“The Conjuring” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
Written by: Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes
Directed by: James Wan
Nothing scares me anymore in the theater. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, but it’s possible that I’ve just seen it all, experienced too much in life, or I’m too familiar with the typical precursors most ‘scary’ movies give away. Most of the time with horror films of recent vintage, a filmmaker will follow procedure and give away every tense moment beforehand, or the script has such banal dialogue that we’re taken out of the moment. Sometimes the gore doesn’t quite match the tone of the film. Sometimes horror movies are just mean-spirited and full of torture moments, which aren’t fun for anyone (maybe fun for perpetrators of such action?). “The Conjuring”, however, does an excellent job of balancing tense and horrific moments, while simultaneously balancing itself between the ridiculous and the serious. I can say with confidence that although I wasn’t truly frightened at any point, this film held me in suspense the entire time.
It is important to note that in no way do I actually believe any of this movie, or any story with a similar premise, to be true. The focus in popular culture on ghosts, the supernatural, and the unholy is quite the snoozefest for me. That being said, I’m open to suspending disbelief for a film about such subjects, provided that it isn’t too heavy-handed and preachy. Director James Wan (“Saw”, “Insidious”) does a masterful job of showcasing the ghost busting Warren couple (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as a grounded, focused team that at least tries to use scientific methods to back their work up. In this setting, I’m game for that, and although we’re given a couple of on-screen notes about the ‘true’ nature of this story, it isn’t shoved down our throat. Again, a balanced approach.
The film is centered around a single case the Warrens worked, albeit not the one they are most famous for (the “The Amityville Horror” is centered around that particular case). Until I saw this film, I wasn’t familiar with the Warrens themselves. Apparently they investigated many ‘supernatural’ cases, and as the film tells us at the beginning, this one was the ‘most harrowing’. Of course it was.
The Warrens are at a speaking engagement when they are urged, at the insistence of the mother (Lili Taylor), to come and see an old house in the country that the Perron family of seven has just moved into. Things are…happening at the house that can’t be explained. All the clocks stop at 3:07 AM. There are randomly banging doors. The family pet meets doom. The smell of rotting meat is prevalent. Most importantly, the daughters are frightened, and after a particularly harrowing incident, the weary family decides to take action. It takes the initially skeptical Warrens only a few minutes at the house to be clear that something is amiss.
In a sequence of scenes straight out of the “Poltergeist” playbook, a metric ton of ‘analyzing’ equipment is brought in to help provide evidence that the Perron’s house does, indeed, need an exorcism. That’s right, a whole house exorcism. The family can’t leave, either, because this ‘demon’ will follow them. Bummer. What follows, though, is a consistently tense stream of events, where the clairvoyant Lorraine Warren sees terrible images, and the presence in the house toys with everyone. Why does it toy with this family? The reason is given, but I would venture a guess and say that this entity can only grow powerful by striking at the heart of the family, and breaking their bonds. Destroying things like family photos, and killing pets, is one way to do such a thing.
What could be ridiculous in “The Conjuring” is not- this is all well constructed and edited, for there are neither dull moments, nor wasted scenes of needless exposition. The tension level is high until the very end of the film, and never lets up. There’s a point in any thriller where the film can stand pat, and things go as expected, or the boundaries are stretched. This is one of the films where the stakes seem higher, and the antagonist unpredictable. At one point, not only does the affected family deal with the disturbance, but the Warrens themselves deal with the spook’s wrath. That unnerved me- the rules seemed to change on the spot, and I wondered what, exactly, the supernatural nemesis was going to do next.
A few smaller details deserve mentioning. The title sequence of the film, which scrolls up, is a nice throwback to titles past. The font is oversized, and clearly not a subtle yellow. It certainly caught my attention, and got me thinking something unique was forthcoming, not to mention a grin on my face. I’ve also got to give the film credit, for there are many ‘jump’ moments, but they’re timed just right. For subject matter we’ve seen many times now, I appreciated the attention to detail. The dark corners were somehow more menacing than I remember, the shrieking music at critical moments hit just right, the tree in the Perron’s yard was appropriately jagged, and the visceral reactions from the actors gave what should be a throwaway film some gravity. Tonally, this film’s got it where it counts.
Interestingly, in the course of writing this, I’ve realized that it’s possible I will never be scared watching a movie again. Either a horror film tries too hard and gives away an upcoming scare, there’s too much gore and it becomes silly, or it’s full of torture or shock ‘porn’, and I just feel depressed more than anything. Maybe that’s what getting older is like. Maybe we’re only scared by what we don’t know or understand, and thus being scared is a childish reaction. Maybe (this is a stretch) we’re so used to the world being more horrific than a horror film that nothing surprises us in the theater anymore. That being the case, I give extra props to “The Conjuring” for jarring me at all, and I dare any other film to do better.