A rare beast of a horror film that earns its “R” rating not for excessive gore or profanity but instead for sheer intensity (or, in MPAA-speak, “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”), The Conjuring finds director James Wan improving on his previous haunted-house yarn Insidious in just about every way possible. Masterfully told and featuring memorable performances by its two female leads in particular, The Conjuring captures us in its malevolent web with the unsettling opening shot, and leaves us dangling helplessly in an infernal house of horrors. While in the past Wan seemed prone to excess (Saw and Death Sentence in particular showed a notable flair for brutality), here he opts for a more classical approach that never feels compromised, despite the lack of bloodletting. In the process, he’s turned out a hair-raising haunted-house classic.
The story gets underway as paranormal researchers Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) evaluate a mysterious doll discovered by a trio of young roommates in 1968. Believing their house to be haunted by the wayward spirit of a deceased young girl, they give the girl permission to inhabit the doll, and soon their lives become a waking nightmare. Informed by Ed and Lorraine that they have fallen victim to an inhuman spirit (aka a demon) seeking a human host, the roommates entrust the doll to the Warrens, who place it in their personal museum for safekeeping. Flash forward three years to Harrisville, RI, where the Perron family have just moved into their country dream home -- an 18th century farmhouse that offers plenty of space for parents Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston), as well as their five daughters Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). It seems like the ideal place to raise a family until a series of unsettling events leave the Perron family convinced they are not alone. Terrified, Carolyn reaches out to the Warrens for help, and learns that a demonic entity has attached itself to her family, and has no intentions of letting them go. Meanwhile, the deeper the Warrens delve into the farmhouse’s history, the clearer it becomes that this spirit has a murderous agenda, and that no one will be safe until it is driven back into darkness.
The Conjuring is inspired by the book House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story by Andrea Perron. In her book, Perron details her family’s nightmarish struggle against forces beyond their understanding, and the attempts made by Ed and Lorraine Warren to “cleanse” their home of evil. A few short years later, the Warrens would achieve a certain level of notoriety for their investigation into the Amityville Horror. Although often considered a masterpiece of paranormal literature, Jay Anson’s novel detailing that sinister Long Island haunting hasn’t fared particularly well when translated to the big screen. Here, Wan seems particularly determined to make up for those shortcomings, relishing in period detail while intentionally dialing back his stylistic excess to focus on crafting a skin-crawling series of expertly timed scares. Largely absent are the jarring jump cues so frequently employed by lazy filmmakers to keep their audience on edge; in their place are a series of seductively fluid, elegantly executed sequences that steadily build to a pulse-quickening fever pitch. In The Conjuring, Wan embraces the concept of “less is more,” using small things like a bouncing toy ball or a pair of seemingly disembodied, clapping hands to fray our nerves, and he does so with the skill of a filmmaker at the top of his game. Given the similarities between The Conjuring and Insidious, it seems impossible not to compare the two, though the latter truly feels like amateur hour when held up in comparison to this, an infinitely more mature, and refined example of genre filmmaking.
As well as Wan works with screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes to craft a horror yarn worthy of admiration, it’s the cast who deserve credit for bringing the story to life. Taylor and Livingston both shine as the parents who watch in terror as their dreams blur into nightmares, and while Wilson’s demonologist displays a congenial down-home charm, it’s Farmiga -- at once vulnerable, resolute, and wise as Lorraine Warren -- who steals the show. Lorraine is the true heart of The Conjuring, and it’s Farmiga’s talent in showing the character’s ability to see light through all of the darkness that keeps us emotionally invested throughout the Perron’s terrifying ordeal. All the while, a satisfying mix of period pop songs and discordant strings courtesy of composers Joseph Bishara and Mark Isham create an eerie sonic landscape that holds the story together.
Although it’s always difficult to recognize a classic in the moment, The Conjuring establishes an effective air of dread in the very first frame, and impressively maintains it throughout. Whether or not it will withstand the test of time remains to be seen. But until then, we’ll all be too busy screaming to care. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan