James Wan’s follow-up to INSIDIOUS shows great growth from the young filmmaker, INSIDIOUS had its moments but the third act was quite shaky and seemed to have a lack of confidence compared to the first two. INSIDIOUS was full of potential and THE CONJURING is the realization of that potential. Ed and Lorraine Warren were ghost hunters of note throughout the 60s and 70s. They investigated the Amityville haunting and were frequent guests on the paranormal circuit. Lorraine even appeared on Paranormal State and has been on several radio programs like Coast to Coast AM. THE CONJURING is the story of the Warren’s most frightening case. A story they did not want to tell for many years and one that would remain sealed until after Ed’s death. As such, Wan was able to use the holy grail of horror movie tag lines: Based on a true story…
It’s 1971 and the Perron family moves into a rural Rhode Island farmhouse to escape the hustle and bustle of New Jersey. Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five girls are mostly thrilled with the move and fall in love with their house. The girls swarm over the grounds and play games while Roger and Carolyn begin to fix things up. The girls accidentally uncover a hidden cellar while playing a game and soon after strange occurrences put the family ill at ease. The usual opening and closing doors and footsteps soon build to a malevolent threat to the children that sends the parents seeking help and reaching out to the Warrens. Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) agrees to help though Ed (Patrick Wilson) is reluctant. Once Lorraine has made the decision Ed is fully aboard and the two begin to help the Perrons to fight whatever it is that threatens their family.
The film has a lot going for it. Everything seems to be period appropriate from the sweaters and suits to
the cars and appliances. It is neat seeing ghost hunter “tech” that is four decades old. The sprawling and creaking house doesn’t look or feel foreboding but the claustrophobia of the cellar and hallways ratchets up the unease. The story is extremely well written. As the film progresses, the tension and dread increase to several small crescendos until the Warrens and their team face the entity at the heart of the case in a desperate attempt to save the Perron family.
Wan expertly sets up cheap scares and wisely does not follow through. THE CONJURING does not rely on them or any jump scares though there are several of those. The film is well shot and every scene is expertly framed to take advantage of the lighting and location. The blocking in the moving scene shows how attention to detail can take a mundane moment and make it memorable as the Perrons and the movers seem to dance about the camera as it unobtrusively enters their home and takes the viewer deeper into this tale. There is also a nice nod to the prevalence of the found footage method of filming that has taken over the haunting/possession subgenre of horror. It is brief and it may go missed by some but was a nice touch nonetheless. The score and soundtrack are both excellent and establish the era and moods effectively. Wan is one of the new wave of horror directors so he likes his cacophony, the bass does get loud in key moments and the more dire the situation the louder it gets. THE CONJURING is light on the red stuff but the make up on the entities more than makes up for it.
Everyone does a great job with their performances. Wilson and Livingston are always solid and believable “every-men,” and Taylor is quite good. Vera Farmiga shines as Lorraine Warren and she possesses an almost ethereal quality. It is as though she is there but not there at the same time. The only real critique I have is of the relationship between Ed and Lorraine. It is wholesome to the point of being saccharine though it never detracts from the story it doesn’t add much either. John Brotherton plays Officer Brad and provides some much needed light comic relief. He reminds me of a young Diedrich Bader with his facial expressions and timing. The children are even pretty good. I have to admit, it seems to me that children in horror movies almost always turn in mediocre performances at best.
THE CONJURING is an excellent horror film. I don’t scare easily but this film excels at evoking a sense of tension and dread. I found myself emotionally invested in both the Warrens and their trials and in the well being of the Perron family. Even if it doesn’t scare the viewer, this is what a scary movie should look and sound like. James Wan has raised the bar on the haunted house and possession movies and hopefully other filmmakers will rise to this challenge.