Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, real life paranormal researchers, claim to have investigated over 10,000 cases in their careers, the most (in)famous being the Amityville haunting. But before that came one of their most dark, malevolent cases; the case depicted in The Conjuring. Rhode Island, 1971. When Ed and Lorraine (Wilson & Farmiga) get called to investigate strange disturbances at a farm house recently inhabited by the Perron family, they soon realize that this is no simple case of creaky floorboards – there’s something truly evil in the house. Based on a “true” story.
My already other-worldly expectations for The Conjuring were increased even further after its critical reception in the US. There are too few genuinely scary horror films released these days – Insidious, director James Wan’s previous effort, was one of the few recent efforts to genuinely creep me out, and as a result he’s quickly become my favourite contemporary horror director. Those who follow my twitter feed will know I’ve been banging on about The Conjuring for months now, about how great and utterly creepy it looks, so it’s wonderful to report, finally, that my excitement was not misplaced.
It speaks volumes about The Conjuring that it’s rated 15 purely for, as the BBFC puts it, “containing strong horror”. There’s no violence, no sex and no drugs to be seen: it’s just frightening. From the opening sequence, where two girls recite a creepy story to Ed and Lorraine about their supposedly possessed doll, Annabelle (the one on all the posters and another “true” case), right through to the spine-tingling climax, everything just works. It’s horror unlike most, in that it doesn’t rely solely on jump scares or seeing every single little thing, despite what the naysayers will have you believe. It lets your mind torture you as much as the lens. Wan is masterful at building suspense and dread, but the real genius comes with his payoffs. Where most horror films would end the long, silent trek through the house with a big jump, or show us the ghost at the end of the hallway, Wan might instead simply imply that there’s something or someone behind the door, where it’s particularly dark, or have a gloomy shadow creep down the stairs towards a little girl, or show us the ghoul but not necessarily make it a jump.
The hide and clap sequence that you may have seen in the trailer is a perfectly spooky example. I can’t imagine anyone ever playing this game again. Mrs. Perron, stumbling through her new house blindfolded, playing the game with her youngest daughter (the searcher must find the hider with the help of three claps), finds herself in a bedroom when a closet clicks open behind her and a pair of hands creep out and clap in the most sinister way you would ever believe it’s possible to clap, drawing her towards them. It’s such a simple idea, but it’s completely terrifying. I could feel every single person in the audience squirming back into their chairs when those hands popped out. For me, that’s scarier than a jump because it’s lasting terror. Of course, there are plenty of jump scares dotted in there as well, as is a horror’s wont, but they don’t dictate the show.
Similarly to Insidious, The Conjuring feels like more than just a scary haunted house movie; it genuinely feels evil throughout. The constant presence in the house, the feeling that you know they’re being watched, that whatever’s lurking in the shadows really means to cause harm. It barely allows you a second to catch your breath and regroup. You never feel safe, and it’s horrendously invigorating. The score, too, so fantastically chilling with its use of old-school horror strings and off-key plucks, riddles us with goosebumps. When that’s coupled with a creepy, evil witch lurking on top of a wardrobe, you know you’re in trouble.
Portraying a real person will always bear a certain hindrance on an actor; having to rein themselves in with particular tropes and idiosyncrasies, yet at the same time it can also be liberating; they can study the person and (hopefully) talk to them (though not, sadly, in Wilson’s case as Ed has passed away) to really embody the character with first-hand insight. Farmiga chatted at length with Lorraine (who is, by the way, a fascinating woman to listen to) to get inside her head and understand how she felt during this case, and I think it paid off massively. She’s a fantastic actress anyway, but there’s a real authenticity about this performance. The rest of the cast is equally as good – particularly the five young actresses playing the daughters. To play scared so believably impressive, but at such a young age is incredible.
The Conjuring, contrary to a few comments I’ve read, doesn’t steal scares from previous entries in the genre like The Exorcist, The Omen, The Haunting etc., it simply pays homage to them and finds its own voice. I even read a comment that said something along the lines of “seasoned horror fans will be unable to find it scary because we’ve seen all the scares before”, but that’s complete nonsense, and frankly, a bit insulting. I’ve been in love with horror since I saw The Evil Dead when I was 12, which I think drops me firmly into the “seasoned” category, yet The Conjuring scared the pants off me. If anything, I’d say it was the exact opposite; it creates new scares in a way that we’ve rarely seen, with the old-school ’70s vibe lending to the impression that it was made during the glory days of aforementioned horror classics, at a time when the fear of possession and the occult was rife.
This is nothing less than a benchmark in modern horror. We have to hope James Wan doesn’t abandon the genre completely because at the moment he’s one of the very few people who knows how to do it properly. Stylized, atmospheric, tense, sinister and genuinely frightening, The Conjuring is the 2013 horror film to beat. Take a bow, Mr. Wan.
Director: James Wan; Writer: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes; Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanely Caswell, Hayley MCFarland; Running time: 112 minutes; Certification: 15