The best horror films transcend simple scariness. They create an atmosphere filled with tension that puts a stranglehold on the audience. That reaches through the screen, grabs you and pulls you into the film. Movies like The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Halloween all do this in different ways. It’s a sort of ineffable quality, difficult to put into words, but often characterized by causing goosebumps.
I’ve seen The Conjuring twice now, and I’ve gotten goosebumps both times.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play real life husband and wife paranormal investigation team Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film opens with them going through a famous case of theirs involving a creepy doll, but we then meet the Perron family, Roger and Carolyn (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their 5 daughters as they move into a new home. Things are off about the new house and as the disturbances grow in intensity, Carolyn seeks out the Warrens. Ed is initially reluctant, but they agree to come to the Perron home to help.
The script, written by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes serves the story incredibly well. What’s striking about the script and James Wan‘s direction of that diagram for the film is how carefully it’s paced. We get great, thorough set ups for both the Warrens and the Perrons even though bad things start happening almost immediately. The intensity is a straight line at a 45 degree angle, starting slow and gradually growing, becoming worse and worse until the climax. Impressively patient, the Hayes brothers and Wan wait a diabolic amount of time before actually showing you what the family sees, and it works like the best kind of foreplay.
This is a bit of a double edged sword. The horror you imagine in your head is naturally hard for a filmmaker to top, but the script addresses this directly in a clever and unique way that offers up both sides of the imaginary coin. Throughout the film, Ed is very protective of his wife because she was attacked while performing an exorcism by a possessed man that gave her a soul-rocking vision. When Roger asks Ed what Lorraine saw that affected her so deeply, Ed says that he doesn’t know and refuses to ask her. It plants that seed in the audience’s collective mind; you want to know what she saw and you start imagining what it might be. Wan holds that beyond reach, but obviously any modern horror film (even one with so many callbacks and similarities to classic horror films) needs to show us something, so eventually we’re invited to see what the Perron’s have been seeing all along. And it’s terrifying.
It’s worth noting that along with the Hayes’ great screenplay and Wan’s fantastic direction, the film’s cinematography by DP John R. Leonetti is rich and vibrant and elevates the film significantly. There are many lush shots throughout the film, but there’s a fantastic long shot at the beginning of the film — slightly reminiscent of the restaurant scene in Goodfellas — that’s especially outstanding. As the Perron’s are moving into their new home, we are treated to an extensive Steadicam shot that follows one of the girls entering the front door and seamlessly switches to another daughter as she exits through the back. Not only is it impressive on a technical level, but it quickly and easily establishes a good part of the geography of an otherwise confusingly large home that serves as the location of much of the action.
Beyond the look and feel, the cast is excellent. The Conjuring focuses on the four leads, but it’s the women who really anchor the film with their performances. Farmiga is calm and measured, unflappable even in the face of things no one else can see. Her character, despite being the lone figure with a connection to supernatural power, comes off as rational and grounded. Taylor on the other hand gives a fearless performance, throwing herself bodily into a difficult role. She plays the loving mother and devoted wife with charm and charisma, and when the shit hits the fan, she goes for the gusto. It’s this pair of great performances that propel the film forward.
Plus, the characters each get a few moments that help expand them and allow the audience to empathize or understand them a bit better. Through small moments, The Perrons are shown as a struggling family of seven. Sweet, loving, doing the best they can. You want good things for them. And the Warrens, who could easily come off as kooks get some balancing moments that remind you that even they understand that there’s almost always a logical explanation for what’s going on. Sometimes the ghost in the attic is really wind and dripping water making the floorboards creak. The Warrens are grounded people who have also seen true evil.
Few if any films are perfect, but it’s difficult to find flaws here. From the opening story about the Annabelle case, we get a wonderful air of malevolence that carries throughout. The period setting works well, and every detail (including the opening text scrawl) puts you in that 70s/80s mindset. It’s a film that is helped by its based-on-a-true-story tag, one that makes you want to go home and learn more about the Warrens and what they saw in their investigations, how much could be corroborated by third parties, how much you personally think might be real.
It may not be a perfect film, strictly speaking, but The Conjuring is damn close and easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years.
The Upside: Great filmmaking, good pacing, amazing cast, plenty of scares, steadily ramps up intensity and atmosphere
The Downside: Ummm….
On the Side: The film was originally titled The Warren Files