Say what you will about the Saw films, but the original film was (and still is) one of my favorite horror movies. Why? Director James Wan kept the mood tense and intense, relying on less gore than the sequels that followed. He created a very tight, suspenseful, jaw-torquing film that gets forgotten due to its overly gory successors. Wan returns to that style of filmmaking, eschewing gore for genuine suspense and giving The Conjuring a heavy layer of dread while maintaining a crisp focus on the story and its participants. Loosely based on a true story, The Conjuring takes us into 1971 Rhode Island, where the Perron family has just bought a house from a bank auction, not knowing who owned it originally or what events may have transpired within. And even upon their first night in their new home, terrible things start occurring immediately.
To the film’s credit, Wan makes all characters devoid of idiocy and makes them completely rational, even as they deal with events that are seemingly well beyond their control. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, are this film’s anchors; the story starts and stops with them, as we slowly delve into their lives largely through the eyes of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor). The Perrons have called upon them to find out why their sleep is getting interrupted by all manner of spooky happenings, culminating in a full-on demonic attack involving one of their children.
The Conjuring mixes elements of familiar haunted house films like The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, The Shining, and Poltergeist, all without feeling phony or borrowed. There are moments of pure fright which are excellent payoffs for the tension build-up Wan creates for each situation, whether it’s checking out a boarded-up basement or a character catching slight movement out of the corner of their eye. Wan lets us hang on every creaking door, every banging footstep, every whispering voice, and every bass rumble that alerts us to the presence of the supernatural, letting us stew in each moment before letting us have the scares with both barrels. Make no mistake – this is a highly unsettling movie that’ll have you screaming in fear and hiding your face in anxious anticipation, waiting for the next sound or entity to jump out at you.
This film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America, and I’m wondering exactly why – there’s no excessive blood, gore, or foul language. Earlier this year, the reboot of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead pushed the gore quotient to its peak and maximum, and it was obvious why it was rated R. I enjoyed that film, as it appealed to the gorehound in me; it was a nasty, sickening piece of film that managed to be entertaining as well. The Conjuring is Evil Dead‘s polar opposite; instead of gore by the Dumpsterfuls, we get treated to an extremely well-made suspense film which relies more on atmosphere, sound design, and sheer terror to get its point across. Another thing that separates the former from the latter is its credibility and a huge “lack of dumb” – you know, that thing that makes you shout “Just get out of there already!” or “Don’t go in there, idiot!” at the screen. Evil Dead was full of this, as it was a part of its charm; The Conjuring avoids any stupidity by being believable and urgent, with no wasted moments or mindless dialogue. Relying on smarts, suspense, and a whole lot of tension, The Conjuring is easily one of the scariest movies I think I’ve ever seen.