Mark Reviews Movies

The Conjuring


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Wan

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton

MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of disturbing violence and terror)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 7/19/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 18, 2013

The Conjuring pays lip service to the idea that demonic possession isn't real, but that's not where the film's true beliefs lie. One of the spiritual investigators in the film says that actual demonic occurrences are rare and that there's "almost always a rational explanation" for the things that people might believe are evil spirits at work in the world (There's even a scene in which he explains to a couple how the sound of old wooden boards creaking in the attic echo through the pipes, making it sound like there's something growling all around them). If that's the case, why does he have an entire room in his house full of items that he's convinced are tools of demons—convinced enough, in fact, to have a priest come by on a regular basis and bless the room and its contents?

One must shed skepticism for The Conjuring to work. The film, like its assortment of characters, does genuinely believe—and wholeheartedly so—in demons, possession, and a battle between good and evil where evil gets all the fun toys and abilities.

That unquestioning belief makes it a lot easier to simply see the film for what it really is: a hodgepodge of horror clichés presented with a real fear of the unknown made tangible, assembled with a feeling of increasing danger, and crafted with far more skill than the material requires. Here's a horror film that knows and implements the most basic rules of the genre: Don't give away the game too early, build up the tension, and, once all the pieces are in place, let loose and the insanity commence.

The story is based on "the true story" of the most baffling case ever encountered by Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), a pair of demonic investigators (based on real-life people) whose presence fills up lecture halls with people eager to hear their stories when they're not busy making house calls. He's the only lay demonologist recognized by the Vatican; she's one of the most accomplished clairvoyants in the world (It sounds like the premise of a sitcom). They're married and have a daughter.

This is only partially their story, though. It opens with a prologue that doesn't have anything, really, to do with the central story, although it quickly establishes director James Wan's control of atmosphere and his willingness to draw out the suspense of a scenario, even when cheap scares are just a jump cut away. The sequence involves the Warrens hearing the story of an incredibly disturbing doll that won't leave a group of roommates alone.

It's a tease but an effective one (The doll makes a few appearances later, most notably as a reason for the couple to abandon their current project to protect their homestead).  Immediately after, the film shifts focus to the Perron family in 1971. Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor), along with more daughters than is necessary to keep track of, have moved to a house in the middle of nowhere in Rhode Island.

It's old and rundown. The doors and floors creak, and the entrance to the cellar is boarded up in the front closet. Down there are cobwebs and an assortment of things, like a worn piano that resounds in a tinny bass. A strange smell like rotting meat fills up an area of the house and disappears as suddenly as it appeared. There's a tall tree in the back yard, and one of the daughters has discovered a music box with a spinning mirror. She later gains an imaginary friend whom she says one can see if they look into the mirror of the music box when the music stops playing.

All of these and many more little details come to light in the first act, and while we can sometimes see where they will ultimately lead, it's impossible to fully comprehend how each and every part of this house and its crazy history (The story about the witch who started it all is particularly macabre) will come into play by and during the climax. What's vital to the final act's success is how Wan takes advantage of common fears (e.g., the dark, hearing noises from some unknown source, something under the bed, a body part spasmodically moving as if it's being pulled by something, not being able to see something that someone else is convinced he/she can, etc.) as a way to ease us into the later material.

There's an innocent game of hide-and-seek that accomplishes a really chilling moment involving disembodied hands that shouldn't be where they are, and Carolyn's trip into the cellar has a genuinely frightening payoff by Wan simply using misdirection. It builds and builds—with the camera moving in a self-conscious way that really heightens the state of confusion and unease, especially in a moment that takes the upside-down viewpoint of one of the daughters looking under the bed—but, wisely, never reaches a crescendo until later (Joseph Bishara's score, on the other hand, is always at that level).

We know that eventually we will see some kind of demonic presence, but Wan and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes hold off on the reveal until it's absolutely necessary for the plot to move forward (and show only just enough for it to be scary). At this point, the Warrens, who spend a lot of their time in the movie either lecturing or talking cryptically about the past, return to the story in an official capacity. They and a couple of assistants set up various cameras rigged with devices so that they will take pictures whenever there's a sudden temperature drop. Other apparitions begin to reveal themselves to the living inhabits of the house, and they're an unsettling bunch.

With The Conjuring, Wan (whose previous efforts at horror have been hampered by cheap theatrics and/or unintentional humor) and the Hayeses have broken the core elements of the haunted house movie and reassembled them into something that feels both familiar and somehow unpredictable. This is an extremely effective, consistently creepy, and occasionally unnerving experience.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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