It’s easy to denigrate the horror genre. The films are clichéd, cheap to produce, and they appeal to our most basic instincts. It’s also easy to assume it takes no skill to scare an audience. A loud musical cue, a person suddenly running into frame, a cat jumping at the screen—you’ll get the audience to jump, but the scares will feel cheap, easy, and forgettable. James Wan’s The Conjuring, however, rarely relies on false scares to elicit an audience response. It’s a brilliantly paced, expertly acted, and flawlessly directed film, and will probably emerge as the scariest film of 2013 (if it doesn’t, it will be a wonderful year for horror movies).
Based on the true story of a 1971 haunting of a Rhode Island farm house, The Conjuring uses subtle, simple imagery at its most unsettling. Within the film’s opening few minutes, I knew I was in good hands. The film opens on the image of a doll so horrifying it would probably send the toys in 2012’s The Woman in Black running for the door.
What follows is a cold open that gives the viewer a glimpse into the world of real life clairvoyant Loraine Warren (an effectively intense Vera Farminga) and her husband, demonologist Ed (the always compelling and star of James Wan’s previous film Insidious, Patrick Wilson). Then, we see the title appear, in a font reminiscent of the 1976 horror classic, The Omen. The fact that the film pays a subtle tribute to a horror classic gave me a definite idea as to the kind of film I was getting: one that relies on old-school scare tactics, rather than the excessive gore and nihilistic violence that frequently defines most 21st Century horror film fare.
Then, we cut to the new home of Carolyn Perron (an excellent Lili Taylor), Roger Perron (likable everyman Ron Livingston), and their five daughters.
They are met with two warning signs that all is not well with their real estate purchase: a dog who refuses to step a paw inside the premises and the discovery of a hidden cellar that causes someone to utter a line from which nothing good ever comes: “I wonder why it was boarded up.” The home’s new occupants get about six hours of peace before little warning signs begin to signal that they aren’t the only inhabitants of their new home. Doors open on their own, Carolyn begins to find unexplained bruises all over her body, all of their clocks stop at 3:07 AM, the youngest daughter has a new imaginary friend, and the scariest game of Hide-and-Clap ever ensues.
Throughout the film, Wan’s camera follows the Perrons like the malicious force that plagues them. Alternating between a distant observation style and intrusive close-ups, Wan’s camera movements allow the dread and tension to build to near unbearable levels– the true mark of an effective horror film.
Roger eventually goes out of town, and when the cat’s away, the malicious, demonic mice will play, and the horrors escalate. Desperate for answers, Carolyn seeks out the help of Loraine, still emotionally damaged from a previous exorcism, and Ed. It seems only natural to assume that an exorcism is in the Perron’s future. What follows are some of the scariest, most unsettling scares I’ve seen at the movies in quite a while.
The MPAA gave The Conjuring an R rating, not for violence, nudity, drug/ alcohol abuse, or profanity but for sheer terror. That news alone was enough to get most horror fans salivating, and while that awareness may set the film up against expectations that have no chance of ever being met, I have to say that I found the film absolutely terrifying.
When the credits rolled, I realized my heart was pounding, my arms were shaking, and I was giddy with excitement. I had gasped and jumped, but I didn’t feel like the scares were cheap or easy. The film builds and escalates flawlessly, and the overall tone of the film is one of ever-mounting dread. It walks that fine line between feeling constantly in motion and action-packed, yet deliberate and well paced.
Director James Wan showed with 2011’s Insidious that he was capable of more than just the vicious, mean-spirited, Saw, the film that launched the torture porn genre. Insidious, however, while fun and scary, lost its power as the explanations were stacked in ever increasing, horror neutralizing piles. The Conjuring provides explanations for the events plaguing the Perron family, but the explanations don’t rob the film of its ability to terrify. Much of the credit goes to having A-list actors Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Vera Farminga, and Patrick Wilson adding gravitas to the scenarios in which they take part and playing their own terror so effectively. Both sets of couples capture both the horror existing inside the house and the emotional bonds that hold both couples together. It’s rare to get a cast of this caliber in a film like this, and it adds to the film’s power. However, the real star here is James Wan and composer Joseph Bishara (who also composed the music for Insidious), who work in tandem to ratchet up the terror on screen to wonderfully horrifying levels. With this and Insidious, it seems safe to say that Wan has undergone an exorcism of his own, sending his Saw roots back to the lowly, cruel place from whence it came. In the process, he’s cementing himself as the premier up and coming horror filmmaker, earning scares with old fashioned bumps in the night and the fears of the unseen.
So, what do you think, guys? Did you love the film? Hate it? Let us know in the comments! Please? You know you want to talk to us? (That sounds dirtier than I hoped it would) Come on, guys! Leave us a comment!