I feel the same way about “The Conjuring” (2013) as I did about its prequel, “Annabelle” (2014) — it has all the earmarks of a bad movie, but it inexplicably succeeds anyway.
Seriously — this film has clunky exposition, cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plot developments (toward the end), not to mention a plot setup that’s in questionable taste. (The movie suggests that the innocents condemned by the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials were indeed witches. This feels a bit awkward to anyone who read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school.) “The Conjuring” also plays out like a love letter to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial paranormal investigators who are largely the subject of the film (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). This last offense is forgivable, I suppose — the film was made with the Warrens’ blessing, and Lorraine Warren was even present as a “consultant” during its production.
Strangely, however, these flaws were barely noticeable to me when I watched it. I had a good time. “The Conjuring” just happens to be a decent fright flick that delivers on the scares.
I think James Wan’s skilled directing has a lot to do with that; the film works visually. (I could name specific instances where it works especially well, but I want to avoid spoilers.)
The acting helped a lot too — Wilson and Farmiga are both damned good, as is Lili Taylor as the afflicted family’s mother. (I’ve admired Taylor’s acting since her long ago 1998 guest appearance on “The X-Files,” and she was equally good as a bad guy in 1996’s “Ransom.”) Ron Livingston was also quite good in the role of the father — if you have trouble placing his face, as I did, he also played Captain Nixon in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001). He seems to have a talent for playing the likable everyman — he’s great here as the somewhat feckless father, and functions well as a kind of viewer surrogate. I should also mention the young Joey King as one of the family’s daughters — she played the role of a terrified child to perfection, and really raised the stakes emotionally.
Despite really enjoying most of the movie, some of my enthusiasm for “The Conjuring” flagged a bit toward the end. The denouement here includes an exorcism, and those are almost always boring. There are only so many ways that scenario can play out, and we’ve seen them all — and I shouldn’t even need to name that certain 1973 film that did it best. Furthermore, we see our story’s demon do some pretty extraordinary things, even by demon standards. It can apparently transport itself great distances (using an inanimate object as a kind of fax machine?), and can manipulate both the laws of physics and the area’s wildlife. It was all a little too much for my willing suspension of disbelief.
Again, though — this was a good movie. I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.