The Conjuring is on many a horror fan's list of films to see this summer, and with good reason: some profoundly effective trailers and a prodigious amount of talent attached have understandably drawn a lot of attention to this fundamentally simple haunted house spookfest - and that attention is likely to grow now that early reviews of The Conjuring are being revealed online.
The film was written by sibling team Chad and Carey Hayes, whose contributions to the genre so far have included the remake of House of Wax and the biblically-bad plague flick, The Reaping. To counterbalance that, the director's chair was filled by James Wan, one of the most notable talents in the current horror genre, who directed the original Saw, the critically-acclaimed "haunted child" movie Insidious, and the forthcoming sequel Insidious Chapter 2.
Just as with Insidious, The Conjuring features a scary old ghost lady as one of its main antagonists, and trailers have shown her (and other ghosts) doing any manner of unpleasant things, including hiding on top of wardrobes, hanging from trees and playing clapping games. The story centers around the Perron family (led by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as Carolyn and Roger Perron), who have the misfortune of moving into a house where malicious spirits are intent on tormenting them and their five daughters. The Perron's call upon the aid of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who set about uncovering the mysteries of the house and chasing away the ghosts.
The measure of what makes a good movie seems to necessarily shift depending on what kind of movie it is, since we're not just measuring whether it's good, but also whether it's a good addition to the genre. So, just as comedies can be forgiven for transgressions in terms of plot cohesion - so long as they succeed in making the audience laugh - so too is the most important measure of a horror movie its ability to disgust, disturb, shock or terrify. As such, let's break up our round-up of early reviews into two questions: is The Conjuring good, and is it scary?
To the latter question, the answer seems to be an almost universal "yes." This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that despite its bloodlessness, The Conjuring was awarded an R rating by the MPAA, who considered it to simply be too frightening for children. Based on the responses of these toughened reviewers, such caution appears to be justified:
Uncle Creepy - Dread Central
"The Conjuring is home to some of the single most frightening haunted house scares ever committed to film. My biggest fear going in was that some of these moments would come off as goofy or too over-the-top, but Wan manages to clearly ride the line between reality and the absurd as if he were a stone grinding against the blade of a razor. While the film is home to some big-time scare moments, nothing ever comes off as too campy or ridiculous. Wan shows a lot of restraint, and as a result the flick delivers in spades."
Sheri Linden - The Hollywood Reporter:
"The film doesn't leave a deep, lasting chill, but it excels at putting a refining gloss on cheap shocks. Until a climactic sequence that pulls out all the stops, the director’s modulation teases out plenty of don’t-go-there moments, both formulaic and innovative, for all they’re worth."
Justin Chang - Variety:
"It takes almost no time for “The Conjuring” to immerse the viewer in its spell, as it teases seemingly minor jolts into frissons of terror, and turns a simple game of hide-and-seek into a tour de force of sustained excitement... The film achieves its most startling effects through motion, not stasis. Wan’s command of horror technique isn’t just virtuosic; it’s borderline rhapsodic, playing the audience like Hitchcock’s proverbial piano."
Tim Grierson - ScreenDaily
"The Conjuring aims to be a classier, more reserved breed of fright film, showing almost no blood and resorting to few overtly gotcha scares."
Based on these reactions, it sounds like The Conjuring's scares are terrifying while they last, but that the fear itself only lasts until the credits roll. You might find yourself trying to hide under your seat as you watch the film, but you probably won't be inclined to turn on every light in the house when you get home. Whether or not you find this favorable or not probably comes down to a matter of taste, but "roller-coaster ride" horror films are a great pick for moviegoers who want plenty of fun and thrills in the cinema, but would prefer it if the ghosts didn't follow them home.
Ultimately, the sustainability of the scare is only a peripheral aspect of the quality. The consensus between the reviews seems to be that Wan pulls off the frights masterfully, without resorting to camp or cliché, which seems to tally with what the director has done before. Insidious, for example, consistently surprised the audience by having the scares appear out of nowhere, in the middle of the day and in brightly lit rooms. To balance this out, in one of the other notable Blumhouse Productions horrors released in recent years, Sinister, the protagonist only ever seemed interested in investigating his creepy new house at night, and refused to turn any lights on while he did so.
Happily, the critics also seem to agree that the film is more than just a few jumps in the cinema seat. There is much praise given not only to the performances from the ensemble cast, but also to the technical aspects of it - such as the sound design and cinematography - which come together to create a well-made piece of cinema. For those fans of Insidious who were disappointed with the film's third act, ScreenDaily assures readers that the best bits of The Conjuring come towards the end.
The Hollywood Reporter:
"With its minimal use of digital effects, its strong, sympathetic performances and ace design work, the pic harks back in themes and methods to The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, not quite attaining the poignancy and depth of the former but far exceeding the latter in sheer cinematic beauty."
"Coming from the director who helped push indie horror toward ever more dubious torture-porn extremes with Saw 10 years ago, The Conjuring feels all the more remarkable for being a relatively gore-free piece of mainstream craftsmanship, the work of a B-movie maestro in full command of his studio-given resources."
"The Conjuring’s third act ... is incredibly intense. Wan’s finale may recall dozens of previous horror movies’, but the skill of his staging and the commitment of the performances are such that the film very confidently puts you through one hell of a wringer.
"I truly believe that Ed [Warren], who passed away many years ago, would be very proud of this film, and that's the highest compliment I could ever pay it. The Conjuring is a masterclass in absolute terror that's destined to become a classic within the genre."
In conclusion, it sounds like the plot of The Conjuring (which is based on one of the Warrens' case files) might not blow you away in terms of complexity or novelty, but the success of the story is in its telling. Will The Conjuring turn out to be the most frightening film of the year (as we predicted as far back as last year), or will Wan outdo himself with Insidious Chapter 2? Let us know if you'd to be the judge, or whether you're planning to give The Conjuring a miss next month.
The Conjuring is out in theaters on July 19, 2013.
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