It’s remarkable that in a genre expressly designed to scare people, so few of its entries actually accomplish that goal. But The Conjuring absolutely does. Smarter and more consistent than all of the Paranormal Activity films put together, James Wan’s interim project between Insidious installments exudes both studio respectability and grindhouse urgency.
All of which is why hyperbole aside, The Conjuring is the closest thing to a horror classic modern audiences are likely to get, particularly in an era when genre offerings seem to be at their most disposable.
Ron Livingston (Dinner For Schmucks) and Lily Taylor (Being Flynn) play Roger and Carolyn Perron, parents of a quartet of girls who move into a Rhode Island farmhouse only to quickly discover that it’s possessed by supernatural forces. After exhausting all possibilities of dealing with the unseen menace, Roger reaches out to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), well-known paranormal researchers who have a reputation for eliminating similar threats. But even the veteran investigators begin to think they may be in over their heads after the evil force initiates increasingly violent attacks on the Perrons, forcing them to confront their own painful past as they try to help Roger and Carolyn preserve their family’s future.
Although it certainly utilizes many of the hallmarks of other recent paranormal, possession-oriented movies in order to exert its influence on the audience, The Conjuring succeeds for three reasons which might not seem obvious except in comparison to their absence in those predecessors. The first of these is the fact that it’s consistent: from the film’s opening scenes to its finale, something is always happening. In the Paranormal Activity films, for example, much time is devoted to introducing the characters and then feebly attempting to justify the constant use of cameras in every corner of the house. In Wan’s film, the first scene highlights the Warrens’ expertise with a “case study” featuring a particularly creepy doll, and the last resolves the escalation of supernatural activity that takes place in the Perrons’ home. And in between, virtually every passing day and night features at least one frightening moment, often repeated in just a delicate enough way that it both keeps the threat palpable while allowing space for it to evolve or intensify.
Secondarily, what happens to the Perrons happens to all of them. In far too many horror movies, one character will find him- or herself persistently attacked by some evil force, only for no one else around him or her to see it. As a result much of the film’s running time is spent questioning whether or not anything is truly happening. In The Conjuring, the supernatural force essentially goes after anyone and everyone in the Perron family indiscriminately, creating unpredictability -- and maybe more importantly, a collective acceptance that this is occurring -- that keeps the characters and the audience on edge.
Third, the film (or the characters) makes almost no stupid decisions, which is a rarity in a film of any sort these days, but is exceptional in a horror film where, as a byproduct of poor writing or maybe just storytelling necessity, they seem to occur with maddening frequency. In fact, there’s a completeness to Wan’s vision here that seems to preclude even the possibility of stupidity: the characters take rational steps to explore and address the supernatural problem. The movie gives them the credit of being blindsided by this evil force rather than having them more or less submit themselves to scenarios where scary stuff occurs. And once the investigators join the Perrons in the house, they set up cameras and recording devices in every corner. This creates a sort of first-generation found footage movie within a movie, and eliminates the “nobody believes me” argument from the characters’ usual repertoire of excuses why their problems continue to intensify.
Wan’s interest in making an old-fashioned studio horror film pays off handsomely, because it showcases both the creativity that he developed on independent and low-budget projects and the refinement and maturity he achieved while making those movies. While the movie doesn’t skimp on gruesome imagery of ghastly figures and evil spirits, some of its greatest moments of suspense occur while little girls are peering, terrified, into dark corners of their bedrooms where there seems to be no one at all. This sort of expert audience manipulation doesn’t come purely from scrimping and saving and working within budgetary constraints that prohibit the filmmakers from showing their monsters. It comes from truly understanding what is scary and how to maximize that suspense, with or without the money to show the monster that will eventually invade viewers’ nightmares.
Evidently, The Conjuring is based on case files of the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, who also investigated the house that would become the setting of the iconic ‘70s horror film The Amityville Horror. I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy in depicting the events in question, and I generally speaking have no sense of spirituality to bounce off of the events in the film. But there are things in Wan’s film that, for the sake of me sleeping soundly, I’d prefer never to see again. The Conjuring creates such an intense and consistent atmosphere of suspense that I would give it my highest recommendations, and yet it’s something I will probably never watch again.
That said, it’s not perfect; the “case study” footage at the beginning, for example, is assembled half as a collection of clinical interviews and half as a mini-horror movie. A later return to that storyline -- inside the Warrens’ house while Ed attempts to stage an impromptu exorcism at the Perrons’ pays off in terror, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense logistically. And some of the finale in the Perrons’ house unfolds more like Evil Dead than a bona fide demonic possession, whatever that would perhaps more plausibly look like. But in a movie where shadows are as scary as the most detailed monster make-up, these shortcomings are few and far between. That Wan shows, say, only an incidental shot of the hanging feet of a past victim instead of a ghastly close-up of the entire corpse is a testament to his restraint, and his growing sophistication, as one of the industry’s top purveyors of legitimate and long-lasting scares.
The greatest transition that Wan has made since the beginning of his career is one fundamental to the growth of the genre as a whole: moving away from the graphic brutality that was a staple of so much of the past decade’s horror movies towards something more emotionally resonant. By “emotionally resonant,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that Wan is attempting to leave long-lasting, deep-rooted emotional damage as a result of scaring his audience. Rather, it refers to his ability to maximize those viewers’ willingness to give themselves over to the experience of watching something, caring about characters and story, and coming out feeling as if there was some effect exerted upon their lives other than rank disgust. Although it was certainly effective (and the best in the series), Saw was a showcase for inflicting pain, contextualized as a series of moral dilemmas. This film chronicles the considerably more relatable struggle for one family to achieve the American dream challenged by an otherworldly threat.
Of course, Wan’s latest isn’t the first horror film to explore that idea, or even the first since his Saw days to do so. But The Conjuring is probably the best, certainly in a long time. Thoughtful where its competition is glib, featuring substantive and relatable characters, and steadily-paced where most feel lackadaisical, rushed or uneven, Wan has made a truly great movie. And I’m only talking about the parts that I saw from between my fingers.