“The Conjuring” is the 2013 supernatural horror movie from director James Wan and is based on the real-life investigation by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film is yet another haunted house movie, but its 70s style, strong leads and brilliant directing put this film far above its contemporaries. For those who don’t know the film’s fairly basic plot, here it is. A family of seven move into an old farmhouse and soon are faced with sinister paranormal phenomena. They call in Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate and (along with their assistant and a skeptical cop) the two unveil the goings-on of the house even at the risk of their own family.
The characters of the Ed and Lorraine stand out in the movie compared to the rest of the fairly bland characters. This is mostly due to the authenticity of the performances in portraying the real-life people, but also because they are unique characters in modern day horror movies. You can connect to them the same way you can the family, because they are people too. However they are above the average victim in that they know what’s going on and they can deal with it. It’s a fine line between hero and average joe that I’ve never really seen in a horror film before. Are they perfect? Of course not. The conflict between them over Lorraine’s safety feels quite forced after a while, but it doesn’t detract from the movie at all and frankly, I would be happy to see these characters again in a sequel.
The rest of the characters are all fairly bland, but have enough characteristics to them that they don’t feel like cardboard cutouts. Rather it feels like we just don’t know them well enough. The performances all around are fair, but nothing outstanding. The kids do a good job for being child actors, with the exception of a few spotty scenes. The father under-acts, often times feeling a touch too stoic and the mother is actually fairly good, especially when comparing the two sides of her performance. The cop and the assistant make good comic relief, but also serve their purpose and don’t feel shoved in (a mistake many other movies make).
In fact, everything in this movie, at least on an initial viewing, seems to have a purpose. The exposition is given fairly well, told through a brilliant opening sequence as well as college lectures. College lectures are a commonplace tool for exposition, foreshadowing, or laying the groundwork for symbolism, but the difference here is that it doesn’t feel forced when watching it. The lectures play into the plot, as well as give insight into character backgrounds and this helps them fit seamlessly into the movie. The character interactions and paranormal trickery all play on older ones to either push the plot along or provide a sense of dread. For example, a line of dialogue from the middle of the movie may provide a crucial plot point later in the movie, and a ghostly sighting in a bedroom will give you inordinate amounts of dread the next time the characters wander in there. In this way the movie feels almost too neat, like it tricked you into thinking it was developing characters when really it was just servicing the plot. But of course, you are so in awe of how all the pieces fit together that you forgive this misgiving.
Even with the strong writing and acting, what really makes this movie something special is the directing. Wan’s work almost seems to have been building up to this point, with him learning different techniques and mastering different styles of storytelling. The ‘70s flair of this movie is hard to ignore, with camera angles, zooms and lighting all screaming “Halloween” and “The Legend of Hell House.” This combined with the very accurate costuming and production design creates a vibe that is only a few steps behind Ti West’s ‘70s homage “House of the devil.” This film differs, however, from “House of the Devil in that its scares don’t come from just the third act.
“The Conjuring” is scary throughout, using the classic technique of ramping up the fear at night and giving relief during the day, all the while escalating at a very brisk pace towards its climax. The majority of the scares do come from jump scares, but it does not use scary music and loud noises to get you to jump. It instead uses the aforementioned dread and tension to get you all tense, then snaps that suspense in the most unexpected ways. It should be noted that this movie avoids the obvious jump scares almost constantly (with a few exceptions) and that is partly why it’s so effective. We expect Action A to happen, but instead it’s glazed over, building the tension more as our minds race to where the scare could come from. Sometimes the scares don’t come at all, like in the opening sequence where there’s not a single jump scare and instead it concentrates on setting the tone of creepiness for of the movie. When the scares do happen they are, above all else, clever. The games the spirits, and by default Wan, play are sometimes disturbingly pleasing. It’s that same joy that someone can derive from a bad guy’s clever plot, or a unique Saw trap. The doll named Annabelle and the innocent game of Hide and Clap are bound to become internet memes thanks to this movie.
This movie, above all else defies expectations. People who hate horror movies are going to hate this movie no matter what, but people who think jump scares are cheap or are just tired of paranormal clichés should walk into this movie with an open mind, because you may be surprised in more ways then one. Above all else I must emphasize that this movie should not be seen by children. This is a movie that even if you don’t find scary, contains all the elements to scar a child. It’s a blend of realism, familiarity, and bat-shit insanity and it’s sure to please for decades to come and it most certainly is going in my collection. James Wan’s career has been building up to this movie, and I feel that he still has a little ways to go. So if studios can keep a hands-off approach with his projects, we are sure to get some movies that every horror fan will be proud to call scary.