There seems to be this notion that “based on a true story” makes a haunted-house movie more scary, somehow. It doesn’t work for me, because I do not buy into the paranormal — at all. Try to convince me that phenomena for which we have no evidence whatsoever — and lots of evidence to the contrary — is really real and actually happened, and I will scoff. (Make no pretense about a similar story as fiction, however, and I can play along just fine, same way that I can believe in trolls or magic rings or lightspeed for the duration of a well-told tale.)
So it’s not the supposed authenticity of The Conjuring that makes it work for me; this is allegedly the most horrific case real-life ghosthunters and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, most famous for their involvement in the “Amityville Horror,” ever studied, so horrific that, the movie tells us, they never spoke of it (except they did, frequently). It’s not the fairly generic haunted-house jumps and boos the film engages in, which do not offer anything we haven’t seen in a thousand other horror movies.
Nope: what makes The Conjuring work for me is the simple elegance of the performances, by what may be the most sublime cast ever assembled for a ghost story: Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) and Vera Farmiga (Safe House) as the Warrens, and Lili Taylor (Brooklyn’s Finest) and Ron Livingston (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Carolyn and Roger Perron, whose new home appears to be occupied by a nasty demon. (If not all these names ring an immediate bell for you… well, they are all pros and veterans of the highest order, yet not household names precisely because they’ve gone routes more artistic than blockbustery.)
I might not be able to buy that the demon stuff actually for-real really happened, but these oh-so-credible actors make me believe, at least, that they believe it was real. In one scene early in the film, we see the Warrens called to investigate a supposedly haunted house, only to explain to the scared homeowners that what they thought was a ghost is merely loose floorboards moaning in drafty conditions. The implication: the Warrens weren’t con artists or fakers, because if they were, they’d never fail to “diagnose” ghosts and demons. Reality suggests this was not the truth of their work, but within this context and as represented by Wilson and Farmiga, I can readily accept it. And Taylor and Livingston create a family environment, with their five rowdy daughters, so warm and loving, and then so terrorized and under siege. I don’t buy the demon in the basement, but I buy that they do.