Film Review: 'The Conjuring' is good, but it's not art

James Wan made his name as the director/co-writer of "Saw" (2004), which launched the most prolific horror franchise to emerge in the last 20 years. Even those put off by its naked sensationalism had to acknowledge that Wan (who was only 26) displayed a formidable technical mastery and an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the genre. (Don't confuse him with James Wong, who created "Final Destination.")

His new film is "The Conjuring," which bears a far stronger resemblance to his last effort, "Insidious," than to his prior movies. Once again we're dealing with a likable all-American family whose members find a demon or demons in their new house. The demons are primarily threatening the children and paranormal researchers are brought in. The main differences are that the new film doesn't cleave to the "found footage" style of "Insidious"; that it claims to be based on a real case from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren (best known for their part in the Amityville affair); and that this time the ever-unmemorable Patrick Wilson plays one of the researchers rather than the paterfamilias.

The beleaguered Perron family is composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five girls. It's 1971 and they've just moved into spooky old house in Rhode Island. Roger is a truck driver with financial difficulties. As soon as they arrive, the usual strange phenomena begin to happen — weird noises, bad odors, inexplicable cold areas, faint voices, rumbles, inexplicably moved objects — you know, the whole spook repertoire.

Carolyn convinces the Warrens (Wilson, Vera Farmiga) to take a look, and in no time flat, the Warrens and their crew move in and begin to realize this is the direst infestation they've ever confronted. And their own daughter may be a target as well.


In addition to all the items on the horror menu, Wan along the way refers to (or replicates or cribs) moments from "The Birds," "Poltergeist," the "Child's Play" series and his own films. This is laudable, as far as it goes. Better to have learned classic technique than not, but there is still nothing here as ingenious as, say, the fast-forward tricks in "Paranormal Activity."

In short, you'll jump on command, scream or yell on cue, and may even get some of the nauseous anxiety that can accompany fear, just as you've done at a million other films. What value are you getting at the multiplex that you can't get more cheaply by renting "Paranormal Activity" or "The Haunting in Connecticut" or any of the others? Watching Wan's accomplishment is akin to watching a great arcade player reaching level 255 on Pac-Man: You have to appreciate the achievement, but it's hard to get excited when you've been watching exactly the same thing for 30 years. It may be good, but it's not exactly an artful creation.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).


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