The Conjuring” is the best kind of horror film.
Although, before I proceed, I suppose it should be noted that horror may be my least favorite genre, so take this review with the appropriate number of salt grains.
Horror movies have lost their bite, lately, it seems to me. The advent of the “Saw” franchise brought on a wave of horror films that were incapable of being truly disturbing or scary and instead embarked on a mission of merely attempting to see which could display the most rampant gore on the screen. Horror filmmakers are either incapable or uninterested in (or studios are uninterested in) unnerving the audience by way of mood, tone and atmosphere.
So when something like “The Conjuring” arrives in theaters and delivers an experience that is driven wholly by those aforementioned lacking attributes and with hardly a drop of blood to be seen, no notable profanity and nary a sex or nude scene to be found, well, I’m not sure “refreshing” is a word normally associated with horror, but it feels applicable here. Doubly so because this is also (at its core) an exorcism movie, a subgenre of horror that seems to have long since jumped the shark.
I suppose there might be a little bit of irony at play given my comments about the “Saw” movies when it’s James Wan who directed “The Conjuring.” (Wan directed the first “Saw” film.)
My point is that “The Conjuring” is a good movie and you should all go see it if you enjoy smartly directed horror films.
The film splits (though eventually joins) its narrative between two families. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) are renowned paranormal investigators (both in the film and real life). Renowned enough that their basement is packed full of paraphernalia from jobs of all sorts, most involving ghosts, demons and other unexplained spiritual phenomena (including a demon-manipulated doll that can be found in the Warrens’ real-life occult museum).
The Warrens are eventually called upon by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), parents desperate for answers as to what is tormenting their family and why. As it turns out, the Perrons’ new home (conveniently isolated out in the country) has some very dark (and potentially deadly) secrets lurking in its past.
What’s remarkable about “The Conjuring” is how well Wan manages to make so many familiar elements feel interesting and engaging and, well, like they haven’t been run into the ground a thousand times over. Exorcism movies are nothing new. Neither are haunted house movies or ones where people are tormented by demons or creepy dolls. And yet, none of those things ever felt rote or paint-by-numbers as I sat there watching it all happen.
Maybe that’s because every scare is earned through Wan’s impeccable ability to sustain tension that builds to a fever pitch before finally seeing release. This is a film that plays the long game and wants more to unsettle and give you a sense of dread than to have you jump in your seat every two minutes.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some really good jump scares. There’s a moment involving a game of hide-and-seek that feels downright classic in both the imagery it presents but also the execution, especially in that it’s not just a quick, scary moment. Like so much of what makes the rest of the movie work, it’s a moment that is pulled off because Wan builds up to it.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the movie feels a little overstuffed with characters. You have the Perrons and their five daughters (one of whom gets tangled in the typical “talks to creepy ghost that claims to be her friend” subplot), the Warrens and a their daughter (and a subplot involving Lorraine possibly losing a part of her soul with each exorcism they attend), a local sheriff and the Warrens’ stakeout assistant.
Thankfully, most of the adults are given a couple good moments each (although Livingston’s character often feels like he gets the shortest end of the principle character stick), it’s everyone else that feels shortchanged, the Perron daughters, especially. I understand wanting to be true to the actual story, but they probably could have cut down the number of kids to only a couple and it would have let things breathe a bit better.
I also wish we’d have spent more time getting to know the Warrens. I like that we get a prologue that establishes what it is they do, but their story comes across as much more interesting than the admittedly standard trappings of the Perrons’ situation. Wilson and Farmiga work well together here and it felt like the film was always on the cusp of going some interesting places with their relationship but felt obligated to cut back to giving us more of the Perrons. Also, this is the second film in a row where Wan makes creepy stuff appear over Wilson’s shoulder, so they better not let me down and go for the hat trick with “Insidious 2.”
Still, what’s there ultimately works well enough that these aren’t issues that felt glaring and distracting as I was watching. This is an extremely solid film, one that I didn’t really expect to enjoy as much as I did.
As one final note, “The Conjuring” is just one more bit of proof that the MPAA as it currently exists is useless. How is it that a movie which features no sex, no graphic violence and almost no profanity still manages to get slapped with an R rating? Ridiculous.