This review contains some spoilers to The Conjuring.
James Wan’s The Conjuring is the Ultimate Fighting Champion of haunting movies. It is all of the movies. Every single one. Coming to the film several weeks after its phenomenal box office, I was at least somewhat viewing it in a way where I was trying to seek out what it was about this movie that had attracted so much. These type of movies are a dime a dozen – the coming attractions beforehand can show you that – hell, the director has another one of his one, Insidious: Chapter 2, out in just a couple of months! But most of all, as a fan of the genre, I just wanted to see something scary and fun. Watching it though was like experiencing a crash course in haunted houses. As these movies go, it’s an epic.
First of all, for a horror movie, The Conjuring has a positively sprawling ensemble. The family has a mother, a father, and not just one or two children, but five. The paranormal detectives have a daughter and a grandmother and an assistant and there’s even a police detective for some reason that isn’t explained. There’s even The Pope by the end. And can we talk about the dead? There are so many ghosts in this movie they need their own union – the Screen Actors Ghoul, perhaps? There are spirits and demons and witches and possessed dolls. There’s “found footage” scenes and opening text and CSI-style technology and flashbacks. There’s even a flashback to scenes we saw two minutes ago. There’s a swarm of a birds, a prophetic dog, an exorcism, multiple possessions, witchcraft, a kidnapping, murders, a suicide, ancient curses, the Catholic church, secret passageways, piano-playing demons, creaking doors, slamming doors, flickering lights, falling pictureframes, clocks that stop, bodyparts flailing, sheets flapping in the wind, and even ghost-hunting celebrities with ties to the Vatican. It spans multiple locations and multiple families as characters float, fly, crawl, walk, fall, slip, slide, swim, swing, and shout. The only thing missing is the (possessed, natch) kitchen sink.
Think The Conjuring is missing something? It’s not. No zombies? Oh, but wait, there’s a song by The Zombies on the soundtrack. No séance? Well, there’s even one of those in the end credits. It’s just so much. The surprising thing is that a lot of it works, although I do find myself preferring the more boutique play box chills of Wan’s other haunted house horror, Insidious. Where that film was criticised for going too small in its final act (I wouldn’t argue with that; its third act looks like they ran out of money), I found The Conjuring to go a bit too bombastic in its closing with multiple threads collapsing upon one another before ending in a swell of music from the ever-reliable Joseph Bishara.
So it’s easy to see why the film has struck such a chord. There’s pretty much everything anybody could want from a movie like this, except maybe a consistent tone. Too long stretches go by that sap the film of momentum before Wan ramps up the frights again. Essentially anything involving the Warrens’ – played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – home life is of little interest. We already have one family in peril, do we really need another? And did we really need two scenes of this couple teaching a crowd of believers? And furthermore, the way the screenplay by Carey and Chad Hayes ramped up the pro-family aspect, the power of religious connectivity with Farmiga’s Lorraine sticking by her man in the hour of need, was off-putting and unnecessary.
But still, I liked the film. When it’s in scary mode it more or less works. Of course, the mileage one gets out of it depends entirely on your disposition towards these kind of scares. Are you more likely to find doors squeaking open in the middle of the night scarier than bodies being carved up by serial killers? Then this is a film for you. The scares are easy – camera pans revealing a corpse-like body, a ghostly figure emerging out of the shadows, a body being flung across the room by an invisible force – but they’re effective. But, then again, I think the Paranormal Activity movies are effective and work harder with much less, so perhaps my thoughts on what constitutes a scary ghost movie is up for debate.
I like the way the film was designed. It’s not over-designed and cluttered with “look! we’re in the ’70s” knick-knacks, but rather authentically rustic with subtle costuming and a collection of grisly but not over-the-top make-up effects. Perhaps more impressive are the special effects. They look practical and tangible to the real world. One scene for instance, late in the film shows a chair begin to levitate off the ground and there looks to be actual weight to it as if there’s an actual struggle with gravity. Given Wan’s style I suspect this one close-up shot at least wasn’t reliant on computer graphics, but even when it very clearly does it lacks the plastic nature of more effects-reliant films.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I like films that do and treat the subject seriously. I could have done with the frequent lapses into slasher tropes – man hears noise outside, goes to investigate only the realise the terror was inside all along – and I believe Lorraine and Ed Warren were phonies (how about The Con-job-ering?), but I’ll go with it for a film that’s at least actively trying to provoke a reaction from audiences rather than idly assuming they’ll find any slight paranormal activity scary (speaking of the franchise, that’d be Paranormal Activity 4‘s biggest problem). Their presence lends the film a unique freshness that turns the material into detective story territory that is fun. It’s like Zelda Rubenstein showing up in the first act of Poltergeist rather than the third.
It helps that there were strong performances for the material, especially from Lily Taylor (your penance for The Haunting is about done, Ms Taylor) and Farmiga working on a higher plain that the genre usually allows in mainstream fare. Wan has proven himself to be such a star of this kind of low-key, high-thrills films that I guess The Conjuring was inevitable. A haunted house movie that wants to the definitive haunted house movie. The one people will compare all others to. I prefer it a bit more small scale, but the final product here is impressive and its success is a testament to Wan’s desire to turn the screw on popular horror entertainment towards a more home-spun aesthetic. It doesn’t always work, and genuine GOL (gasp out loud) moments are few and far between, but it conjures up enough hits amongst its roll call of chills and thrills to warrant its success.