Every once in a while, a film comes along that hushes my bitching about mainstream horror. Last year it was the nerve-rattling “Sinister”, an atmospheric supernatural creeper that melded sub-genres to create something undeniably terrifying. It was a masterful exercise in tension, relying on our imaginations to do most of the heavy lifting. If not quite as scary as that film, James Wan’s “The Conjuring”, my pick for best horror film so far this year, is at least similar in style and mood, a haunted house flick with plenty of jolts to punctuate its sustained periods of jittery anticipation. This is the type of film that should be followed by dinner and drinks in a loud, public environment, not a trip directly home. Trust me.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators who would later be the object of ridicule and subsequently made famous for researching the events that spawned “The Amityville Horror.” To put things in perspective, “The Conjuring” claims that it is based on the most horrifying, malevolent case of their collective career. Consider that a warning to squeamish viewers – not because of gore, which is virtually absent from the film – but because there are moments that are so viscerally stirring that you’re likely to be as petrified as the characters are. Anyway, if you’re not frazzled after sitting through the demonic courting process, which is an increasingly unsettling chain of events that Wan (“Saw”, “Insidious”) captures with a mixture of long, tracking shots and exceptionally creepy lighting (set to an intense score by Joseph Bishara), you’re certain to be white-knuckling it through the film’s whopper of a conclusion.
The film, written by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes (“The Reaping”), takes place in 1971 Rhode Island at the residence of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), where they’ve recently moved with their five daughters after purchasing the house at a bank auction. After responding to Carolyn’s concerns about increasingly unusual occurrences in the house, which begin with the typical warning signs (doors opening on their own, clocks stopping at the same time every night, pictures falling off the wall) and lead to far more disturbing incidents, the Warrens (Ed a demonologist and Lorraine a clairvoyant) discover than an evil spirit has latched onto the family and is grooming them for a hostile takeover (infestation and oppression are the two stages prior to a full-on possession, apparently). Of course the Perrons had no knowledge of the horrible things that happened there prior to the purchase, which, as we learn each piece of the puzzle, grows more and more dreadful. But it’s too late – moving won’t help since the demon will just follow them wherever they go, and now the Warrens, with an A/V team and a police officer in tow, must collect enough video evidence to get the Vatican to approve an exorcism (an interesting sidebar).
Wan has refined his style to a clean, tight minimalism, alternating subtle, easily missed visuals with good old-fashioned, in-your-face scares. Reminiscent, of course, of “The Amityville Horror” and at least in one instance “The Exorcist”, this film doesn’t take shortcuts, giving each scene maximum breathing room as the situation escalates and intensifies. I’d be willing to bet that, upon a second viewing, I’d find the anticipation to be the key element of the film – some very patient camera work makes you want to crawl out of your skin. While some folks might be put off by the film’s relatively slow burn, I felt it was an effective suspense-building mechanism, much like in 2011‘s “The Innkeepers”. And the acting is superb, notably Joey King as Christine Perron, who demonstrates an overwhelming, teary eyed fear in a nail-biter of a scene (I’ll just say that she believes someone is behind her bedroom door – it’s tough to keep your eyes open during this one).
Truly scary horror movies are few and far between these days. “The Conjuring” is one such film, and has moments so creepy that it might make you dread doing everyday tasks around the house.