Objectively speaking, The Conjuring is a really scary movie. I can only conclude this objectively because I do not get scared myself. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I still love horror movies for the creative avenues they can explore and I appreciate the technique of building and releasing tension. The crowd shrieking in panic confirmed it but I could tell on my own it was well done.
Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are paranormal investigators who do a fine job debunking false hauntings, but if you’re a real spirit then you do not want to fuck with the Warrens. The Perron family moves into a new home where scary things start to happen, so Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) seeks out the Warrens for help.
Director James Wan has been expert at adapting to various subgenres of horror, from the visceral style of Saw to the ghost story of Insidious and even the Hammer style of Dead Silence. The Conjuring is his minimalist horror movie, but done in the style of old school shockers. It’s Paranormal Activity with real cameras.
The initial scares that plague the Perrons are subtle appearances in the background, hands clapping in the closet, a child getting pulled slightly off the bed. These are really effective indicators of something out of place, well constructed to build up one scare but play another scare instead. I can’t be scared but I can be surprised, and Wan nails the surprise of a good misdirect.
It turns out these sorts of scares are just as effective when laid out with purposeful camera moves as they are in a single “found footage” perspective. Dammit, we’ve been watching all these low rent movies for nothing! Really, you could do the clothesline gag or the hair pulling as found footage, but it wouldn’t be any more effective or “realistic.” You’d just see less of it from a limited angle. From the narrative film angles, we still get the same wow factor, like we can’t believe the spirits are tactile enough to pull this off, and we see it from every angle.
Wan does establish the geography of the Perron house so that the supernatural tricks are more effective. When you see someone walking in the background, you know exactly why they shouldn’t be there and how did they get there and where are they going? It actually lulls you into a false sense of security when you’re so familiar with the house. You scan the frame preparing yourself for a scare, and the apparition appears where you least expect.
The characters are smart and brave too. Carolyn makes a smart play in the basement scene but the evil spirit one-ups her. The spirit beats the crap out of Lorraine but she keeps coming after the evil. I was going to say Farmiga is a badass in this movie, but then a colleague aptly pointed out that she always is. Wilson makes Ed a compassionate listener and loving husband with the weight of fighting demons on his shoulders. The film establishes the Warrens’ love for each other through the consequences of previous assignments, and brings out the emotions of the Perron family through glimpses of their most loving memories. The Perron children could be developed more and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) could have been given a little more dimension than supportive husband, but supportive he is even at the weirdest things get for Carolyn. Taylor makes some crazy stuff seem pretty real.
There’s a gear aspect to The Conjuring as well. The Warrens have some neat gadgets that they explain as they set up in the Perron house. I do question why they would keep all the scary artifacts from their real exorcisms, especially if they believed the possession was real and they have curious children in the house? Maybe they’re the only ones who can keep them safe, but I’d destroy that evil doll.
The James Wan films I’ve enjoyed the most add an extra level to the genre. Saw of course brought morality and mystery to a serial killer movie. Insidious brought the spiritual and philosophical concept of The Further to a supernatural horror. Death Sentence brought a revenge moral nobody was ready for in an action movie, but it means he will be awesome for Furious 7. The Conjuring doesn’t really have that next level. It’s just a good old-fashioned scare, if you get scared by that sort of thing, which I don’t.