Conjuring, The (United States, 2013)July 17, 2013
The Conjuring represents a member of an increasingly endangered species: the R-rated horror movie that relies more on suspense and scares than blood and gore. That's not to say there are no instances of horrific, stomach-churning visuals in The Conjuring, but this is predominantly a ghost/haunted house tale and, as such, is largely devoid of the kind of slicing and dicing that characterizes movies established in the slasher or "torture porn" subgenres. If I was to use a single word to describe The Conjuring, it would be "intense." The pervasive aura of creepiness more than compensates for the low body count and inventive use of sharp instrumentation.
Director James Wan started his career a decade ago with Saw, one of the few innovative slasher films. Wan left what would become a franchise after the first installment (before the brand was hopelessly damaged by Lionsgate's milking of it) and moved on to other things (although he remained attached to most of the Saw sequels in a writing/and or producing capacity). In 2010, he made Insidious, one of the best recent horror films; The Conjuring represents a distillation of many of the best elements of Insidious. This is a stronger production - no less terrifying but lacking the fall-off that characterized the earlier movie's last act. It puts to shame many of the teen-friendly horror wannabes polluting multiplexes these days.
The "based on a true story" label is something of a gimmick since extreme license has been taken with a story that's shaky to begin with. Yes, people existed with the names ascribed to them in the movie. Yes, there was a paranormal investigation and subsequent "exorcism." But that's about the extent of the fact within this fiction. The filmmakers wisely don't attempt real-world authenticity; they accept the ghosts and demons as legitimate and, as a result, we buy into the premise rather than wondering whether the real-life case was a hoax or not.
The Conjuring, which transpires in 1971 New England, takes its time getting going, beginning with groups of characters on two different tracks who will eventually come together. There are Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the famed demonologists who travel all around the northeastern United States investigating suspected paranormal activity. Often, they discover natural explanations for seemingly ghostly or demonic occurrences, but there are times when they have to call in a sympathetic priest to perform an exorcism. Unlike most protagonists in ghost stories, they're smart, competent, and never lose their cool. When things get really wild, they provide an anchor of sanity. In a strange way, I was reminded of Donald Pleasance's Sam Loomis in the original Halloween.
The victims are the members of the Perron family: father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn, and daughters Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). It doesn't take long before strange things begin happening in their new "dream home." Bumps in the night, mysterious skin bruises, hands clapping in empty rooms, and a dead dog are the first symptoms that all isn't right in this rural, colonial house. By the time Carolyn brings in the Warrens to help, the situation has become serious with the inmates running the asylum.
Wan is a master of manipulation and uses every trick available to him to ratchet up the level of tension. At times, he moves the camera in innovative ways (there's a nice little point-of-view shot that occurs when one of the girls looks under her bed), preferring long takes over short cuts. He often plays with the audience, establishing expected angles without the payoff only to have the "money shot" occur shortly thereafter. The camera placement and movement is precise and represents the difference between a pedestrian haunted house tale and a top-notch one. Joseph Bishara's discordant score adds to the effect without becoming intrusive or overwhelming. CGI and practical effects are used but not overused - another indication that Wan knows what he's doing.
Patrick Wilson, who had the lead in Insidious (as well as in the Wan-directed sequel, which opens in September 2013), is back working for the director here. He and Vera Farmiga make an excellent team. They play their characters as loving human beings who are fully invested in helping others and don't have a cynical bone in their bodies. They exude a sense of calm - exactly the opposite of Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, who act as one might expect from rational people who suddenly find themselves being victimized by creatures from beyond the grave. For the most part, the characters are believable because they're played as such (and also because, with one or two exceptions having to do with a cellar, they don't do the kinds of stupid things horror movie protagonists do).
The Conjuring offers the right mix of jump-scare "boo!" moments and mounting tension that creates an intense two hours. The ending is a little weak but it's by no means a disappointment and it wraps up the story effectively - something increasingly unfamiliar to horror films (which like to have "hooks" at the end to facilitate a sequel). This is a midsummer gift to those who genuinely appreciate movies that startle and unsettle. For those who like real horror, this is a don't-miss.
Conjuring, The (United States, 2013)
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver
Screenplay: Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes
Cinematography: John R. Leonetti
Music: Joseph Bishara
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers