Now that we've passed through the "torture porn" era into a swarm of zombie movies, it's refreshing to see an old-fashioned haunted house story at the megaplex again.
To call The Conjuring "old fashioned" is a complement, not a criticism. It starts off in standard haunted house territory: A family moves into an old, isolated house in 1972 and weird things start happening. Carolyn and Roger Perron and their Brady Bunch of girls experience rappings, strange tuggings and bruises on their legs, voices, and ghostly apparitions that intensify until they call in demonologist duo Ed and Lorraine Warren to see what they can do.
This husband and wife team tours the countryside investigating haunted houses, giving lectures at universities, and collecting cursed artifacts in a single room in their house - a strong candidate for Worst Idea of the Century. She is clairvoyant and sees spirits all around. He is an unflappably businesslike Sherlock Holmes who's clearly been around this block a few times. Nevertheless, Ed is concerned about the toll their line of work is taking on his wife and daughter, who end up getting dragged into this far more than they imagined.
When I was a kid in the 80's, one of my go-to reads was a Scholastic book on ghosts and ghost hunting. I felt a nostalgic thrill watching the Warrens hunker down in the house and set up their cadre of 70's era ghost hunting equipment: cameras tied to doors with strings, bulky temperature sensors, UV lights and microphones running through the house to reel-to-reel tape decks. I swear they pulled all this verbatim from page six. It catered to every fantasy I ever had growing up of being a real ghost hunter, and it's surprisingly helpful in their cause.
Director James Wan also brought us the Saw franchise, so it's nice to see he's adept at pacing a tight, tense thriller with false scares and genuine thrills. I'm pretty desensitized to horror flicks, yet I'll admit I jumped more than once. The storied past of the house is a little cliche, but it's a period piece, so I was willing to forgive the holy water and Salem Witchcraft subject matter. The plot takes you places you might not expect, which felt fresh and pulled me through the story in a satisfying way.
In all, it's an Amityville Horror for the 21st century - which is apt because, like the previous film, it's also based on an ostensibly "true story" brought to us by the real life Warrens.
It's become a trend lately to claim that your horror movie has basis in reality. Sometimes it's an all-out Fargo Lie, but in this case, the Warrens and the real-life Perron family claim most of it is accurate.
Well, I happen to live down the street from the man who owns the actual Dybbuk Box that inspired The Possession. Jason Haxton is a historian who wrote a book about it served as a consultant on the film. He's a nice guy and he claims some weird things happened to him after buying it, and I have no reason to doubt what he believes. But I'll tell you firsthand that, after having gone through many writers and revisions, the final script has absolutely no resemblance to the actual story of the box, including the fact that nobody ever got possessed. I doubt you'll believe the reality of most of this film either.
Thankfully, the story doesn't require you to believe. If you like ratcheting suspense punctuated by flat-out thrills minus a gross-out factor, you'll want to find out for yourself why this got a rare "R" rating just for being too scary.
That said, I think our local cineplex is haunted. The last few times I've been there, I swear I hear whispering voices and chattering all around me as soon as the theater goes dark. It only seems to let up after I've stayed through the credits and I'm alone in the room. Spooky, huh?