Horror movies rarely scare me. When I was a kid, sure, I was frightened by a lot of stuff but I can't think of a single movie I've watched since college (when I first saw The Shining) that has genuinely gotten under my skin. I can think of a handful of specific movie scenes (The Others and The Innocents spring to mind) that have unsettled me but the movies as a whole have not. That's no slight on the movies themselves, mind you, I enjoy being kind of creeped out or grossed out, too. I just think it takes a certain kind of talent to make a truly scary movie. And I think, with The Conjuring, director James Wan has proven that he's got that kind of talent.
I heard great things about The Conjuring before I watched it, so I went in with high expectations. It exceeded them. This is a movie that the MPAA slapped with an R rating not because it's violent or gory but because it's so freakin' scary. For once I am in total agreement with the MPAA's assessment. This movie is scary from the get-go and the tension and fear only escalates as the story progresses. I watched it just after dark, with only my Halloween lights plugged in and only my dog, Charles Edmund, for company and I was a wreck (and by the end, so was Charlie). I jumped in my seat and screamed out loud repeatedly. I was out of breath the entire time I watched. Seriously, this was like a cardio workout. I got so scared I nearly stopped watching. And I was loving the movie! Loving it! But I was so shaken that I really considered turning it off towards the end. That is one of the greatest compliments I can think to give to a horror movie. If the goal is to scare the audience, this one gets an A+.
The Conjuring is the "based on actual events" story of the Perron family, who buy a farmhouse at auction and discover after they have moved in that the place is overrun with spirits. While most of the entities in the house are benign or, at worst, mischievous, there is also something more sinister and dangerous lurking in the Perron home. Something that means the family great harm. Matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) eventually reaches out to Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a celebrated pair of paranormal investigators, in the hopes that they can help her distraught family. Ed and Lorraine are an interesting couple. Ed is knowledgable in an academic sort of way but Lorraine is the one who is really "in touch" with the spirit world. Once they are on the Perron property shadowy entities and visions of past tragedies manifest themselves before Lorraine's eyes, even though they are not visible to her husband or the Perrons. Because she is so attuned to the other side, Ed is protective of Lorraine and concerned for her well being. The work the Warrens do affects them both but it clearly takes more of a toll on Lorraine.
By offering their assistance to the Perrons the Warrens inadvertently put themselves and their own daughter in harm's way. As Ed explains it the Perrons' problems cannot be solved simply by relocating. The forces in the house have latched onto the family and will continue to torment them no matter where they go. Now that the Warrens are in the house as well what's to keep them safe from the same dark forces?
Sound familiar? Sure it does. But while it's certainly derivative of other stories The Conjuring works because it borrows the most effective moments from its predecessors. I saw traces of The Haunting, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense and The Amityville Horror (The Amityville connection should come as no surprise considering the Warrens investigated the strange things going down at the infamous house on Ocean Avenue just a few years after they helped the Perrons). I think all of those titles are worthwhile but none of them really scare me. The Haunting puts me on edge in a great way but it does not terrify me. The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist have alarming, frightening moments but I consider them to be family dramas with supernatural elements rather than horror movies so it makes sense that they aren't wall-to-wall fright fests. The Amityville Horror has some effective scares too but it just goes overboard towards the end. The Exorcist is deeply unsettling and a masterpiece but the effects, impressive though they may be, strain credulity. I don't for a second believe that's what an actual demonic possession looks like. The effects in The Conjuring are far more subtle and because of that I find it far more effective. Look, I have never ever entertained the notion that demonic possession was something I should be worried about. After The Conjuring I'll confess I thought to myself "Maybe? Maybe there's something to it after all." And that weirds me out.
The more believable something is to me, the more frightening it becomes. Subtle, almost plausible effects will always scare me more than the over-the-top stuff. This movie is loaded with subtle scares and a quiet sense of menace. Sometimes I'll watch a movie like The Haunting or The Innocents and I'll get wrapped up in the gothic romanticism and find myself wishing I could have some sort of supernatural encounter. The Conjuring does not make me feel that way. It is nothing that I'd want to experience in real life. And that, combined with the understated effects approach, is precisely what makes it so effective. And so great. It helps that the acting is superlative and the characters are people I really cared about. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are terrific as the beleaguered Perrons. I felt for them and their daughters. I was scared for them. I wanted them to be alright. Patrick Wilson is compelling as Ed Warren. I was really fascinated by his practical, no-nonsense approach to paranormal investigation. And the always amazing Vera Farmiga is completely awesome as Lorraine Warren. She radiates empathy and compassion and strength. She's just wonderful.
The Warrens are much-maligned given their association with Amityville, a case that many people are quick to dismiss as a hoax, but I don't think you have to believe the Warrens were legitimate paranormal experts to enjoy and appreciate The Conjuring. Just enjoy the movie in its own right and appreciate it for what it is: one of the most well-crafted and frightening tales to grace the silver screen in ages.