Inspired by films like Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and The Exorcist, James Wan’s The Conjuring is an old school horror ensemble period piece that proves it’s still possible to make a truly terrifying movie in 2013 without relying too heavily on CG. This film is horrifying in all the right ways, led by terrific lead performances and Wan’s true understanding of how to make his audience squirm. Though the premise seems played out, Wan’s technical mastery and a great script from Chad and Carey Hayes make The Conjuring already feel like a classic for the modern era.
Based on a true case file of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (before their famous Amityville case), The Conjuring follows the Perron family as they move into a new house and begin to experience supernatural phenomena. It’s mostly things we’ve seen on screen before – cold patches in the house, a presence grabbing a child’s foot – and we’ve even seen this stuff as recently as in the Paranormal Activity movies and last year’s Sinister; despite the familiarity with these moments, Wan and his team manage to execute each beat with such perfection that it’s still scary to watch, even when you essentially know what’s coming. They also insert a heart-stopping game of Marco Polo, involving the hider clapping to give a hint to the seeker about their location, which ranks as one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.
In my review of You’re Next, I wrote about how there are basically two kinds of horror movies: those which choose to adhere to conventions, and those that try to subvert them. It seems to me as if a lot of horror fans prefer the latter category because those kinds of movies tend to try to do something relatively fresh while commenting on the genre as a whole. But just because a movie adheres to a genre’s conventions doesn’t mean it’s a lesser film, and The Conjuring shows it might even be more impressive to pull off a legitimately frightening story like this when audiences are expecting certain moments to happen.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Ed and Lorraine, and while many of the scares happen to the Perron family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, and their characters’ five daughters) at their house, it’s the Warrens who are the centerpiece of the story. Ed, the only demonologist recognized by the Catholic church, is concerned about the welfare of his wife – she’s a clairvoyant who recently had a traumatic experience during an exorcism gone wrong. Each time she uses her abilities, she’s a little more drained; Farmiga makes Lorraine a sympathetic and strong heroine, while Wilson gives Ed a nice mixture of warm qualities and stoic determination. The underrated Livingston isn’t in the film enough (he plays a truck driver, so he’s gone for long stretches of time), but you can feel the helplessness emanating from his character. Taylor competes for the film’s MVP slot, opting for a calm, level-headed approach to her role over the stereotypical hysterical mother so often seen on film. (Her collected performance makes the impact of the insane climax all the more effective.)
The Conjuring is the first film since Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to be hyped for earning an R rating not for violence, gore, sexuality, or language, but for simply being too scary. But where Don’t turned out to be a laughably stupid and completely toothless attempt at horror, The Conjuring is a masterpiece of tension and terror. It doesn’t need gore or language to drive home its points – James Wan has the his own set of tools to do that himself, and it results in the scariest movie of the year. Until next time…
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