Halfway through The Conjuring I thought, “Well, I’ll be keeping the lights on when I go to sleep tonight.” This is old-school horror with little in the way of gore but a lot in the way of scares. There are some truly terrifying moments in this film. It’s a refreshing throwback to retrograde haunted house movies, relying on genuine scares as opposed to cheap thrills. The film is both well acted and skillfully directed, but more importantly, The Conjuring is one of the scariest movies in years.
The Conjuring is a prequel of sorts to The Amityville Horror, both films being based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga). While the film claims to be ‘based on the true story’, it’s doubtful that most of the events which occur in the film realistically happened. Skeptics even believe that both the Amityville story and the story presented in this film (based on the accounts of the Perron family) are hoaxes. All the same, the fact that there really was an Ed and Lorraine Warren, a Perron family, and that this story manifested from somewhere, makes it all the more eerie.
The film opens with a clever and somewhat humorous prologue introducing us to the Warrens. They are listening to the account of two young nurses who believe the ghost of a young girl has possessed the body of a doll in their apartment. “Ghosts can’t inhabit objects” explain the Warrens, “That’s a demonic force”. The Warrens also teach a class on demonology at a local university and keep possessed mementos from their past cases in their home. At first, we get the idea that the Warrens may be kooks or even swindlers. But it becomes all too apparent that they’re the real deal when they later arrive at the Perron’s haunted home.
Meanwhile, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston) move into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island with their five daughters ranging in ages from about seven to sixteen. The production design is stellar, as this house is creepy before any of the ghostly activity even occurs. Soon after moving in, things start going bump in the night. Doors and windows slam open and shut, rotten smells brew from nowhere, Carolyn wakes up with unexplained bruises on her body, and for some reason all of the clocks in the house stop at 3:07 AM every evening. Like most horror films, it begins with a slow-burn, and there could possibly be an explanation for all this. We know better. The menacing conditions rapidly intensify to the point where there’s no other explanation but a ghostly infestation.
The film uses an ingenious plot device to set up a series of frightening sequences by implementing a made up game called ‘hide and clap’. The young girls play this game by blindfolding one of the sisters while the other siblings hide in various areas of the home. The blindfolded girl then calls out for them to clap, with the goal to find them by following the sound. Think ‘Marco Polo’ on land. Turns out evil spirits like to play this game too. You’d never think a pair of clapping hands could be so chilling; but the film sets up and executes this scene perfectly, and its one of the most clever and unnerving horror set-pieces in ages.
While there are definitely some horror movie cliches that the film succumbs to, for the most part it avoids this trap; if only for the fact that the acting and writing are much stronger than is typical from this fare. Wilson and Farmiga are likable as the Warrens, with Farmiga giving a very strong performance as a woman shaken from her profession but attempting to keep it together. Taylor, as the Perron’s matriarch, is believable in her need to protect her family; with her and Farmiga getting some good scenes together bonding as mothers. Mothers dealing with ghosts who are threatening their children. What’s nice about the Perron family and especially the performances to sell this material is how loving they are to each other. Because of this, it’s more daunting and the audience becomes invested when evil threatens their foundation. The Perron daughters are all quite effective young actresses; interminably precious, frightened, and sometimes creepy. One of the sisters develops a sleepwalking habit. The youngest daughter appears to have made a friend who isn’t there. “Who are you talking to?” her mother asks. Playing with an antique jack-in-the-box with a mirror attached, the girl tells her mom, “Wind it up, and when the music stops, you’ll see him in the mirror standing behind you.”
James Wan, who directed the decent but overrated Saw and the dreadful Insidious, has inexplicably learned how to direct a movie. It’s almost as if he decided to remake Insidious, only make it good this time. He even recasts lead actor Patrick Wilson. Wan nimbly uses acrobatic camera movements and strange angles to amp up the tension and excitement. The musical score and sound effects are also utilized to full effect, adding to the overall feeling of dread. As previously mentioned, Wan can’t help but engage in some overused elements of horror; but there’s only so much innovation one can come up with for a haunted house movie. The cinematography consists of muted grayish/blue colors that add to the retro feel, (the movie is set in 1973) and makes for a classy looking production. The 70’s setting, being devoid of modern technology, serves in the discomfort of it all.
At times, the film feels like a horror genre hybrid, with echoes of The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and obviously The Amityville Horror. For the first 2/3 of the film, the scare scenes are somewhat restrained and its during this period that the most jolting moments occur. The last act goes all out in lunacy and even silliness, but at that point the film has earned it. There’s a whole lot happening at once in this sequence; in addition to the demonic possession we get pigeons soaring through windows. It feels like you’re watching a heightened contemporary remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The Conjuring is a scary movie. Plain and simple. That’s all you can really ask of a horror movie, but the film provides an added bonus of being generally smart and well-made. Prepare for a beating heart and white knuckles. It isn’t the most original or innovative example of the genre, but you’ll be too terrified to notice.