The Conjuring, James Wan’s latest conflation of the horror genre’s laziest tropes, plot angels, and shorthands, begins with a lecture, though not one in Latin derivation, as in the filmmaker’s earlier Dead Silence. The film, set in 1971, often lingers inside lecture halls wherein husband-and-wife demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) trot out their Super 8 recordings of hauntings with a publicist’s sense of gusto, as if trying to convince us of The Conjuring’s own “based on a true story”-ness. No less dubious is the film’s almost insecure sense of period detail, thickly laying on the retro chic with a blitzkrieg of vintage signifiers that reaches, only once, the artful delirium of an Argento giallo when Ed and Lorraine’s daughter, often left alone with Granny while Mommy and Daddy are ghost-hunting, descends an ominous staircase toward Ed’s off-limits room of haunted relics while wearing a nightgown whose floral patterns match the house’s wallpaper. In this singular moment, wherein Wan embraces the lexicon of the fairy tale, its distinct unreality, of a girl being breadcrumbed toward possible doom, he more richly suggests the psychological horror of a family being split apart than any of the film’s more explicit, ostensibly true-to-life scares even come close to articulating.
Wan is a carnival barker at heart, and as a delivery machine for goosing his audience, The Conjuring is primarily intended, like Insidious before it, as a haunted-house attraction, a woozy ride through a hall of goose-bumpy horrors. Except that the film’s legitimately tense, competently orchestrated scares aren’t so much excitingly old-fashioned as they are tiresomely derivative, which is damning for a film whose claim to authenticity is, to loosely quote Peter Griffin, so insistent upon itself. Just as there was nothing new under Insidious’s creeky floorboards, when Farmiga and Wilson’s two-person Scooby Gang arrive at the obviously haunted fixer-upper bought and recently inhabited by Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their eight hundred daughters, audiences are essentially forced to peer through Miss Sherri’s Romper Room mirror: I see the house from The Amityville Horror; I see the ball from The Changeling bouncing about in the basement; I see Linda Blair’s Reagan chillaxing on an antique wardrobe; I see Crystal Lake out back; and I see that the witch that hangs herself from the nearby Pan’s Labyrinth tree was a Sinister fangirl. Though The Conjuring claims to be based on a true story, in truth it’s based on every horror film that’s come before it.