The Conjuring

The Conjuring is a film assembled piece by piece, where each piece is a meticulously crafted block of shock.

Not since The Exorcist (1973) has a horror film been this effective. If you could bottle an atmosphere of dread, suspense and terror, and sell it to the whole world, the label on that bottle would read The Conjuring. Director James Wan has done just that. That being said, when it comes to the horror genre, Hollywood has been peddling various versions of this bottle for decades. Typically, Hollywood horror films have always had precious little to offer other than survival horror that relies on excessive bloodletting, and this – demonic possession or human casualties caught up in the eternal war between Heaven and Hell.

Starting with Saw and then Insidious, Wan is not new to horror movies. But while he was merely flexing his muscles with those films, The Conjuring is a film assembled piece by piece, where each piece is a meticulously crafted block of shock. Using an old school template of retro scare tactics, Wan ups the ante (and the hairs on your neck) by narrating what is supposed to be a true story, which until now, was hushed by skeptics. Set in 1971 Rhode Island, the epilogue introduces us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), real life demonologists who lecture university students when they are not investigating paranormal behavior. They even have a large room full of relics from their ghost-busting escapades to the effect that Ed feels it’s best to keep evil locked up collectively, than let loose individually. It is at one of these lectures when they meet Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), new owners of an old farmhouse. Within hours of moving into their dream home, the Perrons and their five daughters experience increasing malevolence that leads them to seek out the Warrens. Despite being regarded as experts in their field, nothing can prepare the Warrens for what happens next.

Based on multiple interviews with the real Lorraine Warren, sibling screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes’ story is straight forward and well-paced, while also allowing viewers to breathe thanks to some will timed wit. I wouldn’t call this humor, rather perfectly timed breaks that prepare you for the next fright scene. And while most of the cast are well suited for the story, Taylor stands out in illustrating the Warren’s three-step theory on demonic possession – Infestation, Oppression and Possession. Personally, I was expecting all the action to come from Wilson and Farmiga, and even as they deliver, Taylor’s Lili becomes the central character in a manner that justifies why this story had to be told.

Owing to a setup that is not the most original, The Conjuring does have its flaws and horror fans will run through the clichés with repetition and familiarity; a big house that a realtor will give away for a steal; kids talking to people no one can see; banging doors and frosty whispers; it’s all there and it’s safe to say that Wan has borrowed some of the best moments from classic horror films and thrown it all into a huge cauldron. But it works. Using lingering moments of deliberate silence and scaring you with things you don’t actually see, Wan’s slow build up is an unending reign of terror even when you know what to expect. And if some of the early scares seem cheap, this is only a warning for viewers to brace themselves for the heart-stoppers saved for later. These moments are cranked up with menacing background music and a nerve racking sound design engineered to raise those goose bumps.

As modern horror movies go, it takes a lot to scare people who have seen everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to the recent remake of The Evil Dead. It also goes without saying that expectations are now inversely proportional to a rising level of skepticism. Even so, that is no excuse to underestimate this film. There is a reason why The Conjuring has an R rating (Restricted Viewing – Children under 17 require parent or adult guardian) although there is no sexual content or profanity, with little blood and violence. Besides being labeled as a true story, Wan’s narration, build-up and the overall atmosphere generated can get under your skin. Quite literally, this film can take you to hell and back. Just ensure it’s not a one way trip!

Rating: ★★★★☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.