Movie Review: The Conjuring (2013)
In 1971, the Perron family moved into a big old farm house on Rhode Island. What happened to them there was apparently so terrifying that the world’s most famous “demonologists”, Ed and Lorraine Warren, decided to keep silent about the haunting…until now.
At least that’s the way The Conjuring, directed by Aussie James Wan (Saw, Insidious), has been marketed.
Putting aside whether this so-called true story is a load of crap (and I have my views on this, which I will share after this review), The Conjuring is, hands down, the best haunted house/demonic possession movie I have seen in years. We’ve had a lot of similar films in recent years that have been good but flawed — from the aforementioned Insidious to The Possession to Sinister to Mama to The Haunting in Connecticut (also a Warrens’ case) — though none are as genuinely scary, consistently well-crafted and overall satisfying than The Conjuring.
It’s a testament to the skill of Wan, who has to surely be Australia’s best commercial film director right now (no offense to “all-style, little substance” Baz Luhrmann). He picks up what is a essentially boiler plate concept — a family moves into a new home, strange things start happening, they escalate, and they eventually seek outside help, resulting in a climatic final confrontation — and turns it into an absolute frightfest. You know when the audience gets so frightened and nervous that they have to laugh after scary moments just so they can take the edge off the tension? The Conjuring is one of those movies.
In fact, the first gasp in the screening I attended came from the very first image. And the tension is sustained pretty much all the way through. Wan pulls out just about every trick in his horror director’s bag to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. To be honest, there is nothing particularly original or inventive in what he does — he just does it in a highly effective way, gradually building up the dread, creepiness and suspense and infusing it with the occasional “boo” moment, then milking your anticipation for more. You may scoff at some of the old tricks Wan employs (for example, he took the “doll” a little too far for my liking), but he is so relentless in his attempts to unsettle you that at least some of them have to work.
That said, there are some notable concepts in The Conjuring that set it apart from your average haunted house flick. The first is that the film is centered more on the ghost hunters, the Warrens, than the family being haunted. The screen time is probably roughly equal, but you get the feeling that the story is more about the Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) than the Perron couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.
The second is that Wan seems to have figured out where to draw the line in deciding what to show audiences and when to show it. Horror movies tend to be scary because of what you don’t see rather than what you do see on screen. It’s that anticipation and the fear of the unknown that gets to us. Usually once the ghost/demon starts appearing and you can see them clearly the fear melts away. It’s a mistake that films such as Sinister and Insidious made, but Wan has cleverly avoided the pitfall this time around. You see just enough, but not too much, and not too soon.
The third is that, unlike most horror movies, The Conjuring has an excellent climax that keeps up the tension and doesn’t dissolve into silliness. Again, there is no new ground being broken here in terms of the plot, but it’s the execution that helps keep the film afloat all the way until the end.
Another point worth noting is that it was refreshing to see a family who isn’t sceptical. One of the most annoying things about haunted house movies is that no one ever believes the poor victims at first. In The Conjuring there is none of that crap. If my daughter tells me some crazy shit and I experience some crazy shit, I’m going straight to the ghostbusters.
If Wan deserves praise for his direction then the actors deserve recognition for their performances. It’s never easy to pull off a haunting victim (or demonologist), though the foursome of Wilson, Farmiga, Livingston and Taylor — all veteran actors — do a commendable job of making us believe in what they are experiencing. Taylor, in particular, is remarkable as the vulnerable mother and the most tormented of the bunch. I should also mention Shannon Kook, who plays the Warrens’ assistant, and John Brotherton, the police officer who serves an important function as the provider of comedic relief. Both of them are positive additions.
If I have any complaints about The Conjuring it’ll have to be the stupidity of the Warrens. For a couple known as the world’s most renowned demonologists (with a whole room of trophies, mind you), they were sure slow in figuring out what the heck was going on. I mean, come on, it wasn’t that hard to see what the demon was planning.
But all things considered, that’s a relatively minor quibble. Simply put, The Conjuring is the scariest, most well-rounded and satisfying “conventional” horror movie to hit the big screen in a very long time. Despite its stereotypical plot, cookie-cutter progression and standard fright tactics, The Conjuring is a visually impressive and surprisingly effective haunted house flick that will be hard to top as the best horror film of the year.
4.25 stars out of 5
PS: OK, so back to Ed and Lorraine Warren. This ghostbusting couple has given us The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut and now The Conjuring, so we at least have to thank them for that. But are they the real deal or are they just a couple of convincing fraudsters? After doing some research on The Haunting in Connecticut (and I wrote a lengthy post about it here), my opinion is that they fall somewhere in the middle, but probably leaning closer to the latter.
I just think there are real doubts on whether Lorraine was a real clairvoyant as she professes, and there have been some damning claims about their tendency to sensationalize the hauntings for publicity. You have to be curious why every haunting they attend to ends up having a demon who wants to anally rape someone in the family. My guess is that there was probably something in the Perron house that wasn’t quite human, but after the Warrens got there it suddenly became 10 times worse, and once Hollywood got its hands on the story it became 10 times worse than that. And look, if you’ve been terrified by a ghost, the least you could do is make a buck out of it.