Review: 'The Conjuring'

By: Heather Seebach

People tend to frown upon "one-trick ponies" but let's face it, in the horror genre, finding your niche is a good thing. Hitchcock knew murder; Romero nailed zombies; and James Wan does hauntings better than any other director working today. Of course his career is more varied than just that (Saw; Death Sentence; the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7), but where endless Paranormal Activity films fail to keep the sub-genre fresh, Wan has the filmmaking chops to keep audiences leaping in fear. 

His latest offering is The Conjuring, based on the stories of real-life ghost hunters/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. The following two things made me wary about this particular film:

1) It is only the second Wan film where neither James nor frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell wrote it. It is the first Wan horror film not written by either of them.

2) It comes out just months prior to his other demon/haunting flick, Insidious: Chapter Two.

But unlike Insidious, Wan wanted to make something about real people and real horror. In this "true story"  Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston portray Carolyn and Roger Perron, whose family and home were tormented by a malevolent spirit back in 1971. They went to the famous demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren for help and, in turn, the paranormal investigators faced their most terrifying case yet. 

The Conjuring is written by Chad and Carey Hayes, who previously penned such mediocre-to-crap horror flicks as House of Wax and The Reaping. This is no doubt the twins' best effort to date, perhaps largely thanks to all the Warrens' spooky stories that practically tell themselves. Unfortunately, the film tries to cram in multiple stories that don't always flow together or feel necessary. It attempts to cover all grounds - dolls, kids, ghosts, demons, witches, and more - but it can be a bit too ambitious for its own good sometimes.

One aspect of the script I do really enjoy is how female-driven it is. Whether or not you believe in Lorraine Warren's claims, her character on the screen is a solid one. This is no shrieking scream queen tripping over branches in the woods. She is so strong and stoic in the face of evil that, in the rare moments she does scream, it subtly tells the audience: this is BAD! Be very afraid!

In the role of Lorraine, Vera Farmiga continues to prove what a great actress she is, especially if you're familiar with the real Lorraine's mannerisms and speech - Vera nails it. Lili Taylor too turns in an intense performance as the Perron matriarch dealing with unspeakable evil. Patrick Wilson (as Ed Warren) and Livingston do a fine job but this is definitely the ladies' show (if the Perron's five daughters weren't evidence enough). The supporting characters (the paranormal investigator crew) are not very interesting, especially up against those in Insidious

This film draws upon a lot of familiar haunted house tropes such as creaking doors, whispers in the dark, and even creepy dolls. What makes them different here comes back to Wan's talent for strategically luring the viewers' eye to create a jump-scare that is based on pure surprise and fear rather than a sharp piano note. And Wan continues to avoid "oh, it's just the cat" fake-out scares in favor of genuine threats, so the audience is always on-edge. His use of simple objects like flashbulbs and matches provide incredibly effective scares. And now clapping is scary! Thanks, James! I only wish the advertisements had not been so forthcoming with some of the film's best scares!

The Conjuring, as its name implies, is more than just a ghost movie. Unlike Insidious, this one is rated R (though that was not Wan's original intention). There have been claims that it got that rating because it's "just too scary" but I suspect it has more to do with the demonic possession elements of the film. The "inhuman spirit" makes a connection with the Perron family on a physical level that goes beyond just slamming doors and throwing chairs. Moments in this film walk the line between eerie and downright disturbing. What little gore the film has is well-restrained until the viscera is most needed (and satisfying) in the film's climax. We only get a few glimpses of the monsters, but when we do, the makeup FX will chill your bones. 

Because the real events took place in 1971, the film not only has 70s wardrobe and music, but Wan made the film itself a throwback to 70s horror! Even the title The Conjuring recalls horror titles of that era, and fans of that time will even appreciate the title font! The pacing and tone just exude the feel of a 70s paranormal thriller throughout.

This movie is as much a tribute to The Exorcist as it is to The Amityville Horror. I only wish it had been more of the former. Ghost films and exorcism movies are both so overdone these days, but I've always been a tad bored by hauntings. Add some Satan in there and you got a scary stew going! The possession portions of this film are its best moments, for sure. In fact, I would love to see Wan (and perhaps Whannell) make a brutal, full-on exorcism film someday.

The Conjuring will no doubt draw endless comparison to Insidious. While their very basic plots are obviously alike, they are actually quite different. This one is more straight-laced than Insidious, which could certainly be a plus to all the people who hated "the Further." Personally, I still prefer Insidious for how bonkers it was, but this one is bound to be enjoyed by anyone who dug that movie (and even people who hated that movie). With his usual brand of clever tricks, Wan has crafted another effectively creepy "ghost" tale sure to keep audiences doing the old gasp-scream-and-laugh like good horror should.

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