Conjuring a serious case of the willies

Saw, Insidious director Wan again proves he owns the edge of the seat

The black-hearted demons in The Conjuring work inexhaustibly to send our terror-metre through the cobwebbed roof. Raising hell, killing dogs, freezing clocks and possessing mothers, the ghosts run through their satanic scripture and unleash each trick upon us _ or rather, upon the poor family in the film, which is claimed to be based on a true account _ with menace and skills that border on dark exhilaration.

The Conjuring
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Fermiga, Lily Taylor, Ron Livingston. Directed by James Wan.

This is no classic, but director James Wan is a deft conductor who orchestrates the scariest ride of the season from threads of familiarly black melodies.

Wan is a Malaysia-born filmmaker who's responsible for the first Saw (which is the best in the franchise that degenerated into witless sadism) and the passably spooky Insidious. At the simplest level, Wan is a skilful recycler of horror motifs: The Conjuring is a carnival collection that features a haunted house, an exorcism, chilly whispers, rattling doors, shrill swailing caught on tapes, a hanged corpse from a big tree by the lake, helpless little girls alone in bed or empty corridors, a creepy music box that shouldn't have been unearthed, a hide-and-seek game involving an antique wardrobe, a boarded-up basement in which terrible, terrible things happened in the past.

But on top of skill, rhythm and timing _ on top of his effective visual grammar _ Wan always shows a kind of nerdy conviction in pulp-horror and the inhuman viciousness of ghosts. Those qualities, more than the scare tactics and recycled situation, make his movies, especially this latest one, tick.

The Conjuring's based-on-a-true-story blurb is complemented by the vintage veneer of the early 1970s.

Real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga) _ husband a non-priest exorcist and wife a gifted clairvoyant _ are seen giving lectures at top universities on supernatural phenomena and the science of dark power. Investigating haunted houses, possessed dolls and elusive phantoms, they approach ghostly incidents with a mixture of wary pragmatism and good-natured empathy _ of course they believe in God and evil, in fairy tales and demonic possession, and yet they insist that most strange noises you hear at night can be explained scientifically. Unless when they're not, and one case in 1971, the film duly informs us, is so malevolent that the Warrens hardly want to bring it up.

That one takes place in the film's central location, the haunted residence newly bought by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lily Taylor). The couple and their five daughters _ five Linda Blair-like preys to the hungry ghosts _ move in to the old house and are promptly terrorised: from squeaky doors, the fright becomes more intense as mysterious bruises appear on Carolyn's body, a girl wakes up at night because someone yanks her legs, the stench of rotten meat in the house, and another girl sleepwalks and repeatedly bangs her head inexplicably at a wall. Fearing for their lives and cash-strapped to move out, the Perrons seek out the Warrens and persuade the couple to ward off the angry, infanticidal spirits at their home.

Ed Warren, dressed more like a philosophy professor than a hippie-era ghost-buster, is the brains of the operation while his wife Lorraine _ played with cool solemnity by Fermiga _ is the heart, the all-seeing eye, and the receptive antennae of all dangerous forces. Naturally, The Conjuring focuses its energy on many long haunt sequences; the mix of invisible threat, plain-sight shock and crafty, pent-up suspense is very efficient.

But by having "serious" actors like Wilson, Fermiga and Taylor in the leads, the film also lifts itself up a few notches above the platitude of cursed-house cheap thrill. A real scare-fest for horror fans _ and even to those who prefer to squint their eyes while the terror plays out nearly non-stop on screen.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Former Life Editor