When I woke up this morning, I didn’t even have this movie in my mind, but a great endorsement by another review motivated me to switch off the spoiler filled review and look up showtimes. The Conjuring is directed by James Wan, the man behind Saw and Insidious, a couple of horror films I have yet to see, but I’m more motivated to do so now, especially the latter. When a director demonstrates the level of tight grasp on taut, wicked suspense and horror that Wan does here, it puts him emphatically on my radar.
Based on a true story, the film tells the horrifying tale of how world renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga) were called upon to help a family, the Perrons, terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful demonic entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.
I love many kinds of horror from slashers films to vampire flicks and beyond, but what really gets me excited is a film like this. A film that is all about the careful art of suspense and tension, and just thinking about what this film does to an audience gives me chills now. As with any “based on a true story” movie, there are potentially some embellishments from the filmmakers for dramatic or storytelling effect. Thus, that can allow an audience to slip a suspension of disbelief into this viewing experience. However, whether it’s all dead bang true or not, this movie is terrifying as living hell. My heart was pounding for five minutes after the film ended. James Wan is clearly a master at this craft because I’ve rarely seen anything this well executed. There is so much he doesn’t show you that utterly chokes the breath right out of your throat. He uses the pitch black dark corners of a house, making you project your own anticipations and imaginations into what lurks there. What these people say they are seeing will stand your hair on end, and when eventually Wan does reveal something to you, it will set your nerves on fire and jump start your heart like nothing else. Yet, this is not a film of jump scares. Every terror is subtly and brilliantly crafted and entirely earned. Things don’t just jump out of the darkness at you, they creep their way in under your skin, and scare the crap out of you. Wan does such a remarkable job showing you just enough to creep you out, and have the tension choke you up. A demonic face will ease its way into the frame, but will smartly cut to the next shot, keeping you on edge.
The film does have moments that could have been false jump scares, if handled by a much lesser filmmaker, but this film has so much better stuff waiting for you that it doesn’t need to fall back on cheap tactics. This film starts out ready to slam the fear factor into full gear. From the guy who made Dead Silence, it’s no wonder that a creepy, demonic doll jump starts the looming, pounding terror, and weaves its way back into the film later on. I just love that Ed Warren knows the doll is so dangerous, he has to keep it in a glass case with a sign that says, “Positively do not open,” in a room full of demonic artifacts completely out in the open.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga do an amazing job as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively. You can tell these are two people who have been through some intense circumstances because their bond is extraordinarily strong. All of these people, based on real life individuals, feel like fully dimensional, deeply human people. The emotions are strong, and the depth of belief in one another between Ed and Lorraine shows that a rare love would have to exist to keep these two people together through the hell they have experienced, first hand. Ed cares deeply for her safety after a terrifying exorcism incident really traumatized Lorraine, but seeing her strength constantly show through is amazing. If this is at all an honest representation of these two legendary paranormal investigators, my respect goes out to them just for their unwavering dedication to one another and what they do.
This film does a great job of balancing the story between the Warrens and the Perron family. Both of their stories are being told side-by-side and are interconnected. The fact that this entity latches onto both families compounds their problems makes for a greatly more intense story, and Lorraine getting more and more visions that frighten the hell out her just drives the terror forward incredibly intense.
Lili Taylor is taken on a real rollercoaster ride, and she handles it incredibly well. As Carolyn, she’s a wonderful mother and wife, but as these horrific experiences befall her and her children, Taylor sells the fear with grave importance. She and Ron Livingston work very naturally together, and no one here feels cheated on character or substance. All of the daughters are magnificently portrayed by an array of solid young actresses. Everyone feels like a real human being, and have very realistic chemistry and dynamics amongst them. Joey King has an amazing moment of paralyzing terror seeing something terrifying in the shadows that is never revealed to us. There is solid talent all throughout this cast that is absolutely impressive creating a very grounded, convincing realism to this extraordinary series of events.
The Conjuring also looks excellent as James Wan works with his regular cinematographer John R. Leonetti. They use light and especially shadow to brilliant effect. Few horror films really utilize the unseen mystery of darkness remotely as well as this film does. There are many moments where light bulbs are busted out, or very little light is present down to a mere match lighting up a whole creepy, spider web filled basement. It puts you so precariously on edge that you don’t know where or when the terror will come at you through that thick blackness. The cinematography really starts to get stylistic, in very good ways, during the climax. Many unique angles and good movement is utilized to surprising, clever effect. Yet, overall, the film is shot wonderfully never trying to distract or dazzle you with frenetic movement. Instead, there’s a lot of great still shots and flowing steadicam work to make this feel like this is a horror film with its feet firmly planted in the ground. It would’ve been easy for another filmmaker to make this feel like a 1970’s movie with a lot of film grain and handheld camera work, but again, this film doesn’t need much in the way of stylistic visuals to be amazingly effective.
And the score is greatly crafted and perfectly utilized. Most commonly used is a very low rumble that will rattle you with an ominous, foreboding feeling. The score never tries to over accentuate the scares. It’s right there in line with the intensity of the moment, and only strikes out at you when needed. This is a horror film that knows the value of silence, and the right time to tweak your nerves in the right direction with an appropriate music cue. You won’t find any clichés in the work of Joseph Bishara here.
And as any haunted house movie begs the question, this movie clearly answers why this family doesn’t just pack up and haul ass out of there. They’ve poured all their money in this new home as a family of seven in a new area where they don’t know anyone else. They have no alternative but to stay here. Yet, even if they did, the film has that great hook that the demonic presence has latched onto them. It doesn’t matter where they go, this thing is going to follow, and so, there is no escape. They have to confront and defeat this entity in order to move on with their lives. This is a horror film that has good doses of exposition, but it is handled so damn well that you are intently invested in every word that Ed or Lorraine relay to the Perrons. We see all of this come greatly to a head in a riveting third act.
When things ultimately go all to hell, the film ramps up the intensity so damn tightly. Anyone who has seen their fair share of horror films is quite familiar with the exorcism scene formula. While The Conjuring doesn’t do anything that will revolutionize that aspect of horror, James Wan still executes it will a lot of artistic merit and vision. Having the possessed individual covered in a sheet the entire time allows for the audience to project their frightening imaginations upon it, and think of just what this demonic entity is doing under there screaming and shrieking. The house shakes, birds crash into the windows, things are going insane, and just when you think the calm is setting in, it’s only elevating to the next level. There is so much hair-raising terror to be sucked into throughout this film, but I think it’s best sequence is when the Warrens’ daughter is being haunted by the entity and the possessed Annabelle doll from the opening sequence returns. Just thinking about it sends chills all over me. Typed words simply don’t do it justice. This is a film designed to tighten your every muscle, and strain every nerve across your skin. If you read my review of Sinister from last October, you’ll know how much that film scared me, and I would put The Conjuring right up next to that if not above it. The heart pounding terror continues to amplify throughout the film, and even the final moment of the movie still gets you in a really smart way that is never cheap. This is a high grade horror film with sophisticated filmmaking by a director who is clearly a master of the genre.
If you love being scared at the movies, and really enjoy something that is taut, chilling, and suspenseful, it is all here in The Conjuring. This film will indeed scare the living hell out of you. It is one of the most frightening horror films I’ve ever subjected myself to, and I look forward to being scared by it again and again. You should absolutely go see this as long as you’re not weak of heart because it will put a toll on it, for sure. This film earns every scare so brilliantly. There is just so much great terror on intense display that I could never cover it all, and there is no way I would spoil a single scare for you. Backed by a stunningly strong cast, especially in the case of Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga, you cannot go wrong with The Conjuring. This movie keeps giving me chills thinking about it. It is worth every penny you spend on your ticket and then some. This is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. Based on this film alone, I am going to check out Insidious, and then, hopefully look forward to Insidious: Chapter 2 coming this September.