With a nod to (the original) The Haunting and The Innocents, James Wan’s The Conjuring is a good old-fashioned haunted house scare show that understands one thing very clearly: less is more. The less ghost/demon stuff we see, the more our mind fills in the blanks. The film has less work to do when it allows us to spook ourselves; not seeing some CGI monster (Mama, take note) for the duration of this film makes it that much scarier.
There’s one other thing director Wan (along with writers Chad and Corey Hayes) really gets: keep building that tension, and never let the audience breathe a sigh of relief by giving them an explanation – in all of these movies, it’s the fear of the unknown that really gets to us (no movie mastered this more than Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock).
Here’s the scene: a character hears a strange noise in a darkened room. He goes to investigate, the camera carefully following his movements as he peers into boxes, around corners. Tension mounts, it becomes unbearable. Then – BOO! A sudden crash on the soundtrack. It was… the cat. Or the monster, which has killed our character. In either case, that tension the film had been building has been relieved. Cut to the next scene and start from scratch.
But what if the man searches and finds… nothing? Strange phenomena, a search for answers and… no reasonable explanation? It’s infinitely creepier (and more realistic) than the previous example, but also maddening: the lack of answers would drive most viewers nuts, as Weir’s film has done for decades.
That’s what makes The Conjuring so smart. There is, of course, an overall story that features some kind of explanation: who is haunting the house, what happened there, what our characters have to do to conquer the ordeal. I’m not so interested in this stuff, but OK, it makes the film more palatable to larger audiences.
But those individual spook scenes! Tension builds, and builds, and builds…without any sign of relief. There’s ghostly business, characters searching dark corridors, finding no explanations for what’s going on – or encountering more paranormal activity, similarly unexplained. While each individual scene might lack the expected BOO! payoff, the intensity of the film as a whole builds to near-unbearable levels.
Those characters are played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, as Roger and Carolyn Perron, parents of five girls who move into an isolated Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971. The family begins experiencing supernatural occurrences as soon as they move in: clocks stop in the middle of the night, loud noises in the dark, the family pet is killed, and the youngest daughter makes an invisible friend, who she can see in the reflection of an old music box she finds by the lake.
Why not just move? We always ask that question. Roger and Carolyn sunk all their money into the house, and cannot imagine someone taking in a family of seven. When things get even more serious, they’re told that moving will not solve things by the pair of famed paranormal investigators they call in for advice: Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, excellent here as usual).
This is not the most imaginative setup, you may be thinking, and you’re right: we’ve seen this kind of thing hundreds of times before, dating back to legitimate classics like The Haunting, up through The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist; now, one of these seem to pop up every few months, rarely stretching the formula (see: Mama, Sinister, The Possession, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and the Paranormal Activity films, among others).
But The Conjuring is just about perfect. There’s an approach to the supernatural here that elevates this above and beyond just about any other film in the genre; the paranormal is real, but not clearly understood or defined – there are no rules, and the unexplained remains eerily unexplained. It’s this ambiguity that makes the film really scary. One negative: the wrapped-up ending, though the ultimate finale is appropriately creepy.
The Warrens, you may or may not recall, were real-life husband-and-wife paranormal investigators whose most famous cases inspired The Amityville Horror, and the Demon Murder Trial, in which a defendant attempted to plead Not Guilty by Reason of Demonic Possession. The Conjuring is based on one of their lesson-known cases.
Don’t let that forgettable title turn you off: following in the footsteps of Insidious (director Wan’s previous film) and Sinister, this is one of the scariest horror films in years.