Before I say anything else about James Wan’s latest haunted house film, allow me to say this:
The Conjuring is crazy scary.
If just for that reason, The Conjuring has to be considered a success. In this time when the savvy filmgoer has every right to be cynical about ghost films, The Conjuring delivers exactly what it promises. It’s a scary film that takes the time to build up a properly menacing atmosphere and the final hour is one of the most intense that I’ve ever seen.
From the very first scene, I fell in love with The Conjuring. Set in a classroom in 1969, the opening scene features paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) delivering a lecture about a possessed doll named Annabelle. As Ed and Lorraine speak, we see flashbacks to how the doll first came to be possessed and I really do have to say that, with her cracked face and her morbid smile, Annabelle is one of the scariest dolls that I have ever seen. This doll is pure nightmare material but, even more importantly, this short prologue serves to remind us that director James Wan knows how to make predictable material frightening.
As Ed and Lorraine finish their lecture, we are suddenly informed (via a crawling title) that Ed and Lorraine Warren are real paranormal investigators. Ed is the only non-clergy to be certified as an exorcist by the Vatican. We’re told that the movie we are about to see is a true story. Again, this isn’t surprising. (Don’t all ghost stories claim to be based on a true story?) However, it was such a shameless and over-the-top moment that I couldn’t help but love it. Again, it serves as a reminder that James Wan knows how to tell a ghost story and that’s what he proceeds to do for the next two hours.
The Conjuring tells the story of Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livington), and their five daughters. The year is 1971 and Roger and Carolyn have purchased a large but isolated farmhouse in Rhode Island. The house needs a lot of work, Carolyn and Roger are shocked to discover a cellar hidden behind some boards in a closet, and the family dog mysteriously dies the first night after they move in. Their youngest daughter starts talking to an invisible friend while another daughter starts to sleepwalk. Soon, Carolyn is waking up with mysterious bruises on her body. After a mysterious woman attacks their eldest daughter and then mysteriously vanishes, Ed and Lorraine are finally called in to figure out what’s happening in Rhode Island…
Well, we can all guess what’s happening in Rhode Island. To anyone who has seen Insidious, Sinister, or hundreds of other haunted house movies; the plot of The Conjuring will seem very familiar. However, that actually works in the film’s favor. One reason that ghost stories remain so effective is because of their familiarity. When done correctly, films like The Conjuring are scary exactly because we know what’s going to happen. The tension comes from knowing that nothing can stop it from happening.
Much as he did with Insidious, James Wan starts things out slowly. He devotes the first hour of the film to building up tension and atmosphere of palpable unease. The first part of the film demands patience on the part of viewers who have been conditioned by one too many installments of Paranormal Activity.
However, this patience pays off. About an hour into the film, a supporting character wanders around the dark house and hears a ghostly voice whispering, “Look what you made me do…” It was when he spotted a figure standing in the shadows that I realized that, in its deliberate way, the film had totally captured the darkest corners of my imagination. From the minute that shadowy figure appears, The Conjuring becomes one of the most intense horror films that I’ve ever seen.
However, The Conjuring is a lot more than just an effective horror film. Since making a name for himself with the first installment in the tedious Saw franchise, James Wan has grown considerably as a filmmaker. The Conjuring is not Wan’s first horror film but it is the first where you truly care about the characters and their safety.
Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor are convincing and likable and their five daughters are all perfectly cast and believable as sisters. Speaking as the youngest of four sisters, I couldn’t help but both relate to this haunted family and appreciate the fact that the filmmakers made the effort to make them believable as both individuals and as family. Much of the beginning of the film is devoted to observing the daily rituals of their lives and there were so many authentic moments that it made the fright scenes all the more scary.
Playing the Warrens, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are also well-cast. As fictional versions of real-life paranormal investigators, the characters have the potential to be problematic but Wilson and Farmiga are both so committed to their roles and both have so much chemistry that I found myself not caring that I’m generally skeptical of ghost hunters. On the basis of his work in this film, as well as his work in Insidious, Young Adult, and that episode of Girls where he has sex with Lena Dunham despite the fact that she spent nearly the entire episode wearing the ugliest shorts ever, I think Patrick Wilson has to be one of the most underrated actors working today.
All things considered, it’s not surprising that The Conjuring is an effective horror film. What’s surprising is that James Wan’s latest haunted house film is also one of the best films of the year so far.