The Conjuring transports us into the world of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the famous real-life couple who for decades studied, combated and documented supernatural occurrences. Teased by the promise that this is the Warren’s most frightening case of all, The Conjuring follows the plight of the Perron family – Carolyn (Lili Taylor), her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters – who move into a remote farmhouse, only to discover it is inhabited by a fearsome demonic presence.
Ed and Lorraine agree to help the Perrons exorcise their home, but the case quickly proves to be more dangerous than they could’ve ever imagined. With Lorraine (a talented physic) vulnerable to the dark forces haunting the Perrons, and a ghostly adversary that’s as cunning as she is evil, the Warrens soon find that they have become the hunted, instead of the hunters.
The Conjuring comes our way courtesy of horror director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) and twin brother horror/thriller writing duo Chad and Carey Hayes (The Reaping, House of Wax). While the script has the usual “passable” quality of the Hayes brothers’ B-movie signature, it is Wan’s uncanny ability to create simple, creative and very effective scare sequences that elevates this movie above just about every other ghost story horror flick of the last few years. In short: this is the scariest movie of 2013 (so far).
It’s a small miracle that the movie achieves the nonstop, hair-raising tension that it does. Wan is used to making the utmost out of a micro-budget (Saw and Insidious both had budgets averaging out at about $1.3 million) and The Conjuring is the best application of his low-budget formula to date. Instead of CGI creatures and fancy visual effects used in so many other films today, The Conjuring takes things back to the ’70s/’80s era of horror movies, using simple filmmaking techniques like camera angles, keen concepts and fantastic sequencing to create a truly terrifying horror experience that is mostly free of blood and/or gore, making its frightful nature an even more impressive achievement.
Admittedly, the film is built on pretty familiar horror movie tropes – but again, it’s the way these familiar moments (bumps in the night, something lurking in the shadows or behind a door) are staged that makes them more impressive and effective than so many other films. It’s all about the craftsmanship, and James Wan, working at the top of his game, truly knows how to scare us. Practical makeup and visual effects help to sell the scary show in a tactile and real way (a welcome respite from the barrage of CGI monsters and VFX seen in so many horror movies these days) rather than nagging the mind with the distracting notion of non-reality that often comes with digital effects work.
Aiding in the creation of a convincingly frightening world are a cast of talented performers who help sell the scares with grounded and believable performances. Wilson and Wan (who worked together on Insidious and its upcoming sequel) are comfortable enough with one another to allow Ed to be a charming enough straight-faced leading man, while Farmiga (Up In the Air, Bates Motel) once again demonstrates why she is such solid and reliable actress, making Lorraine a fascinating and very human character, despite the fantastical nature of her “powers” and the supernatural world she inhabits.
The same dynamic works for Roger and Carolyn Perron: Livingston (Office Space) is a sympathetic, straight-faced male protagonist, while Taylor (Hemlock Grove) uses her talents in a wide range of emoting to create the believable and well-rounded character needed to pul off the film’s climatic third act.
The child actors are also skilled at selling the idea of real fear and emotion, thanks to talented youngsters like Mackenzie Foy (Breaking Dawn), Hayley McFarland (Lie to Me), Joey King (Dark Knight Rises), Kyla Deaver and Shanley Caswell (Vegas) – who all work well together selling the chemistry and bond of tight-knit sisters. Even bit characters played by Shannon Kook (Degrassi: The Next Generation) and John Brotherton (One Life to Live) get standout moments and are likable enough to relate to, and because we actually care about all of the people involved in this battle against evil, it’s easy to be invested in each moment and sequence in which their lives (or souls) are put in danger. On a character level, there are no weak links or throwaways.
No film is without nitpicks, however, and the only reason The Conjuring isn’t (necessarily) worthy of five-star classic status is due to the fact that the Hayes brothers’ script – while blessedly tight and efficient at a lean 112 minutes – still manages to dangle a few threads (mostly concerning the Warrens’ personal life) that are not really necessary and distract from the main narrative. Of course, now that a Conjuring sequel has been approved, those dangling threads could conceivably be tied into future films exploring the Warrens’ long career; but in this standalone film, they feel extraneous.
One further nitpick: although this film is excellent, its simple, self-contained and anecdotal nature doesn’t necessarily give it the same ability to hang around in mind like, say, The Shining, a film whose deep levels and themes stay with you long after the credits roll. The Conjuring is a very satisfying horror movie outing, but when it’s done – beyond the trauma of a freaky moviegoing experience – there is little to ponder or reflect upon. Of course, the intention is to tell an anecdotal story – and for better or worse, the filmmakers do just that.
If you are a horror movie fan, go see The Conjuring. Even if you’re the type who is too tough and rugged to be scared by a movie (or if you have that “seen it all” attitude of a hardcore horror connoisseur), you’ll have to at least give it up to Wan and Co. for bringing things back to a bygone era of filmmaking and proving that progress and technological advances will never be suitable replacements for good old-fashioned creativity and know-how. That statement alone is worthy of applause by the time the credits roll – that is, if you aren’t too busy trying to calm your rattled nerves.
Check out the trailer for The Conjuring if you’re still on the fence:
The Conjuring is now in theaters. It is 112 minutes long and is Rated-R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror (translation: it’s too scary).