Beginning with a 9-minute short film that would become the feature length torture-mystery “Saw”, director James Wan has become a respected talent for bringing story back to the horror genre. With “The Conjuring,” Wan takes on the paranormal in a unique riff on the classic Amityville-style home haunting story. It’s a film that hits all the tropes of the genre while crafting an experience that is well above the quality of the yearly pack of Halloween-time horror cash-ins. Take note of its summer release date, “The Conjuring” is confident standing out from the crowd of summer action blockbusters, and for good reason – it has nearly all the makings of a classic.
The film’s true story picks up in the 1970’s, following a family that moves into a new home and experiences some increasingly worrisome events, and the husband-wife team of paranormal investigators that attempt to help them.
Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are best known in real life for their involvement in investigating the Amityville haunting, but “The Conjuring” tells the story of an untold case that took place prior to that iconic event. Roger and Carolyn Perron (played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters move in to a remote farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. Bought from a bank auction, they have no prior knowledge of the property or previous owners.
As it turns out, the home and land it sits on were host to a dark history of terrible happenings that have left behind a hostile, demonic entity. In the vein of “Paranormal Activity”, the build-up is excruciatingly tense as the spirit begins to establish its presence in ways as small as stopping the clocks in the home at 3:07am – the exact time one of those terrible happenings took place. The presence of something otherworldly is even noted in its smell – a sense rarely explored in horror films.
Roger is quick to dismiss the strange occurrences, but his wife Carolyn, who has been waking up with unexplained bruises all over her body, is less willing to overlook the ominous sense of danger in the house. She seeks out Lorraine Warren at a public paranormal meeting and begs for her help. Ed and Lorraine visit the home and immediately pick up on the malevolence of the place – Lorraine is said to be a clairvoyant. The Warrens agree to help the Perron family, but Lorraine’s open connection to the world around her puts her at risk of the spiritual world connecting back with her. When it is understood that the entity in the home has latched itself on to the members of the Perron family, they have no choice but to undergo what Ed describes as an exorcism of their home. They need only to survive long enough to see the process completed.
The 1970’s setting in “The Conjuring” – developed by production designer Julie Berghoff and art director Geoffrey S. Grimsman – adds a rich and refreshing texture to the costumes and cars, as well as influences the plot itself via the available technology of the time. When the Warrens’ team of paranormal investigators set up camp in the house, they attempt to gain proof of the presence of a spirit by rigging the home with 35mm still cameras as well as using a World War II-era 16mm Bolex motion picture camera and black lights to carry out their investigation. All of this territory feels like new ground after so many recycled modern-day horror films. Even the opening title card, a giant title that scrolls past vertically after an on-screen text paragraph introducing the film’s characters, is reminiscent of the classic horror films of the past.
Ron Livingston provides a likable personality to the bleak narrative, but the real stars of the film are the Warrens. Developed with consideration to the possibility of franchising their other cases into follow-up films, the Warrens are given mysterious pasts and actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have great chemistry.
Experienced cinematographer John R. Leonetti brings a distinctive beauty to the camerawork in the film – it’s really something special for the genre. The first time the family enters the home after moving in, the camera tracks all the way through it – front door to back – in a single shot, establishing a crucial geography so that later, during the panic of the third act, the viewer can understand where everyone is inside of the house. All sorts of stylized shots keep things fresh and add to the horror. Great POV shots are used frequently to mimic the character’s eye-line, even when they’re upside down, to make for some very scary moments.
One of the most intense scenes comes from the use of clever sound design when the regular cinematic audio is replaced with a direct feed of the hypersensitive microphones the ghost hunters are using in the cellar of the home to attempt to pick up paranormal voices. The dead air hums loudly, suggesting that even though the speakers in the theater are putting out the same volume levels the entire film; this particular sequence could end in deafening noise.
Nearly every effect in the film is practical. This is a rare case in which the filmmakers understand the place of digital technology in a traditionally film-driven genre. It all comes together for some seriously legitimized horror. This isn’t a campy throwback to the quirky clichés of 70s horror, but a serious attempt to recreate the atmosphere of classics like “The Exorcist” in a modern time.
“The Conjuring” nears the territory of a modern-classic, but lacks one giant, shocking, era-defining moment to make it truly timeless. The film needs its spider walk down the stairs, its shower stabbing, its “here’s Johnny!” The film is very scary, executing horror primarily with jump-out scares, but also sustaining a few moments of terror for 10-20 seconds at a time. What I never got was a moment to swear out loud to – something I experienced even earlier this year.
Regardless of whether it will be a classic or not, “The Conjuring” is certainly a high quality horror feature that cares about story and characters in a way that will make it difficult to go back to anything less. Director James Wan has executed a project that understands and respects its elder films while pushing the genre forward – what more can I ask for?
U.S. Wide Release: July 19th, 2013 | U.K. Wide Release: August 2nd, 2013
1 hr. 52 min.