The Conjuring (2013)
(15) Running time: 112 minutes
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish
James Wan’s The Conjuring caused a bit of a stir amongst the horror community earlier this year. Intended as a PG-13 horror movie, the film was slapped with a R-rating by the MPAA in the US: with no bad language, no sex and barely any violence, the film was given the adults only rating for simply being “too scary”. Horror fans, already excited at the prospect of a new haunted house chiller from Wan, began a frenzy of speculation at just how scary The Conjuring could be. Then came confirmation of the films strengths after its world premiere at the L.A Film Festival in June. Critics were calling it Wan’s best film to date, the scariest film since The Exorcist and better than The Amityville Horror (also based on a case file by The Warrens). The film has been in US cinemas for a few weeks now, and people are continuing to call it one of the year’s best horrors, and now it has finally made its way to the UK for us to make our own minds up. So, is The Conjuring really that scary?
The simple answer is yes, yes it is. The Conjuring, in my personal opinion, is without doubt the scariest horror film I have seen in years, maybe even decades. However, if you are going into this film expecting the brilliant but almost cartoon-like horror of Insidious, then think again. The Conjuring plays it deadly serious, and is a much more grounded and realistic affair (it is based on actual events after all), and if you need comparisons to give you an idea of what you will be dealing with, then films like The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, The Others and The Entity immediately spring to mind. This film is a slow burner, heavy on character and story development, and the scares are expertly timed by Wan, and gradually increase in intensity as the film moves forward (as you would expect). Make no mistake though, this is not for the faint hearted, and Wan conjures (sorry) up an atmosphere of intensity and dread not seen in cinemas for a long time, and delivers spooks and scares like no other film in recent memory. There are a few reminders of the great Insidious (the cat-like screaming sound effects, teasing camera movements, pausing on darkness, sudden bursts of noise), but The Conjuring is an altogether different beast, best suited to the more patient and, dare I say it, mature horror fan?
The film is based on the real life experiences of Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both excellent), a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who dealt with hundreds of hauntings, possessions and supernatural goings on in the US over a number of decades. Still alive today, Lorraine Warren was actually present during filming, and she has confirmed that what we see in this film actually happened. The Warrens investigated the Amityville Horror hauntings too, yet the case Wan has chosen to make into a film was not made public until quite recently, and the Warrens have said that the haunting of The Perron country house was the most violent, and malevolent haunting they had ever experienced. Some of the daughters of The Perron family were also present at a press conference for The Conjuring, and congratulated Wan for finally telling their story “as it happened”. While with most horror films you are told to keep telling yourself “it’s only a movie, only a movie…”, such safety measures cannot be utilized here. Watching Wan’s masterpiece play out on screen, the idea that this DID actually happen makes the entire experience ten times more frightening.
The Perron’s have just bought a new family home in the country, and on the very first night things begin to go wrong. The family dog will not enter the house, Carolyn (Lili Taylor) gets bruised, Cindy’s (Foy) sleepwalking worsens, door creak, banging is heard on the walls, photos are knocked off the walls, and something keeps grabbing Christine’s (Joey King) leg. Wan expertly puts the viewer on edge with a frantic camera that acts as a sort of bystander to the events. Quick editing and a frantic chase to film each character or event as it happens, Wan’s terrific use of camera magic brilliantly gets you on edge before you even realise, and when a scare comes, Wan has already got you. He also plays on clichés, and delivers new and inventive ways with tried and tested formulas: checking under the bed has NEVER been so unnerving, here people actually TURN ON the lights when searching in the dark (which actually makes things even scarier), and staring at darkness behind a bedroom door is guaranteed to send shivers down your back (I actually jittered like an idiot!). Wan knows horror, and he knows when to change things up to keep things fresh, and his design makes things very unpredictable. His use of sound effects are terrific: the music is horrific, the enhanced sounds of a noose will have you hiding behind your box of popcorn (if indeed you haven’t spilt it all already!) and a simple clap-hands game becomes one of the scariest games ever committed to film.
Then there’s the cast: Taylor and Livingston play their parts as the parents of the Perron family incredibly well, and deliver believable characters whom are genuinely scared to death. The young female cast playing their daughters also deliver inch perfect performances, and help raise this film from genre great to authentic classic. However, it is Wilson and Farmiga who steel this as The Warrens: delivering real and sympathetic roles, both actors do an amazing job bringing these characters to life. Farmiga as the tortured clairvoyant who see’s evil things is truly amazing, and when she gets scared, boy do you suddenly feel unsafe. A nerve shattering flashback to an event she won’t talk about is almost unwatchable, and has left her scarred for life. Wilson is the strong, supportive husband, and the dedication the pair have to each other is emotionally powerful throughout the film, delivering a strong humane story amongst the horrors. Ed will do anything to keep his wife safe, but also feels a sense of duty to save people troubled by ghosts, and come the ending, you have to wonder if in fact the Warrens ever felt like they could go through something like this ever again, let alone survive it.
Now, there is very little to complain about here, but a side story involving a creepy doll does seem a bit far-fetched among the realistic approach. However, the doll, called Annabelle, is used for a number of increasingly frightening scenes and will create nightmares without even doing anything. Then there is the ending which, in all fairness, is absolutely terrifying and is guaranteed to put your nerves through a grinder. Scream as much as you want, but Wan will continue to deliver shock moment after shock moment during the frantic finale, but after such a grounded build up, it does feel slightly out of place. I would imagine the ending has been dramatised somewhat for effect, and such a massive barrage of brilliant scares could only go one way after peaking, and it almost feels like Wan ran out of ideas, or wasn’t sure quite how to wrap things up. Saying that though, it is a superb finish if you let your imagination run wild, and it is impossible to deny that the build up really is among the very best that horror has to offer.
The Conjuring lives up to its reputation and is a solid, incredibly scary horror film. Wan has proved, yet again, that he is a master of directing horror, and it is always welcome to see a director using well worn clichés and offering a challenging new approach. It will be interesting to see if he can match such scares with his upcoming Insidious: Chapter Two, but the sad news is that this is Wan saying farewell to the horror genre (for now) as he heads off to direct Fast & Furious 7. He will be sorely missed in the horror genre, so please come back soon because it is doubtful we are going to see a horror film quite as brilliant, scary and authentic as this in a long long time.