NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Though Saw is his highest-profile film, James Wan’s tastes in horror incline to the more traditional – with an especial fondness for creepy dolls/puppets (even Saw has one) and old-fashioned spook stuff. The underrated, silly-but-fun Dead Silence and the successful, silly-but-fun Insidious are now followed by this stab at a based-on-fact, Amityville/Entity-style paranormality (indeed, it’s technically a prequel to The Amityville Horror) which dramatises a hitherto-unrevealed case from the 1970s, with end credits photos of the real people involved to add some credibility.
The Amityville Horror, Haunted and A Haunting in Connecticut are also based on phenomena investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, but this is the first film to depict them as main characters, with Patrick Wilson (returning from Insidious) and Vera Farmiga playing the couple and a late-film development whereby the demon they are trying to dispel reaches out to attack their own child.
A prologue details the ‘Annabelle Case’, featuring the creepiest James Wan doll yet, and establishes that the Warrens have a roomful of haunted objects in their suburban home – which their young daughter has a hard time staying away from.
I get the impression that this museum of haunted bric-a-brac is being set up for its own TV series, though this film doesn’t explore the intriguing notion of what happens when you pen up a gaggle of disparate ghosts together – would they feud, band together, cancel each other out or coalesce into an uber-monster?
Meanwhile, in Amityville fashion, truck driver Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) move into an isolated old house they’ve picked up cheap at auction with their four daughters (who are hard to keep straight). A boarded-up basement is full of weird junk, including a creepy music box which the youngest Perron bonds with, claiming it lets her see her not-imaginary but invisible friend. The family like to play a clapping game version of hide-and-seek, which makes inevitably for a good sequence as Mom is lured to a haunted wardrobe by clapping hands that aren’t her daughter’s.
Another kid sleepwalks and bangs her head on the wardrobe. All the clocks stop at the same time every night. A foul smell manifests and a twisted tree in the yard contains another malign presence. When things get bad, the family call in the Warrens, who bring a couple of assistants – a techie student and a sceptical deputy – to investigate and perhaps perform an exorcism.
Historical research digs up a former resident, Bathsheba (Joseph Bishara), who was hanged as a witch from that tree – a real witch, naturally, not those innocent people hanged in Salem (like The Lords of Salem, this seems to be pro-witch hunt propaganda, which might have a political resonance). Later occupants have had horrible things happen, which explains some of the other ghosts who pop up – and a cyclical curse seems to be enacted again, as Carolyn gets possessed by Bathsheba and becomes a menace to her kids.
Usually, as in Amityville, it’s the father who becomes a monster: the casting of Taylor, a veteran of the Haunting remake, pretty much sets up where the film will go since you wouldn’t get such a powerhouse performer to play a regular Mom role. It’s a shame that Farmiga, another outstanding actress, doesn’t get more scenes with Taylor, but the film makes Ed the lead exorcist in the one-on-one chant-off in which the possessee is head-bagged and tied to a chair (like many a Gitmo detainee) and levitates while the exorcism is performed.
As a sceptic, I always find these ‘based on fact’ horrors suspect – the better they work as storytelling, the less credible they are; paradoxically, the lack of conventional dramatic arcs made the fictional Paranormal Activity feel more realistic than this properly-constructed horror movie. A few things – like the too-large family –seem possibly taken from life, but whole chunks (including a rationale for why they can’t just sell up and leave) are left over from Insidious.
It is earnest and unquestioning about the Warrens – some commentators have been less than flattering about their career and the cases they’ve been involved with – and buys into a lot of things, at a surface and subtextural level, that are disturbingly reactionary. But Wan is a good horror movie-maker – the script by Chad and Carey Hayes (of The Reaping and the House of Wax remake) clunks, but the visuals are strong, the jump/frisson scenes brilliantly contrived and even if evil dolls, ghost hags, haunted basements and who’s-in-the-bed scares are howling clichés, they still work.