The Warrens were self-styled paranormal investigators who got a lot of mileage out of New England's witch-haunted past. They performed exorcisms and wrote bestselling books, inspired movies like The Amityville Horror, and Lorraine still pops up from time to time on the kind of reality shows that use a questionable definition of the word reality. The Conjuring tells is that Ed Warren is the only non-Catholic exorcist recognized by the Catholic Church, and I don't know if that's true, but it would have looked good on his business cards.
2013's The Conjuring was a Movie Night selection, decided upon by committee, which I mention because it's not the sort of thing I would have chosen. This is not a snobbery thing--I just generally shy away from newer fare, and poster doesn't look particularly promisi--you know what? It is a snobbery thing, sorry, but I'm not calling it a bad movie, I'm just saying it would not have occurred to me to choose it.
The Conjuring takes place in 1971. Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters have just moved into a farmhouse which is a real fixer-upper; maybe the walls are just dirty, but it sure looked like mold to me. Either way, between the quality of the house and its location in the middle of a horror movie, it may not have been a wise purchase. They're all pretty delighted with it, except for the dog, Sadie, who really, really doesn't want to come inside.
This family plays a weird variant on hide-and-seek which involves clapping, and it is during one of these games that the family discovers a boarded up cellar. Downstairs, they find an out-of-tune piano, some ancient furniture, and enough spiderwebs to shoot a remake of Arachnophobia. Roger Perron is pleased at the additional square footage he didn't know he'd purchased, and tells the kids not to go downstairs until they've had a chance to clean it up a bit.
Something escapes from the unboarded cellar, and it begins to manifest itself as the odor of flatulence and occasional taps and tugs on the girls' feet as they sleep. Sadie the dog is found dead in the yard. Nobody connects these events until one night when clapping sounds lure Carolyn into the dark basement, and she finds herself locked down there for a few minutes with a scary voice, while the kids are attacked by an old crone who has materialized out of nowhere.
Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in, and immediately set to work monitoring the house and researching its history. What they find is not pretty: a hundred years ago the house belonged to a witch who cursed the property before committing suicide. In the years that followed, there have been an alarming number of murders and suicides, and it would have been nice if someone had mentioned that to the Perrons before they moved in. One of the daughters is psychically sensitive and can see the malevolent force as it moves about the family, and Lorraine has visions of the various victims of the curse. Things get worse, and Ed petitions the Vatican for an exorcism, which the Vatican is reluctant to grant since the Perrons aren't Catholic, and their children are not baptized. Somewhere in here, I think there's a parable about privatizing the police force and fire department.
Ultimately, as always happens in these movies, all Hell breaks loose (that's not actually true--it's more like a very small amount of Hell leaks out; let's say like, 0.2 ppm). Ed decides to do the exorcism anyway, and uh, it's not fun for anyone.
Haunted house movies don't really appeal to me, but there's a lot to like in this one, and I found myself enjoying it in spite of my usual preferences. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the Warrens well, if blandly. They might have been my least favorite part of the movie, and I think it's because their methods remind me a lot of the first third (or so) of Ghostbusters which had the benefit of being a much funnier. Ron Livingston (Peter from Office Space) does a nice job playing Roger Perron as a working class dad, but the movie goes to such great lengths to portray the family as struggling with its finances that it's hard to accept that they want to hang onto this enormous estate that is trying to kill them--I'd just move out. Carolyn Perron is played by Lili Taylor who is really too good to keep appearing in dumb horror movies--but I'm glad that she does.
After the movie was over, my friends and I all agreed that the special effects are the real standout feature of The Conjuring. There's a fair amount of CGI--because there always is these days--but all of the cool foreground effects are practical, which I appreciate. Not far into the movie we were squirming around in our chairs wondering if this was going to be one of those Blair Witch experiences where nothing is overtly shown onscreen, but thankfully it doesn't take long for the evil to manifest and it does so spectacularly.
Interestingly, nothing is actually conjured in The Conjuring, but then, there's no actual poltergeist in Poltergeist. Oh, well. Here's the trailer: