You could be forgiven for thinking that Patrick Wilson enjoys being scared witless. After his turn in Insidious as a terrified father combating supernatural forces, and with that film’s sequel due out next month, Wilson is back in the meantime in The Conjuring, a horror film which plays it too safe, but doesn’t do all that much seriously wrong because of it.
Wilson plays Ed Warren, and Vera Farmiga joins him as wife Lorraine – together they are a pair of formidable paranormal experts, who were long since thought to have disclosed all their cases, until now (according to very earnest pre-film text). The Conjuring tells the story of their run-in with a house haunted in a number of ways, as they attempt the rescue of an innocent family. This family, with parents played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, is one of exclusively female children, with these kids played by an assortment of capable young actors. Director James Wan, who all those years ago kicked off the Saw franchise with the original, superb thriller, goes to small lengths to characterise the children – the nervous one, the grumpy one etc., but this progress goes completely out the window once the actions kicks off, and feels token even as it occurs.
As with many horror films, however, The Conjuring succeeds or fails on its scares and the adrenaline factor – and Wan’s film scores positively where it counts, though it does not excel. The atmosphere is built up with repeated shots of the house’s misty and dank exterior, and the use of noises full of bass adds some effective edge to scenes. The ghosts manifest themselves in a number of ways, just as the Warrens have a variety of techniques to combat them, but they somehow seem to get progressively less scary as the film goes on. The characters come under more and more threat, but the actual film becomes less tense, especially any time Wilson and Farmiga are onscreen. Their characters feel unhelpfully invulnerable, with the only chinks in their armour being their worry for their daughter, telegraphing a twist from a mile off, and Lorraine Warren’s weakness during exorcisms, equally obvious telegraphing, but which seems to be totally forgotten in the third act.
The third act itself presents the biggest obstacle to the film’s success, in that it fails to live up to the rest of the piece. For a film to be satisfying, two acts of suspense as preparation should be followed by a thrilling denouement. Instead, The Conjuring provides some more of the same, with louder noises, and a somewhat abrupt conclusion. While this does not erase the achievements of the taut first half or so of the film, it does mean that the final feeling one is left with as the credits roll is that of vague dissatisfaction. But then, when the film treats ghosts with dialogue like “A haunting is like stepping on gum – it stays with you”, perhaps that was all that could be expected.