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 1970s. The script by Chad and Carey Hayes shamelessly appropriates tropes and motifs from a festival’s worth of those movies — 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 you can see how long it takes you to give me the title of the picture he’s ripping off. Ready? Go.
Our story’s “based on actual events” and set in rural New England during the 1970s; it 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 off chance you were born without basic cable, I’ll throw you a few more bones. 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 occurs every night slightly after 3 a.m. 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!”) or 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, but call in a team of paranormal investigators (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in what are definitely the least convincing performances of their careers). As fate — and decades of publicity seeking — would have it, the ghost-busting couple are Ed and Lorraine Warren, the supernatural self-promoters who — you guessed it — certified the Amityville home as haunted.
The authors of numerous books about their extrasensory exploits and the operators of their own Connecticut occult museum, the Warrens spent more than 20 years trying to get a movie deal for this story. Ed 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 the first place.