On the level of pure horror, I can't deny that the The Conjuring is effective- this movie keeps you in a state anxious anticipation throughout its entire running time, and the level of pure terror it inflicted upon me was by far more stressful than anything I've seen in a long, long time. And yet, there are so many elements of this movie that are derivative of countless other horror films, that it lacks for even one single original idea, and exists by itself as a stylistic exercise (if a very effective one) from director James Wan.
The plot starts out with The Amityville Horror- in a supposedly true incident from the 1970's, a family of seven moves into an old, mysterious, creaking house, where they are promptly terrorized by unknown forces. In a nod to Poltergeist, two paranormal investigators (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are summoned to investigate the disturbances and move in with the family to record what's happening, in order to get permission for an exorcism from the catholic church (you can guess what that's from). The ghosts haunting the premises show up in shocking jolts, with a couple of scenes lifted directly out of The Sixth Sense, and the house is so haunted that birds swarm around it, killing themselves by flying directly into the walls (that was a real stretch to get The Birds in there).
Every single element and almost every scene in this movie is derived from another horror film. You can read the whole thing as a tribute to other movies in a Tarantino-esque manner (unsurprisingly, this is one of his own top ten films of the year so far), and I'm sure that's meant to be the case, and yet I cannot deny that Wan fashions the frights and shocks effectively and paced throughout the film, never letting up for one minute and giving audiences, especially horror buffs, exactly what it is that they came for. It's really not a film for the weak of heart. Even his filmmaking style is a tribute to 70's B-movies, with an opening credit sequence styled directly out of a 70's film and the silly dialogue and kind of ludicrous plot left on the surface level only, right down to the direct endorsement of the catholic religion as the only protector against all evil. The performances are all good, especially Lili Taylor as the mother of the family, who becomes possessed by a demonic spirit, but the exorcism scene in particular bordered on camp after just a few minutes, and the first half hour or so was filled with way too many of those horror movie "false starts," where you think something's going to happen and doesn't (I hate it when that's overdone in these movies, and for me it was here).
So, all in all, mixed feelings from me on this one. It does what it's supposed to and yet with so many direct lifts from other movies I feel it's at fault for not bringing at least something new to the table. Are we at the point now where there's nothing original left to do in a horror movie, has it all been seen and done at this point? The Conjuring wants to be a 70's B-movie at heart and for that purpose it reaches, but not exceeds, its goal.
* * 1/2