Director James Wan made his mark on the world of horror cinema with his 2004 film Saw, which went on to become one of the biggest horror franchises of all time. Then he scared the hell out of audiences with his 2011 supernatural surprise hit Insidious. With The Conjuring, despite covering very familiar territory, he has delivered an effectively unnerving film experience that solidifies him as one of the best horror filmmakers working today.
Based on the true story surrounding the Perron family, who became the victims of a malicious spirit that inhabited their new home by the lake in the early 70’s. After numerous unexplained occurrences around the house such as clocks turning off, birds flying into the house and killing themselves, pictures falling off the wall and a few encounters with what could only be explained as an apparition of some sort, Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron call in leading paranormal investigators, as well as husband and wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren to help them rid their home of their ghostly infestation.
Once again we find ourselves faced with yet another “Based on a true story” scenario. Studios and filmmakers really like to play up that their film, or the events that it depicts, actually happened, thinking that will garner more interest in their project, which it does, but usually at a cost. While that may have been true a few years ago, that tagline has really outstayed its welcome and instead of just watching a film to enjoy it, you find yourself questioning what happened in real life as opposed to what was fictionalized for the film. In short, it is an unnecessary distraction at best.
The best suggestion anyone can give you before going to see The Conjuring is to just forget all about the marketing blitz that has jammed the idea of this being based on true events down your throat. Whether it is true or not isn’t the point, what is the point is whether or not the film is effective and if it delivers what it promised. Thankfully for us, the film is the real deal and delivers one of the most chilling film experiences of the year regardless of all that true story hoopla.
The set up will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the classic horror frightfest Poltergeist. A family moves into a home they know very little about, they begin experiencing paranormal encounters and soon are faced with the grim reality that they need to do something about their situation before someone is hurt or even killed. They then call in the experts whose job it is to determine the legitimacy of their claim and then take the next step in removing the spirit(s) from the premises.
The difference from that Spielberg produced classic and this film is that we are given the opportunity to know the experts, who in this case are the Warrens. We see the expected torment that the Perron family undergoes, but the more interesting moments in the film come from the Warren’s side of the story, which is inter-cut with the Perron story. The film claims that they are the only investigators of their type to be officially recognized by the Church and we see that they certainly know how to tell the difference between a real haunting and a hoax. They are the original ghost hunters and their story is far more compelling than the cliche haunted family.
Lorraine Warren is a medium, a person able to see things from the other side. Her character isn’t all that different from the spiritual advisor Tangina from Poltergeist, except in this instance we know her as a real person. We have met her family, we know the risks her profession presents to her and her family. Thus when her and her husband finally come to the aid of the Perron family, it isn’t just a kind gesture, they are putting themselves at risk as well. Her husband Ed isn’t given much depth beyond worrying about her safety, but together they make for an interesting duo to go hunting ghosts with.
As for the Perron family themselves, the film does an admirable job of creating this near perfect family unit of a husband, wife and 5 daughters. Their relationships with each other aren’t anything out of the ordinary, there aren’t any manufactured dysfunctional elements introduced, they all love each other and aside from kids being kids, they never feel false, which is hugely important with films of this ilk. Having both the Perron’s and the Warren’s come off as these normal everyday family units helps make the tension that builds up around them that much more effective and terrifying.
Now time for some potentially disappointing news for horror fans out there. Admittedly, there are some seriously tense moments that occur throughout the course of the film, with some truly disturbing imagery and situations, but all of that rarely translates into the film being all that scary. Aside from a couple cheap (but well earned) jump scares, there is very little in The Conjuring that will keep you awake at night. That may sound fantastic to those not looking to go home looking over their shoulders, but for others (such as this reviewer) it is sort of a let down since that is exactly what we go into these types of films looking for.
Haunted house/horror films are almost similar to a rollercoaster ride when it comes to how the scares build up and eventually level out. We can clearly see all the scares that await us ahead on the tracks once we get going, but it is the big unknown, that first ascent to the top where we can’t see what lies ahead that has us cowering in the corner. When we reach the top of that first drop and finally see what we had been imagining the whole time, it is a thrill and a let down at the same time. While there may be some unexpected dips and turns for the rest of the ride, nothing will ever compare to that initial drop. By the time the film ends you will have been entertained but it will hardly be the revelatory experience most are hoping for.
The Conjuring, and nearly all films of this type, suffers from this unfortunate side effect of the genre. The likeness to knowing how the rest of the rollercoaster plays out is that once we know the reasons behind the hauntings, it ceases being terrifying because that unknown factor is gone. The only film in recent memory to sidestep this issue is Wan’s own Insidious, but that is more of the exception than the rule. The film still holds some truly intense moments during its third and final act (which includes a rather brutal exorcism), but nothing it does can compare to the unknown which preceded it.
None of this is to say that the film isn’t worth your time, it’s just not the game changer it was purporting itself to be. Anyone looking to go out and catch it late one night with a group of friends or with a loved one will likely come away from the experience entertained and somewhat disturbed. Comprised of solid actors, a nice creepy atmosphere that pervades the entire film and some noteworthy sequences early on that will have the hair standing up on the back of your neck, this is one scary movie that will conjure up some restless nights in your near future.