Experiencing The Conjuring is like a fitful night of sleep. Once the body is soothed into a lull, a jarring state of unrest overwhelms you, with the cycle repeating itself. Submitting the body into a lull isn’t particularly difficult with The Conjuring, especially given the film’s simple dramatics, underutilized social milieu, and golly-gee-whiz characterization. The jarring effect stems from the film’s abusive sound design, providing ample jump scares from its audience even if the actual fear induced is stimulated through the calculated bruising of an eardrum. But James Wan (Insidious: unseen; Saw: a distant memory) has a bipolar formal approach to his film that at times dissuades outright dismissal.
A rather useless wall of text opens The Conjuring, where Wan establishes the paranormal and demonic swashbuckling of two of his characters: Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). The couple makes a living out of debunking (or in some cases, reaffirming) the existence of demonic spirits and hauntings. The couple’s presence is minimal through the first and second acts of The Conjuring, as Wan establishes the central plight of a family combating a particularly nasty demonic presence.
From a simmer to a rolling boil may be what Wan is conjuring in his film, but his adherence to a more traditional method of horror filmmaking ends up being short-lived. It’s perhaps one of the more clearer examples of an ADD-addled director who seems committed to a slow burn, only to submit to a more loud and obnoxious style of horror. Wan turns out to be something of a formal wizard at times though, particularly in his swift Steadicam movements. An under-the-bed sequence moved with fiendish precision that impressed even this skeptic. But with every nuanced touch comes the eventual loud collapse. This comes as a forward release for the film to move from scene to scene, but the rinse-and-repeat design wears thin as The Conjuring attempts to build toward its painfully cliché finale.
An even more damning aspect to The Conjuring is its perpetual failure to designate a sense characterization throughout its runtime. Virtually every character is relegated to concept, utilized for the benefit of whatever ruse of a scare tactic that Wan has in mind. Despite defining a 70s era aesthetic through the lazy deployment of tracks like “Time of the Season” by The Zombies, The Conjuring never actually does anything to justify the milieu beyond a couple of bad haircuts and retro flavor. The overarching disappointment with The Conjuring comes from the fact that horror director Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) has essentially done everything that Wan is doing. Only a hell of a lot better.