Thank you, THE CONJURING. Thank you so much. Because of you, I’ll never have to worry about getting another good night’s sleep since I’m going to be too busy watching every single shadow in my apartment with the fearful anticipation that, at any moment, I’ll either be yanked into the dark by some unseen force or some porcelain-skinned abomination of a child’s toy is going to emerge from the night of its own free will. You’ve done right by me, THE CONJURING. You truly have.
Director James Wan (SAW, INSIDIOUS) has crafted a remarkably effective tale about haunted houses, demonic possessions and the chosen few who stand against the things that go bump in the night. No, I’m not talking about the Ghostbusters. I’m instead referring to Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real life husband and wife team of demonologists and the alleged true events that this film takes its narrative from. If any of the events that occurred in this movie are even half true, I’m ready and willing to believe that ghosts are real…and that their sole purpose in the afterlife is to completely and utterly f@#k up your day.
The film follows Ed played by Patrick Wilson (WATCHMEN, PROMETHEUS), and Lorraine played by Vera Farmiga (SOURCE CODE, THE DEPARTED). It’s 1971, and the couple are soon called upon to investigate the alleged haunting of a house in Rhode Island that was recently moved into by Roger Perron (Ron Livingston, OFFICE SPACE), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor, PUBLIC ENEMIES) and their five daughters. Clocks stop at the same time throughout the house, doors are open and shut violently at night, the creepy-ass piano in the basement plays itself and the family is seeing some very disturbing images when they least expect it. This convinces the Warrens to help them overcome these troublesome entities and leads them to discover and confront the dark secrets contained within the house’s archaic walls.
Dear Lord, this film was terrifying. But terrifying in all the right ways. This isn’t another “jump-scare a minute”-type of horror film. THE CONJURING takes its time to acclimate you to the eerie and unsettling atmosphere it presents right from the get-go. There are genuine moments of startling terror that will have you leap out of your seat or let loose a scream, but these moments are earned by a well-paced build-up that plays on your anxieties and fearfulness about learning what lurks around the next corner or under the bed. Wan utilizes the silence to creepy effect, letting you know that it’s not a CGI monster waiting to jump out and yell “Booga! Booga!” that you should worry about. It’s the gaunt form behind you that is simply looming and staring right at you in silence. Even when the Warrens take further action and the events escalate in intensity, the movie keeps the over-the-top spectacle somewhat in check in favor of making you worry more for the characters’ safety rather than when or where the next freaky thrill is going to pop out.
Indeed, I grew to care for these characters quite a bit due in no small part to the stellar cast assembled. Vera Farmiga was by far my favorite as she portrays the clairvoyant Lorraine as a loving wife and partner who presents just as much fortitude against the horrific images she witnesses as she does vulnerability. Patrick Wilson plays Ed with a no-nonesense mentality to his livelihood of paranormal investigation while still showing a charming and supportive demeanor. Ron Livingston plays the Perron patriarch with just the right mixture of helplessness and devotion to his family. Lili Taylor is able to run the full gamut of emotions as she is slowly turned into the entity’s conduit for grief and pain. Even the children are given moments to shine. One scene in particular involves Joey King (WHITE HOUSE DOWN) playing one of the middle Perron daughters named Christine as she thoroughly convinces both her family and the audience of a horrifying being that only she is capable of seeing and hearing. The cast does an expert job in portraying these people as just that: people, and not “horror movie cliches.”
That may in fact be the film’s strongest asset: it never once diverges from the humanity of the story. The suffering of the Perron family is never diminished in favor of a horrific spectacle for horrific spectacle’s sake. The toll these supernatural encounters take on the Warrens is never forgotten as Ed and Lorraine strengthen their resolve to protect the family, each other and even their own daughter. Even any initial skepticism that these events are not legitimate are not taken to annoying lengths the way they usually are in other films. The skeptic has doubts that the haunting is not authentic, something ugly rears its head to prove them wrong and they immediately get in on the plan. These aren’t your stereotypical horror movie fill-in folks. These are fully realized and fleshed out people that I immediately developed a genuine investment in due to their characterization and not because I have a need to see them constantly tormented by terrifying crap.
The effects and camerawork help to establish an extraordinarily unsettling atmosphere. Slow quiet camera pans and zooms throughout the hallways of the house help with the afore-mentioned build-up of anxiety and frayed nerves. Practical in-camera effects of objects and doors moving on their own add to a sense of organic fear. The grimy and muted colors of the house and its surroundings convey the sense that even during the daytime scenes, no one is safe. And the make-up and designs are grotesque enough without traveling too far into absurdity. You get the idea that every inanimate object in this film has a secret desire to harm you. Especially that freaky-looking doll in all the promotional materials with its splintered smile and cold dead stare. I don’t care what time period it is. Who would buy such a thing for their kid (unless it was some sort of punishment)?!
Cabbage Patch Kid From Hell aside, THE CONJURING is one of those moviegoing experiences you really can’t afford to pass up. This is very much on the level of other greats like THE EXORCIST, THE SHINING, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the original 1963 THE HAUNTING. It delivers on the chills and thrills through effective characterization, atmosphere, pacing and storytelling rather than relying heavily on the shock value of the jump-scare or shameless exploitation of overly-disturbing and gross imagery. It’s like the film knows that, deep down, you want the scares to just be over and done with in order to move on with your day, so it waits you out and wears down your initial resistance to genuine suspense and fear with its unnerving presentation before pouncing on your senses.
Bottom line: this movie, like the spirits in it, wants to completely f@#k up your day. And you won’t mind it trying one bit.
Final Score: 10 out of 10
Check out Mike’s McGTV video log on THE CONJURING! CAUTION- contains explicit language: