Thanks to Klout.com and Warner Bros. Studios, I received the opportunity to screen THE CONJURING which opens wide next Friday, July 19th. I was not offered any other recompense, not even the Reserved Seats that I think were for us, but the theatre said no (and they thus remained empty). I believe myself to be thusly untainted by bribery, shenanigans, etc, but please feel free to draw your own judgments. There are incredibly mild spoilers here. I don’t give away plot points, the ending, or anything like that, just a list of incongruous items made scary and a reference to a long ago historical event that is name checked.
THE CONJURING tells the true story—well, it is a horror movie involving ghosts, witches, demons, exorcism, and so on, so apply your own grains of salt to the term “true—of the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their, I don’t know, let’s say 5 daughters—they seriously seem to multiple as the film unfurls. The Perron, for reasons left unstated but seem bigger than “hey, let’s change things up,” move to a Rhode Island farmhouse that is best described as a fixer upper. The dust and paint touch-ups, however, should be the least of the family’s concerns.
However, the story does not begin with them. Instead, we open with real life— see “true story disclaimer above—ghost hunters as they discuss a recent case, one of a possessed doll. Well, not really, objects can’t be possessed, apparently.
It is an…odd choice. Yes, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) are a significant part of this tale, so it is important they get introduced early on. And it isn’t even bad that they are introduced before the Perrons as their lives get almost equal attention as the movie progresses. What makes it odd is how different the tone is of this opener than the rest of the film. I am not sure if it is intentional or not, but the tale of this doll, who should be familiar to anyone who’s up on Connecticut (CT what!) related lore, is funny. Not like “break the tension” giggling funny, but just funny. There’s no menace to the scenes, despite the visible fear of the victims and the hideousness of the doll—the thing is seriously ugly—and every possible scare moment is a laugh button instead.
Even as the scene dissolves into a genuinely nice typeset title card, I was preparing for a movie that couldn’t build suspense or nail its tone. Not to spoil anything, but I need not have been worried.
Once the movie moves past its prologue, it quickly proves it knows how to scare. Simply put, THE CONJURING is a horror movie in the classic haunted house mold. The director James Wan clearly went to school on films like THE CHANGELING (1980), largely eschewing the kind of scares, especially the false ones, that horror movies indulge in. Instead, it nicely plays the tension, using things like a visibly empty room to equal effect as the face of (Japanese style-influenced) ghost. By far the film’s scariest sequence uses a clap, a box of matches, a pair of hands, an old dusty basement, and a children’s ball. It does end with a reveal of a gross ghoulie, but that reveal stands on equal ground with those common objects and locales.
As the film progresses, the presence of the supernatural becomes increasingly overt and visible and the scares never reach the same heights. That said, there are still several frightening moments that, in another film, would be wholly satisfying. It is only in comparison to this early peak that it suffers.
The director James Wan guided the quintessential torture horror film SAW and the fairly modern horror INSIDIOUS, neither of which are to my particular tastes but were objectively well made. Still he refuses to rely on any of the tricks he employed with those; he employs a style that fits the story instead. Predominantly using long, big shots, Wan makes great use of shadow and darkness. He lets the viewers dwell in those places, forces us to scan the surroundings and begin to conjure monsters that might not be there at all. By dodging the jittery, quick cut approach to horror that most modern horror films use now, the moments where he does indulge by spinning the camera rapidly 360 degrees or rapid shots of a sheet flapping in the air have impact and weight. They aren’t just style, they are substance.
However, I am, admittedly, something of a scaredy cat. As covered on this site before, I’m not a huge horror fan so perhaps my judgment is off here. I don’t think so, but just letting you, the buyer, beware. (To mutilate a cliché.) I do, however, see a lot of movies and think I’m a pretty good judge of performances. So, perhaps it will hold more water than my scare assessment when I tell you that the principals are good. Really, really good. They might’ve signed on for a horror movie, but they do not phone it in. I have seen Patrick Wilson put in significantly less effort in “more respectable” genres. Supporting players—yes, even the kids—also show up and do their parts well.
The film is not flawless, of course, and the biggest strike against it is the why of it all. It is a perfectly serviceable origin for the evil that is afflicting them, I suppose, but there are two problems for anyone who has a.) knowledge of history and b.) seen a haunted house movie before. Maybe it is a case of proving that “they’re only clichés because they are true,” but there is nothing here you have not seen before. Plus, it is sort of tangentially related to witch trials, which are now regarded as cases of mass hysteria, not actual slaying of pointed hated, cat loving, green skinned magic practitioners. So accept that a good movie can come from a cliché riddled foundation if you decide to take this one in.
Gore hounds and nudity appreciators might leave the theatre a bit disappointed. The movie’s rated R but I’m actually a bit surprised by that. I’d guess it is entirely due to intensity because there is little to no visible bloodshed and absolutely no one wearing less than a full outfit at any time.
This is an unexpected recommendation from me. I really, truly enjoyed it and I think it’s the most pleasant surprise (if you can call a horror movie pleasant) of this summer movie season.