I kept the lessons of Hollywood horror movies in mind as I hunted for my new apartment. I like living in a somewhat older place, because those have more character, but I don’t want so much character that doors slam of their own volition, inhuman groans come from the walls after dark, or blood drips from the faucets. As such, I picked a nice 1971-built unit where the fridge doors are backwards, the air conditioner is a little loud and the bathtub faucet drips. But I can sleep soundly, knowing it’s not haunted.
The Perron family in “The Conjuring” — which, coincidentally, is set in 1971 — doesn’t heed my strategy. They purchase a 19th century house in the Rhode Island back country from a bank auction, not knowing the previous owners. Roger (Ron Livingston) is a long-haul trucker, while Carolyn (Lili Taylor) raises their five daughters.
The Perrons soon have a case of buyers’ remorse when the house is ice-cold despite a functional furnace, the clocks always stop at 3:07 a.m., birds constantly crash into the windows, and one of the girls gets pulled off the end of her bed at night by an invisible force. The house in “The Conjuring” is a great place to visit on film; I love the ancient armoire and the cobweb-covered old furniture in the boarded-up basement. But let’s just say it would’ve been eliminated in the early stages of my home hunt, no matter how good the price.
A lot of “The Conjuring” is typical horror movie fare. But one thing sets it apart: It’s also a biopic of sorts, because we soon meet Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The real-life couples’ paranormal investigations had previously been the springboard for the “Amityville Horror” films, but we’re told in the opening titles that they hadn’t opened up about the events chronicled in “The Conjuring” until now.
Considering that setup, it’s too bad that “The Conjuring” doesn’t stand out from a pack that includes “Insidious” (like this film, directed by James Wan), “Sinister,” “Mama,” “The Possession,” and so forth. Still, even though you’ll know where the plot is going every step of the way, it has some nice touches. As noted, the haunted house looks great. Because of the biopic element, we get to know these characters a bit better than in most genre entries. And the way the Warrens’ team gathers evidence in 1971 is fascinating, as they use flash cameras set to take a picture when an attached thermostat detects a drop in temperature. Today, any amateur can set up a home-based ghost-detection system, as shown in the “Paranormal Activity” series. But back then, ghost hunting was a highly specialized field.
Ultimately, “The Conjuring” is a fun place to visit for a couple hours. But you won’t want to live there, nor will you desire a repeat viewing — unless you count the next Hollywood horror flick that follows this same formula.