Written by Carey W. Hayes & Chad Hayes
Directed by James Wan
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, John Brotherton
Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson & Farmiga) are demonologists. They help people who have no one else to turn to. They’re like The Equalizer but for people menaced by supernatural forces. They do lectures. They give interviews. They assist at exorcisms. And they have a room in their house that serves as both museum and Vault of Mysteries, keeping sinister objects locked away from the rest of the world. (Let’s draw a veil discretely over whether or not that’s a good idea.) Enter the Perrons (Taylor & Livingston) who just moved out into the country to an old house that happens to have a history. That history is now tormenting their five daughters, putting bruises on Mrs. Perron and basically it’s all turning into an episode of Homes Under the Hammer of Satan. Time for Lorraine, Ed, and Ed’s sideburns to get to work.
ED: “Wait…you did what?”
That’s an exchange at the very beginning of the film, and Ed unfortunately sets the tone for nearly everything that follows. The film basically has scenes that fall into two categories. The first is the tried and true “Too Stupid to Live” category. Now, sometimes people make mistakes, and the film is set in 1971 (two years before the release of The Exorcist), so we can cut some of the characters some slack. Except…the Warrens, who at times are the stupidest of them all. And these people are expert demonologists. This is a serious problem with the film, and while the characters do acknowledge at least once that they’ve never seen a situation exactly like this before…they seem so unobservant and out of their depth that you get the distinct impression that their “museum” of trophies were acquired by sheer luck, considering how well they handle this one.
The second category is one of homages. Now…there’s nothing wrong with homages. In fact, in this genre it’s almost required to acknowledge those that came before you. Where you can run into trouble is when your homage makes the viewer remember a much better horror movie…and then wonder why they aren’t watching that instead. As a result, when the film pays tribute to The Changeling, Evil Dead, even Prince of Darkness, I had a burning desire to just switch over and watch one of those.
This could have been avoided if it had broken any new ground or even, you know, run a metal detector over some new ground. Or something. But the only really memorable scene is a very brief one involving a sheet. Mind you, it’s a damn good scene involving a sheet, but that’s about all. The film also could have leaned into the early 70s/late 60s horror movie vibe (which at first I thought it was doing), and then using ho-hum jump scares and other tired tropes might have been rather charming. But instead, there’s really nothing surprising (or even really startling) happening. A jump scare can still make you jump, even if you know it’s coming…but I don’t think I reacted once to anything that was happening on the screen.
The fault isn’t really with the cast, since the girls in the family are mostly just there to be scared, the parents of the family are mostly there to be scared, and even the Warrens themselves are there to seem serious but then also be scared. The fault is mostly that this has all been done before and better. But maybe this film can serve as a My First Horror Flick. If you found it rather enjoyably unsettling and you haven’t watched a lot of horror, then…welcome. Boy, are you in for a treat. Go grab 1963’s The Haunting. Or The Changeling or The Exorcist. (And after that, watch The Exorcist III.) Oh, to be you.
Oh and one last thing: I see the definition of “conjure” as “to call upon (a spirit or ghost) to appear, by means of a magic ritual.” Calling out in a basement is no magic ritual that I’ve ever seen so…did anything ever…really…get conjured…?