In 2010 director James Wan showed us with his film Insidious that he was one of the few current directors that could successfully craft a film filled with tension and terror while eschewing the typical buckets of gore and profanity laden script that most horror movies come with. After viewing his new film, The Conjuring, it’s obvious that Insidious was just a warm up. The Conjuring is undoubtedly the most effective, tension filled horror film to come out of Hollywood in quite some time.
Purportedly based on true accounts, the story of The Conjuring is one we’ve all seen before. Husband and wife Roger and Carolyn Perron, played by Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Lili Taylor (Public Enemies) move themselves and their five daughters into an isolated country home, but it’s not long before strange things start to happen and they all realize that they aren’t alone in their new home, and neither are they very welcome. Roger and Carolyn enlist the services of two demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, played to perfection by Patrick Wilson (Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). While the plight of the Perron family is the catalyst for the film, it’s the chemistry and relationship between Ed and Lorraine that really help anchor the film with emotional resonance and intrigue as their past experiences play deeply into their characterization and it does a great job of causing the audience to genuinely care about them.
The most intriguing aspect of this film is that it really shouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did. It’s 2013 now and all the typical haunted house cliché’s have been put to film 100 times over. The point is that the same scares don’t really carry the weight they once did and The Conjuring embodies every one of those cliché’s. Creaky floor boards, doors opening and closing, whispers in the dark, all those things are on display here but they are crafted in such a way that they are as every bit as frightening as they were the very first time you experienced them. Every thump from upstairs, every flickering image in a mirror, every unexplainable sound somehow fills you with anxiety and dread… even though you’ve seen it all before. Even the origin and purpose of the malevolent spirit is nothing new and in lesser hands, it could be cause for a bit of eye rolling, but it works to near perfection here. This is The Conjuring’s greatest achievement: it is at the same time familiar and terrifyingly fresh.
In addition to the great acting and smart direction, The Conjuring succeeds in maintaining a sense of dread that carries through from the opening frame until the final shot. Most horror movies can be successful in creating tension over a scene or two, but The Conjuring pulls you into its world from the beginning and it never lets go. The sense of unease and general discomfort can sound like a bad thing, but it’s never the dirty feeling that sometimes accompanies watching super trashy horror films. While never silly, or self-defacing, The Conjuring does a great job of instilling an unrelenting sense of fear, but also a sense of fun so that your anxiety never trumps you enjoyment of the movie.
If I had to level a complaint about the movie, it would be that the finale doesn’t quite live up to its creepy and suspenseful build up. It’s a tripping point for many scary movies. I thought that Insidious was a fantastic and terrifying horror film, but I felt that the final act went off the rails a little too much. The end of The Conjuring isn’t as big a slip up as I felt Insidious’ was, but it still doesn’t quite measure up to the hour and a half that preceded it. On the plus side, the whole of the movie is so good that even the worst parts of The Conjuring are far and away better than the best parts of most modern horror films.
If you can’t tell by now, I think you should go see this movie if you have even a passing interest in horror movies or haunted house films. It’s a near perfect ghost story and proof that director James Wan can do more with a creaky old door than most directors can with a ton of fake blood and a bevy of naked girls. This is horror done right, with the sole interest in scaring the audience and making them like it. My only warning would be this: while this movie can certainly be enjoyed in a dark living room on a television, see it in the theater if you can. Being surrounded by 200 people who are all sharing the same visceral reactions that you are adds an awful lot to the experience. The lady sitting behind my brother and I was almost as entertaining as the movie itself.