The Conjuring, released earlier this year, is the latest film from horror filmmaker James Wan, director of Saw and Insidious. Like many other recent films about possession, it purports to be based on a true story. Unlike most others, it actually gets specific on the details, and is based on one of the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. I’ll admit up front that I am a skeptic on the subjects of ghosts and demons walking the post-New Testament world, possessions, and exorcisms. But just because I don’t believe a story — or don’t believe it was exactly what it is being claimed to have been — doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the story; after all, 99% of the movies I view are unabashedly fiction.
Granted, “based on a true story” was the #1 item on my list of warning signs of a bad horror movie. I stand by that statement; there is no surer indicator. But as the introduction to the article says, the warning signs are guidelines, not absolute rules, and exceptions can exist. I am happy to report that not only is The Conjuring one such exception, but it may be one of the smartest horror films in years.
The Conjuring sets the mood with an introductory segment, showing the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) dealing with the aftermath of one of their cases. It then cuts to the family who will next be plagued with supernatural horrors, a New England family who have just moved into an old colonial home. Both of the parents are played by actors who have been around for a while; Lili Taylor has roles going back to the late 80s, and Ron Livingston is probably best known for his lead role in the 1999 comedy Office Space. He’s almost unrecognizable here, though; it’s amazing how much someone’s appearance can be changed by a little under 15 years, and by playing a blue-collar family man instead of a white-collar office drone. Regardless, the film is helped considerably by the combined experience of its four adult leads; unlike a lot of horror films, there is no amateur acting on display here.
Soon after the family moves into their new home, the trouble begins. The youngest child acquires an “imaginary” friend. The dog refuses to go inside, and is killed in the night. The wife acquires unexplained bruises during the night. The clocks stop at 3:07 a.m. — every night and every clock. And it’s not too long before the threat becomes more apparent.
There are two great strengths to the story being told in The Conjuring. The first is that the characters are not idiots. All too often in horror films — Paranormal Activity comes to mind — the characters continue to act oblivious past the point where it is obvious something odd is going on, or they take risks that would be ridiculous even under ordinary circumstances. The only idiot maneuver I can recall in this film is leaving the dog outside at night when it refused to go in… and that’s not stupid because of supernatural threats, it’s just bad dog ownership to leave a dog outside on the first night at a new house. Too easy for the dog to run off, chain or no chain. But when it comes to the supernatural threat, the characters respond quickly. They naturally look for rational explanations at first, but when the presence of the supernatural is undeniable, they immediately reach out to the Warrens for help.
The other great strength of the film is that it doesn’t overplay its hand. It’s not a slasher film, the two parents and five daughters are endangered but aren’t dropping like flies. The threat is, aside from the dog, non-obvious at first. It builds, but it’s always obviously supernatural to the audience, and it’s always creepy and threatening. But it’s never shown directly, not at first, and seldom even in the endgame. Instead, the film hints at it, and lets the audience fill things in with their own imagination. Additionally, while there are occasional jump scares, they are only occasional, and they are never “cat scares” — those fake scares where a cat or something else harmless jumps out, causing the audience to release tension at something totally non-threatening. All the jump scares in the film are natural jump scares, that are built from and feed into the fears that are a part of the story. The effect is to keep the suspense ratcheting up as the film goes on. Thus even somebody who isn’t frightened by the film will find it engrossing.
And, judging by my fellow theatre patrons, a good portion of the audience will find it frightening. I did not, but I appear to be a tough nut to crack in that regard. But I was watching this at the theatre — the first time I’ve ever seen a horror film on the large screen — and though it was a second-run theatre on a Wednesday night, there were still around a dozen other people at the same screening. After the film let out, I could hear several people remark to their friends about how intense it was, and one young woman berating her friends for dragging her to the movie, sure that she was going to have nightmares. As instilling a sense of fear in the audience is part of the goal of the genre, it has to be considered a success on that merit. But it also succeeds in just telling a good story, with good pacing and good acting. For horror fans, this is definitely one to see.