When it comes to horror, everyone has their particular tastes. Some dig the slashers. Others are all about the blood and gore. I, on other hand, prefer something a bit more subtle, a bit more understated. Don’t get me wrong… I can still have some fun with those other horror styles on occasion, but it’s the atmospheric approach that typically gets me the most. Now you’ll never find me with my hands covering my eyes or see my jumping out of my seat, but if you took a stethoscope to my chest during a really good horror that works off a strong foundation of tension and the principles of less is more, you’d hear a pounding that’d have you thinking my heart was serving as the bass drum for Metallica. I don’t need to see everything. For me, not seeing everything further contributes to that fear of the unknown. My imagination can put together horrors far worse than anything any filmmaker or visual effects team can ever create. And, because of my belief system in ghosts, spirits, demons and the like, when those films are built around supernatural elements, that’s what terrifies me. Call bullshit all you want, but if I were sitting home alone and suddenly pictures start falling off the wall on their own, I am about to get very scared very quickly. And I get it… that isn’t for everyone, but that subject matter is what hits me the hardest and usually the horror that plays the best for me.
That doesn’t mean just sticking a haunted house in your flick is the way to my heart. You’ve still got to earn your scares, and THE CONJURING goes above and beyond on that task, with director James Wan crafting another good one in the genre he’s served quite well over the years. Between SAW and INSIDIOUS, Wan has proven he knows how to do horror right, and that track record extends to THE CONJURING, which has a little bit for everyone of different horror persuasions. Built around the worst case real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) ever faced, THE CONJURING pulls tricks out that fans of either psychological terror or jump scares can appreciate. However, what makes those scares register as strongly as they do is the family at the heart of the film, the Perrons, fronted by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston who also have five daughters – Mackenzie Foy, Joey King, Hayley McFarland, Shanley Caswell and Kyla Deaver. Having recently moved into quite the fixer-upper, the Perrons begin experiencing all types of creepy occurrences around the house from doors open and closing on their own to unexplainable bruises to loud banging on the walls and then some.
As usual, it’s little things that make you both the family and you antsy until one particular night when the shit really hits the fan, and it’s time to call in some professionals who might be able to offer up some real help. But this is such a clean-cut, nice family that part of your fright from THE CONJURING comes from the activities transpiring in the house and the other part comes from the fact that you don’t want to see anything bad happen to the Perrons. This isn’t a family of assholes, who you root for the evil to victimize. Quite the contrary… they are so just your average family that the moment one of them is put in any sort of danger or uncomfortable situation, you’re immediately feeling it, too. Without the Perrons being as innocent and helpless as they are, I don’t know that I’d feel the terror of THE CONJURING as intensely as I did, and that’s really a credit to the big chunk of the cast that makes up the entire family. They all have small roles to play in building up the sympathy needed for the film to really take hold, and each one of them knocks it out of the park when it’s their time up to bat.
That puts the other half of THE CONJURING on the shoulders of Wilson and Farmiga, because, if you’re going to have credible victims of paranormal events, then you’ve got to have strong personalities to come in and try combatting them. And right from the opening sequence on another case dealing with the creepiest of dolls, Wilson and Farmiga are able to establish that Ed and Lorraine Warren are two people who know their shit when it comes to this subject matter. Farmiga is a clairvoyant able to pick up on the presence of other entities while Wilson’s character is a non-clergy demonologist actually recognized by the Church, something you don’t see every day. Once they’re brought to the scene, they instantly know something bad happened in that house, and the discovery mode kicks in on learning the bad, bad history of this property. However, watching Farmiga use Lorraine’s gifts to get deeper and deeper into what is terrorizing this wholesome family is the strength of this couple. This isn’t an easy job for Lorraine, with each new encounter with the supernatural taking something out of her, and Farmiga is given the freedom to play up both the physical and emotional toll these scenarios take on her. Wilson is reduced to a bit more of the concerned partner role, but he’s more ingrained with the technological portion of their investigations, so he does fill a specific necessity. Plus, he’s the skeptic of the two when it comes to taking on this new case, so it’s through him that we understand the seriousness of what is taking place in this house, shifting from “I’d rather not” to “We need to help these people.”
There’s a bit of a side-story involved the Warrens and their daughter, but it doesn’t quite strike the same way everything with the Perrons do, namely because we don’t get much time with her at all. As a result, it’s a bit of cheat to stir up some tension by putting a child in harm’s way, as there’s no basis for it. In addition, it seems to stray from the primary story already laid out for us and it’s added so late in the game that THE CONJURING could have cut out that small portion entirely and it wouldn’t have affected the end result. My other nitpick comes from where the third act goes… and it’s not the fault of the movie at all. It’s apparent how any type of resolution to this story is going to be sought, and, because of the ridiculous amount of exorcism/possession movies we’ve gotten in the last few years, a great deal of it feels cliché. I’ll well aware that these are the conventions we’ve come to accept from this type of situation and deviating from that puts the film at risk of losing its audience, who’ll be quick to say, “Hey, that’s not how an exorcism goes,” based on their own preconceived notions. THE CONJURING is able to use a couple new tricks here, but there is a bit of a been there, done that feel to most of it. Once again, it fits in the context of the film… I just have exorcism fatigue that only a moratorium of about five years on possession flicks is going to be able to cure.
Chad and Carey Hayes have hit the nail on the head with these characters as to what makes the surrounding horror matter on such a big level, and it’s the execution of Wan when it comes to visuals and timing, which is a major component of those scares landing. Wan uses different camera angles, from upside-down point-of-view shots to dolly zooms, to subconsciously disorient, further adding to the discomfort THE CONJURING is able to capitalize on with its already good story. It’s further evidence that Wan has mastered horror about as well as one can, and it’s these nice touches that make this picture as superb as it is. On top of that, Wan just has a feel for when to pull the trigger on any given scare. He doesn’t rush in and prematurely fire them off nor does he wait too long where your anxiety of what’s to come starts to dry up. He pushes the button at the right time every time, and that’s what gets the pulse racing.
There’s a real classic feel to THE CONJURING, stemming from its 1971 setting, but also in how it builds its horror. The characters come first, and, once they’re established strongly enough, then it’s onto creating the terror… just like it used to be back in the day. There seems to be a formula to good horror that not everyone can understand following, but Wan has mastered the recipe and baked up another terrifyingly delicious treat. THE CONJURING is horror done right, and that’s not something we see all that often… so take advantage of it while you can.