Release: Thursday, July 18, 2013
James Wan applies his skillful story- and suspense-building techniques without missing a step in this intense supernatural thriller based on the first-hand accounts of world-renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) in Harrisville, Rhode Island.
Chances are, most people by now are at least aware of the infamous Saw franchise. Wan, along with Aussie Leigh Whannell, are responsible for inspiring the gore-obsessed into action — examples being the likes of The Collector/The Collection, Hostel, and Vile — by penning and directing it’s first installment in approximately two weeks. Tensely paced, poorly acted, and clearly low-budget, the original Saw was still a remarkably creative story despite it’s obvious pitfalls (aside from the bad acting, that film is incredibly gruesome).
Not long ago I had resigned Wan and company to be forever rooted in the torture-porn genre having spawned a series that ended up lasting seven (I think?) films; but The Conjuring is definite proof that Wan at least has a talent even when not spending lots of money on extra blood syrup and props that look like intestines and other body parts. His newest creation, steeped in factual accounts of real “demonologists” and real townsfolk, is maybe more disturbing than the sheer torture value of Saw. It is an incredibly realistic, believable story even for those who simply do not believe in the goings-on of the supernatural variety. The Conjuring is truly a frightening film, and I have not been this uncomfortable in my seat since watching The Exorcist.
What works to this particular horror film’s advantage is the structure of the story. This movie builds and builds and builds, creating enough tension to make even the quietest of door creaks seem like an impending disaster; when a light bulb flashes out, your stomach lurches. Then, of course, clap – clap.
The story details the events occurring on the property of an old farmhouse bought by the Perron family, wherein supposed demonic forces dwelled and had their way with virtually every resident who’s ever been unfortunate enough to live between these walls. Roger and his wife Carolyn are rather satisfied with their new slice of life in the quiet town of Harrisville, Rhode Island, but soon their five children begin seeing and feeling strange things all around the house. These incidences slowly step up from being strange bumps in the night to full-fledged attacks upon the walls — but no one can see anyone or anything in the rooms in which this is happening. Portraits and paintings come crashing off of walls, terrible looking bruises form on Roger’s wife’s skin, and one of their youngest daughters is the first to have a personal encounter with a powerful spirit.
Wan is also careful in his consideration of the inclusion of the Warrens, as he gradually weaves them into the narrative string as things go from bad to worse at the Perrons’ home. They are first shown presenting samples of their work to lecture halls, explaining that what they do is real work based on science, despite the fact that they are quite often dismissed as “kooks.” After attending one such lecture in the wake of a particularly bad night at home, Carolyn convinces the Warrens to come take a look at their property and see if there really is something to be worried about. Initially quick to dismiss their situation as simple “old house noises,” Lorraine is the first to experience first-hand the power of the supernatural presence around the yard and inside the home.
As a duo of investigators, Wilson and Farmiga are rather convincing. Often these roles in these kinds of movies are completely inept, cardboard cut-outs of real people who eventually become helpless bystanders as the spectacle of demons and evil forces unfolds. But in The Conjuring, they are real humans with real skills and real emotion. Though this movie is still not devoid of a few moments of wooden acting — it is set in the early ’70s and more than a few times the dialogue comes across clumsy and forced — everyone involved here are very good, and it’s easy to feel terrible for them as the drama and fear continue to mount. Ron Livingston as Roger Perron, while not encumbered with the heavy-lifting (that’s definitely down to Wilson and Farmiga), serves as a loving, devoted father who simply becomes speechless at the inexplicable activity in his home. Similarly, all the children are very good in their respective roles as well as they all become affected in their own ways.
The Conjuring makes a good case for the “less is more” mantra — one might not actually believe this is directed by one of the dudes who made Saw because this is a somewhat bloodless ordeal. Somewhat.
By not showing us exactly what is there (for a long time anyway); by applying technologies used by these expert paranormal investigators to pick up other aspects (audio, UV lighting, etc); by simply cutting the cameras away at the right moments 9 times out of 10, it is next-to-impossible for us to not fill our own imaginations with the worst possibilities of what is going to come next. The resulting emotions that I experienced were exhilarating, they were signs of a director really doing his job. For me, it is quite easy to overlook the typical jump-scares present in all horror films, and these are certainly littered throughout this film as well. The good news is that these are not the worst things to fear or that these are all you have to worry about. You experience some pretty messed-up things in this movie, and I really don’t want to explain it away A) for spoiler alerts and B) because I don’t like talking about it because it gives me the heebie-jeebies.
If 2004’s Saw was Wan getting his violence fetish out of his system (hey, The Purge did assert that we all have some kind of need or desire to commit or engage in violence, right?), here’s his tribute to the bizarre and unnatural. The Conjuring is a work of remarkable maturity for the young director, as well as finally being a (mainstream) horror film worth seeing. From a filmgoing standpoint, I believe this is a film that many of us have been waiting to see for a long, long time. It’s one of the shining examples of what makes horror an avenue worth pursuing if you’re involved in the entertainment industry as well.
Recommendation: This film recalled some of the chronology of William Friedkin’s masterpiece as it continued to build in suspense and drama to a point where fainting might be an acceptable audience response — but it diverged from many films in that it was bolstered by strong performances and beautiful cinematography. Those who appreciate all of the above are in for a treat here. Those who can’t get enough of horror, well, I needn’t say more. Either way, we’ve got another “Must-See” on our hands.
Running Time: 112 mins.
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