Fear is a funny thing. When it’s coursing through your veins, the sudden creak of an open door becomes your worst nightmare. You tell yourself it’s nothing. It’s just the wind. But you can’t know for sure. So you go towards it, hoping to prove you were right all along. And slowly, you venture into the unknown, unaware that there are forces at work beyond your control. The Conjuring is one of the rare horror films that actually understands fear and the things we do because of it. So while you may be screaming inside your head, “Don’t do it! The witch is there! She wants you to go into the cellar!” you have to remember that these characters don’t want to believe it as much as they know it might be true. Before we see something, it’s still an unknown. Whether something is truly there all depends on you seeing it for yourself. Unfortunately, the Perron family are never let off the hook. Not only do they experience the horror, they also endure the psychological trauma that follows. “Hey, do you wanna play?” a voice asks, lurking in the dark. Carolyn Perron reaches for a match, desperately trying to prove that nothing’s there. A small fire burns away the shadows. All seems well. Then, a pair of clapping hands comes forth to engulf her in darkness. Fear is such a cruel thing.
Let us take a moment to applaud a horror film that stands proud as a summer movie. (On second thought, don’t clap. Don’t ever clap when I’m around.) In a season filled with comic book superheroes, overblown sequels, and effects-driven extravaganzas, The Conjuring is a welcome contrast to summer’s usual slate of movies. It’s a small-scale family drama with supernatural elements and a wonderful 70’s vibe. This film couldn’t be any further from a typical summer action epic. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less entertaining. You’ll be surprised at what director James Wan has crafted here. This is a horror film that retreats to an old school technique: the slow build-up of tension. Rather than overwhelming viewers with scare after scare, Wan chooses to hold back and let the characters and the story evoke a sense of impending dread. So once these malevolent forces come into play, all we can do is hold onto our seats and shield ourselves from the face of true terror.
The trailers have been selling this film as the most disturbing case file from the Warrens, and I’m happy to say that this is the most startling horror film I’ve seen in years. Again, James Wan achieves this terrifying vision by an unusual stylistic restraint that’s no longer embraced by modern horror directors. Whereas others settle for fast cuts and cheap scares, Wan favors the absolute stillness of a prolonged scene. You can almost feel the temperature rising even when nothing seems to happen. But Wan is not one to deceive, and he carefully times all the big scares with enough impact to make your heart race. Occasionally, he lets us in on these scares – the first of which happens during a harmless game of hide-and-seek between Carolyn and her daughter (a precursor to the aforementioned clapping). In the scene, we see how helpless Carolyn is as she wanders around the house in a blindfold. She then stumbles into a room where a mysterious pair of hands emerge from the closet, clapping aloud to draw her in further. Smiling, Carolyn goes toward it, thinking she’s found her daughter at last. Who knew hide-and-seek could be so blood-curling?
The Conjuring establishes a grim atmosphere very early on, all due in large part to cinematographer John R. Leonetti. He’s worked with director James Wan for five films now and together they have found their artistic stride. Mindful of the setting, they operate in a visual language reminiscent of 70’s horror films. Slow zooms, clever panning, followed by a series of extended takes, Wan and Leonetti use the camera to not only capture the horror, but also participate in it. And while Wan and his crew provide ample set up to the scares, it’s the actors who truly sell them. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren. As a pair, they bring to life the loving relationship that defines their willingness to help others. And, to prevent the film from becoming too serious, Wilson and Farmiga provide just enough comedic touches and comforting gestures to give the film its humanity. In essence, the film never tries to exploit the experiences of the Perron family, rather it humanizes them through their interaction with the Warrens. Coming together, they remind us of what is at stake: their children. The dialogue between Lorraine and Carolyn in particular represents the film at its most tender. In one such moment, they profess the affection they feel for their own children and the lengths they would go to keep them safe. So as malevolent as these supernatural forces may be, the film makes it very clear that nothing can break the bond between a mother and her child – a literal saving grace that paves the way for an emotionally satisfying climax.
Director James Wan has fashioned a modern horror classic. He does so not by overloading us with vengeful spirits, creepy dolls, or decomposing witches. These are just tools, and they can be annoying when they’re overused. Wan understands this and withholds these creepy devices to make room for character, which serves the film in the long run. We spend enough time with the Warrens and the Perrons that we come to care for them. And once things go bump in the night, we don’t just fear for them. We fear alongside them. Yes, it’s one thing to merely see people go through the horror. But when we’re emotionally attached to them, it becomes even more personal, and thus, all the more terrifying. You don’t need my recommendation to see this film. All I can say is that I found myself screaming like a little girl, and I loved every minute of it. Don’t see this movie alone.