by Mike Cosimano
Say what you will about the overrated Saw, the delightful Insidious, or the kind of terrible Dead Silence; James Wan has never made a boring movie. Even when his scenes don’t work as intended (there is nothing scary about Insidious, no matter what anyone tells me), they’re always entertaining. And now, with The Conjuring, Wan has reached his peak as a horror director. It’s not remotely subtle, and the climax goes a bit long, yes. But the scares are effective and the visuals creative. For once, instead of just laughing at the film, I was laughing with delight at how wonderfully frightful the whole affair is. This may be due to my excellent theater experience – any horror movie is good if you’re seeing it with an enthusiastic crowd – but there’s still a clear amount of craftsmanship on display here.
At its core, The Conjuring’s tale is pretty standard haunted house fare. You’ve got a picturesque family, a house with a terrible past, lots of slamming doors, supernatural experts, and some people being flung around the room. Here, the family is called the Parrons, and the supernatural experts husband and wife team Lorraine and Ed Warren. The acting is fine, the kids can be scared when necessary, and the Warrens play their roles convincingly enough. It’s nothing groundbreaking. But storytellers keep coming back to this well because it works just fine, and that’s still the case.
What makes these familiar events so compelling is everything around the periphery. It’s set in the 70s, which means every obnoxious modern horror cliché you can think of – like the cellphone with no signal – are nowhere to be found. There are also a few old-school slow zooms that feel like they belong in that beloved decade, some oldies hits are used in a montage, someone drives one of those Volkswagens, and a character unironically says “Groovy”. Because it’s the 70s. It’s also nice to get out of the found footage genre and have some proper goddamn shots for once, but that could just be my personal irritation with the legion of Paranormal Activity rip-offs that infest theaters these days.
Wan also demonstrates an understanding of how to properly use levity: it’s there so you can lower the audience’s guard so they temporarily forget what genre this is before the horror returns. Most of the jokes come from the designated comic relief – a skeptical cop who tags along with the paranormal investigation team to make sure everything is on the level – although some of the other characters get a few decent lines in here and there. The important thing to note is that it all works, and the comedy never feels inappropriate.
But this is a horror movie. You’re not there for jokes; you’re there to be either scared or “scared” with an audience of like-minded individuals. Thankfully, there’s enough here to satisfy both crowds. The Conjuring strikes an excellent balance between creeping dread that preys upon the viewer’s imagination and scary things jumping out and screaming “ooga booga” in your face. Sometimes in the same scene, even! Yes, there are some obvious setups, like a sleepwalker or a child’s leg getting pulled by a demon. However, when the payoff finally came, the rich atmosphere of the film had sucked me in to such a point where I had put those setups out of my mind. When the sleepwalking started again, I remembered the setup. My brain told me something was about to happen, and I instinctually bristled. There are surprises, yes, but the best moments of the film come when the voice in the back of your head knows something bad is about to happen.
Unfortunately, the film’s climactic exorcism is just not scary in the least, especially if you’ve seen literally any exorcism film ever made. There’s demonic noises, there’s Latin, there’s holy water, someone’s yelling at the person doing the exorcising to stop because they’re hurting the exorcised, ect. I can’t help but feel like The Conjuring blew its load too early with some of the more creative moments, leaving the last 30 minutes or so with nothing but some of the most generic horror moments I’ve seen since the latest Texas Chainsaw movie. It just goes on for way too long, screaming at the top of its lungs as it does. By the end, I was just tired and wanted the whole affair to end. The Conjuring already proved it can handle both ends of the horror spectrum, why not end the film with a tense sequence instead of an over-the-top one?
That doesn’t erase the fun – if that’s the right word – I had with The Conjuring, though. If a movie can get me to pretend that I have to relieve myself because I’m utterly terrified, it’s doing something right. 90% of this movie is James Wan at the top of his game, mixing genres, moods, styles of horror, and even filmmaking techniques with ease. If you’re already down with scary movies, seeing this one should be a no-brainer, especially with a sizable audience (if possible). Shame about that climax, though.