There has been an interesting swing of the pendulum in horror movies; for a while they were all focused on gore and blood. The more disgusting and violent the better. This was the era of Saw, Hostel and film of the same ilk that were more about torture porn than delivering a lot of thrills. A weak stomach automatically disqualified you from these movies; I personally don’t mind blood and guts and found these movies entertaining if not actually scary. I tipped my hat to all the creative ways that they found to kill people – among my favorite was beheading someone with a chest of drawers – but they stood absolutely no chance of keeping me up at night or freaking me out. They were so over the top it was very easy to remember that these were just movies and that they weren’t real.
In the last few years, the horror genre has quietly moved away from gore. Instead, the new trend is more subtle and spooky movies that often focus on haunted houses, spirits and demon possessions. These films are somewhat quieter and more subtle than the others, but in my opinion have the potential to much scarier. Everyone has an experience with hearing sounds around the house that make them jump or uneasy, even if there is a logical explanation behind them; not many people have been held captive by a madman and are forced to kill another person in the most gruesome way possible to obtain their freedom. In other words, these ghost/evil spirit/demon possession movies in their own way are much more relatable to the average person and therefore have a higher creep factor. They may take their time in building up to the frights, but that is part of the fun. Horror movies are similar to a first kiss in this way – it’s all about the anticipation and buildup. Of course, these movies are even scarier if you happen to believe in spirits and ghosts, which I don’t. I generally think that stuff is a bunch of hoo-ha, but if the movie is crafted right I will admit that it will make me jump even if it doesn’t scare me. If you want to terrify me, make me watch a movie about commitment, not demon possession.
The Conjuring isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to scaring audiences; there are hints of a lot of other films within its story, most prominently The Amityville Horror and some combination of exorcism movies. However, the lack of total originality should not be held against The Conjuring, since the execution of the material is so well done. It is a creepy and stylish film that was able to make me jump numerous times, which is no small feat as I am no shrinking violet when it comes to these movies. The majority of my fellow audience members were legitimately freaked out by the film, which knows how to expertly ratchet up the anticipation and build a mood. In short, The Conjuring was one of the few movies I’ve seen where the simple act of a pair of hands clapping could be so nerve wracking.
The Conjuring tells the tale of the Perron family and the nightmare that they endure when parents Rodger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) movie their family of seven into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island. Once the family takes up residence, spooky things begin happening – clocks stop all at the same time throughout the house and weird noise can be heard. The paranormal activities continue to escalate to the point where the terrified family seeks out the assistance of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) in ridding their home of their unwanted occupants, which proves to be no easy task. The film is based on a real life incident and I’ll admit that it adds to the fear factor at the end of the movie to see the photographs of the real life people who lived through whatever this experience actually was.
The Conjuring is greatly benefitted from the all-around excellent acting by the cast. Solid acting is not necessarily a hallmark of the horror genre – plenty of actresses have been cast in these films simply based on their ability to scream and take their top off – but when it is present it makes a world of difference. Everyone in the cast brings a feeling of authenticity to the movie and help to ground the film and make it believable. We’ve all seen the “haunted house” film before, but the actors’ dedication to the material makes it all seem fresh again. Farmiga and Taylor are the real standouts, which is not to minimize the work done by Wilson and Livingston or the actresses that portray the Perron daughters. The balance of the character development of not only the family in peril, but also the investigators called in to rescue, helps make The Conjuring a more balanced and well-rounded film than most other film in the genre. The viewer is invested not only in the Perron family, but the Warren family as well. The result is a more nuanced story.
The director deftly increases the tension in incremental doses and allows the tension to slowly build. The viewer knows something is going to happen, but it is hard to predict exactly when it is going to happen. I actually found it much scarier when we didn’t see much; the actual visuals of the entities in the house were nowhere as unsettling as what I imagined and the film wisely uses them sparingly. Instead, The Conjuring is filled with hints of the spirits or the aftereffects of their presence. The film smartly subscribes to the “less is more” philosophy and is the better for it. The people sitting behind me were losing their ever loving minds through parts of the film and were actively advising the characters in the movie what to do; in a normal movie that sort of viewer participation is super annoying to me, but in a horror film that is half the fun. Since I don’t get scared at these films, it also gives me a better idea of if they movie is successfully doing its job. In this case, I can tell you that based on my observations The Conjuring was doing that in spades.
Some other quick thoughts:
- The Conjuring hit the trifecta for me in things that I find creepy: clowns, birds and old dolls. You throw one of these elements into a film and I’m slightly uneasy; put all three in and supplement it with the eerie music of an old music box and that is pretty much the closest you are going to get legitimately giving me goosebumps. Seriously –that doll could give Chucky a run for his money.
- This isn’t a spoiler, but more fair warning – don’t get too attached to any of the animals featured in the film. I know that upsets some people, but it all happens off screen.
- One thing I liked about The Conjuring is that while it gave a backstory for why things were happening, it didn’t get too bogged down in the explanation. One problem I think too many horror films make are in dreaming up a complicated and elaborate reason for the haunting/possession to the point that they get too caught up in origin story. It really doesn’t matter why this is happening, just that it is. Unless the origin story plays a central part in the plot (ex: The Paranormal Activity films) it can easily become a distraction.
- One thing I wish the film had done a better job of explaining – why law enforcement got dragged into this whole thing. I really didn’t understand why they had a cop as part of the team – was he going to arrest the demon?
- I know it wasn’t meant to be funny, but I did find it amusing the bureaucracy involved in an exorcism. Also good to know that the fact that I’m not baptized makes me more susceptible to demon possession. I’m a little offended that none have tried up to this point. Is that a comment on my perceived hospitality?
- There is an indirect reference made to the house in Amityville, as the Warrens were also involved in that investigation as well. Chronologically, the Perron family incident happened first.
- The film is based on a book by one of the Perron daughters on her family’s experience: House of Darkness House of Light .I may have to add that to the summer reading list.
- Patrick Wilson is now doing double duty in the “father in a horror movie” role, as he is also the dad in Insidious (also a legitimately unnerving movie). Ethan Hawke has the same honor, so I propose that the ultimate scary movie would be if Wilson and Hawke were a gay couple and had to battle the paranormal. Hollywood – let’s get this film made.
I was nervous that going in to The Conjuring that this was simply going to be a rehash of every other horror movie that I’ve seen in the last few years, but it totally exceeded my expectation thanks to the fine job done by the cast and the choices made by the writers and director. The Conjuring was not just a good horror movie, but a good movie period. I found myself thinking about the film long after I walked out of the theater. The moody atmosphere, the knowledge that this actually happened to some people and the clever direction all combine to create a film that will keep more than one person up at night. You don’t typically think of July as a good time to release scary movies, but don’t let that discourage you from checking out The Conjuring. You may never want to play a game of hide and seek ever again.