Every couple of years, the American moviegoing public is greeted with a film that instantly earns the enviable tag of "One of the Scariest Movies Ever Made!" This designation used to be reserved for only the most special of terror tales - Psycho, The Exorcist, Alien - but these days, it's a catchphrase free-for-all, without much meaning. Saw, The Descent (far and away the best of the bunch), Paranormal Activity, Insidious - the list goes on. (But no Jack and Jill? What the hell?)
The Conjuring is the latest picture to manufacture this reputation for itself, and it seems to have taken hold in many moviegoers who are treating it like the second coming of Linda Blair. I suppose it's possible to be shaken to the core by this movie - even if it's ultimately not much more frightening than, say, The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone or Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island - but ultimately, it's just one more haunted-house yarn, albeit one that's modestly elevated by James Wan's relatively restrained direction and a roster of characters who are more levelheaded than the usual gang of idiots who populate films of this nature.
Reportedly based on a true story - and if you believe that everything in this film really did happen, then I have 20 acres of Jersey shore property I can sell you cheap - this examines what paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) consider the most frightening and baffling case of their careers. It's the early 1970s, and they're called upon to check out a house newly purchased by the Perrons: dad Roger (Ron Livingston), mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters. It's a pleasant enough property, but once the Perrons move in, weird things begin happening. First, of course, they discover the lovable family pooch laying dead outside. Then birds begin slamming into the house. Then all the clocks stop at 3:07 ... every night. Strange clapping sounds, unexplained bruises all over Carolyn's body, doors creaking open by themselves - time to call the Ghostbusters! Or, in a pinch, the Warrens.
To his credit, Wan relies on establishing and maintaining mood more than engaging in cheap scares or buckets of blood, but there's only so much that can be done with a premise as overexposed as this one (is there anything less cinematic than watching people monitoring cameras and tape recorders?). The filmmakers try to generate some tension with a leering doll that's no match for Trilogy of Terror's Zuni doll, a guest appearance by the title apparition in Mama, and even the Pixar ball being rolled across a floor, but the return on investment is minimal - the concession prices will scare more people than any of these devices. The Conjuring boasts top production values and an admirable refusal to condescend to its audience, but we really should be demanding more from our horror flicks.