James Wan’s 2004 breakthrough, Saw, was the definition of torture porn. His latest, on the other hand, is simply torture.
There’s a reason so many of The Conjuring’s reviews have described it as a throwback to horror films of the ’70s. This is because the script by Chad and Carey Hayes shamelessly appropriates tropes and motifs from a festival’s worth of them and, in the case of one cheeseball chestnut, offers a virtual remake.
Tell me if I’m exaggerating. I’ll give you a rough outline and a few touches from the director’s new movie and see how long it takes you to give me the title of the picture he’s ripping off. Ready? Go:
Our story is “based on actual events,” set in rural New England during the 1970s and chronicles the terrifying experiences of the Perron family, which has just moved into a home already occupied by malevolent forces. Be honest, you’ve already guessed it, right?
OK, on the chance you were born without basic cable, I’ll throw you a few more-the family dog senses something sinister and won’t enter the premises. The new residents discover a room sealed off in the basement. Something strange happens every night slightly after 3am. Relations are strained as crazier and crazier shit happens.
The family finds the home has cold spots, objects fly off walls, doors open and slam on their own, the children awake to eerie noises in the night, people constantly smell poop where there isn’t any and, as if you haven’t already surmised as much, the place was once the scene of a grisly crime. Congratulations and welcome to The Amityville Horror 2.0. Literally every one of these elements is lifted verbatim from the 1979 hit.
Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor stand in for James Brolin and Margot Kidder. They’re appealing presences and capable actors but even they can’t sell dialogue this hokey (“Whoa! That’s gonna take a lot of elbow grease!”), and period hairstyles that look like wigs left over from Behind the Candelabra, much less the picture’s derivative plotting. In perhaps the least convincing performance of her career, Taylor’s forced to do her impression of demonic possession. Demeaning? You bet. Frightening? Not so much.
In time, the parents do what any responsible mother and father would. No, not move; call in a team of paranormal investigators (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in what is definitely the least convincing performances of their careers). As fate-and decades of publicity seeking-would have it, the ghostbusting couple are Ed and Lorraine Warren, the supernatural self promoters who-you guessed it-certified the Amityville home haunted.
The authors of numerous books about their extrasensory exploits and the operators of their own Connecticut occult museum, the pair spent more than twenty years trying to get a movie deal for this story. Ed literally died trying, in 2006. Wan’s exercise in old school chills fails not just because it doesn’t feature a single cheap trick we haven’t seen a hundred times before but because it’s got too many central characters and too little focus. Every time the filmmaker gets us halfway interested in what’s happening to the Perrons, the Warrens barge in blithering demonological nonsense. “Look at us,” they practically brag. “We’ve got eight track machines that can hear ghosts.”
Which might have been super if anyone living or dead in this movie had something interesting to say. Don’t hold your breath. As long as he was helping himself to everything in sight, Wan should’ve borrowed Amityville’s tagline too: “For God’s Sake, Get Out!” Even better, do yourself a favor. Don’t go in in the first place.