THE CONJURING Review: Going Back to the Old Haunt
My interest in horror movies peaked early. In my youth, my Saturday afternoons were spent watching the Dr. Shock-hosted Creature Double Feature, which provided me with an excellent education on the Universal Monsters, the Hammer Films catalogue, and your standard b-movie fare from the 1950s. I also spent Saturday nights watching that Maneater from Manayunk, Stella, as she vamped around (Elvira-style) as hostess of Saturday Night Dead (airing after Saturday Night Live, of course).
The 1980s ushered in two key components of my ongoing, yet gradually waning, lesson in chills. The first was the beginning of the unstoppable slasher (born, really, with 1978’s Halloween, but revved-up and serialized to ‘80s over-abused perfection with 1980’s Friday the 13th and 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street). The second was the VHS explosion, which made possible the ability to revisit the oldies that used to air on UHF, as well as catch the slasher films of my teens only months after they left theaters, and discover those ‘70s classics that I was too young to see on initial theatrical release, like 1976’s The Omen and 1973’s The Exorcist.
Once the Decade of Decadence passed, my interest in horror all but stopped, save the Golden Age monster movies (which I always considered to be more classic than horror) and the occasional movie-people-won’t-stop-talking-about, like 2001’s The Others (liked), 1996’s Scream (loved), and 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (hated). Now that I’m older (although still closer to the 1st tee than the 18th green), my interest in horror is picking up again, thanks to a houseful of horror fans and my increased interest in watching and writing about as many movies as I can.
Given that The Conjuring seemed to contain a key blend of elements from my horror past and present – that ’70s vibe, the people-won’t-stop-talking-about-it fervor, and a houseful of horror fans clamoring to see it – I thought it would be a great candidate for my reintroduction to theatrical horror screenings.
I thought right. No only did The Conjuring move at a brisk pace that made its 112 minutes fly by, it scared when it needed to, didn’t scare when I thought it might, and it hit the key horror points in a fresh, stylistic way.
Set in 1971 Rhode Island, this film tells not one scary tale, but two. The primary story centers on the Perron family: Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters. The family moves into a new home, but the new home is actually a very old house, complete with creaky doors, rickety floors, and a heavily cobwebbed basement. When they first arrive, the family dog won’t even enter the house; it knows. After that, the signs of evil continue. Clocks stop in unison. A mysterious stench wafts through the house. The house is always cold. And then there’s that clapping game you’ve surely seen in the trailers. As the days pass, the odd occurrences increase and the sense of dread intensifies.
The secondary story – although one no less important – centers on Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). The Warrens are renowned experts in the paranormal; she is a clairvoyant and he is a demonologist whose knowledge is so good, he is recognized by the Vatican as the foremost leading secular expert in his field. The Warrens teach classes, offer lectures, and, when necessary, work with people whose homes (or bodies) are possessed. The Warrens also have their own haunted past.
The Perrons and the Warrens come to know each other when Carolyn sees a presentation by the Warrens and approaches them to help her family. The Warrens accept.
I could sit here and write a list of every recognizable horror film device that this movie utilizes, from its “based on a true story” inspiration to the adorable children in peril, and from the demonic possession of a major character to that deliciously creepy doll (named Annabell, by the way). In fact, as I reflect upon the film from beginning to end, I’m hard-pressed to think of an original component in it. And yet for all of its seeming lack of originality, it grabs you and holds you and scares you and puts you through your paces like it’s the first time you’re seeing a horror movie. It’s almost like falling in love again: you’ve loved before, and yet for as much as this one is just like the last one (and the one before that and the one before that and so on), this new one is exciting.
The first reason why the film is so effective is that the common horror components it chooses are the genre’s best components (like those mentioned above and others). What you WON’T find here is any gratuitous gore (in fact, the bloodletting is at an absolute minimum), nor will you find an antagonist who upstages his victims (see: Freddy Krueger), nor will you find longing camera shots of scantily clad neo-damsels whose distress is always as brief as the briefs they’re parading around in. Those are gimmicks, and this film has no room for them.
The film also finds a very nice obalance of scaring you when you expect it, scaring you when you DON’T expect it, and, most importantly, NOT scaring you when you think it will. On several occasions during the film, I thought to myself, “Here it comes.” It never came. And that was even more fear-inducing than actually being scared – I quickly learned that I never really knew when I was going to be scared. That is scary. There is also a similar (im)balance of foreshadowing moments. Yes, a couple of things were obviously telegraphed, but like the scares, some things weren’t telegraphed at all and others appeared to be telegraphed but never were mentioned.
The acting in the film also deserves a lot of credit. The easy choices for standout performances are Farmiga as the clairvoyant whose past encounter with evil could affect her current responsibilities, and Taylor, who is the maternal epicenter of a female-dominated family. And they are both so very good in their roles (particularly Taylor, who rises to both the emotional and physical demands of her role).
The standout, though, is Wilson. What I like so much about his performance is that you know he clearly believes in what he does, yet he speaks to others as if he thinks they think he might conning them, because he understands why the uninitiated would be so skeptical. He is neither condescending nor bored; he’s simply a man in a rare, misunderstood field who is hitting his marks and delivering his lines and hoping that the synchronization of his knowledge and the odd events will get through to these people even a little bit. The two scenes that resound most with me are the scene when he is first in the Perron home, explaining things like the importance of the spirit’s knock cadence. The other scene involves a flashback to when he is explaining away what a couple thinks is haunting of their house. It’s a tricky performance. Too much to one side and he is overselling it; too much to the other side and he is ignorant to those who have sought his help.
The real star of the movie, however, is director James Wan (and, by extension, his DP, John R. Leonetti). Wan’s camera is in constant motion, but the motion is subtle. Unlike a film like Now You See Me, where the camera movements are extreme, or Les Miserables, where the shakiness and the closeups grow quickly intolerable. Here, the moving camera effect makes the viewing experience unsettling, the way the characters’ lives are unsettled.
Wan’s shot choices are also inspired. He comes close to paying Steven Spielberg a little homage with a Jaws-inspired dolly-zoom of the Perron house (he never fully executes, and I wish he had), but even without that, his creative eye is remarkable. He captures the claustrophobia of the old house so very well, with its narrow halls and its small rooms, and even the exterior scenes never feel truly open; the audience struggles against these confines along with the characters. I was impressed by two shots in particular: one when Lorraine takes a significant fall, and the other when one of the children looks under her bed.
The remainder of Wan’s presentation is gorgeous, in spite of the subject matter.
Ultimately, this film is not so much a tribute to horror films of the 1970s as it is an entry from the era, lost in time. Through a combination of solid storytelling, creative direction, and beautiful cinematography (even the font of the title card screams 1970s), The Conjuring offers a fantastic moviegoing experience and an excellent alternative to the normal explosion-based summer fare.