there is some joking about how the permission for exorcism was granted after all the work had been done which came off as an unnecessary jab against the Church.
END OF SPOILERS
In a lot of ways, The Conjuring reminded me of The Rite, another ostensibly Catholic movie. It had a lot of great Catholic trappings, but underneath it all, the core wasn’t just missing. It was rotten. As a scary movie, it is way better than The Rite and a lot of the other horror fare that gets released. That aside, there are too many problematic elements that are apt to give Catholics and non-Catholics alike a false impression of the reality that the good movies of this genre work so hard to faithfully reproduce.
Half a tiara.
Review by Throwback