I like scary movies. Of all kinds. But hardly any of these films are actually scary to me. At all. I can recall just a handful of films that I legitimately can say creeped me out to varying degrees such as The Others, Rosemary's Baby and Audition. And, of course, I will never forget the first time I saw The Exorcist as a kid. (I had to turn every light in the house on and left them on all night).
But really, as much as I enjoy the genre, disbelief just can't be suspended for me. Maybe I watch too many. Maybe I'm too busy deconstructing the cinematography and makeup effects. I'm the dude who laughs when everyone else screams and just grins when everyone else has to look away from the screen. I'm a weirdie. But I'm not above admitting the truth. So, with that in mind, I offer the following: The Conjuring is actually scary. And it creeped me out. For real.
Based on the actual case files of famed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, this tells the tale of the Perron family, who moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island unaware that it has a very sinister past, all of which is resulting in very bad things happening every night to whoever happens to be living in it. The Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are called upon to help the poor family, as it seems the grip of the evil spirits has latched itself on. From here, things go terribly, horribly bad.
The Warrens have had case files of theirs adapted to film before. Most famously, The Amityville Horror is taken from one of the cases they investigated. The Conjuring works on a better level subjectively since the Warrens themselves are portrayed as characters in the film.
The performances here are grounded, mature, honest portrayals. That usual "oh come on!" frustrated feeling that pops up when the stupid characters on screen do something they're obviously not supposed to in a horror movie? Virtually non-existent here. Everyone acts and reacts in accordance to the danger in a viable, humanistic fashion. The drama is thick, but never heavy-handed. Everyone turns in fine performances. The child actors really impress here, too. None of the terror reads as fake.
And the 1970s setting works well here. I think that decade is a perfect period for a horror yarn. It's easy to become jaded in the modern world. Oh, bad stuff is happening to you that you don't understand? Google that crap! Man, you need some help? It's cool, you got your cell phone: flashlight + emergency services summoner.
In The Conjuring, however, Ron Livingston plays the father in the Perron family and his job as a trucker takes him across the country, away for weeks at a time. So when the malevolent forces begin wreaking havoc on his wife and five daughters, you'd think it would be easy for them to call him to say he needs to come home. Nope. No cell phones. They don't always know where he'll be or what hotel he'll be staying at. They have to wait for him to call. This seclusion and lack of immediate connection works wonders for the aspects of terror as they unfold.
And speaking of the 70s, this film looks like it was pulled straight out of that decade. And I don't just mean the wardrobe and décor. The color palette and saturation levels, the cinematic compositions -- it all looks like 1970s film (with a modern edge, sure, but overall this thing is vintage). Oftentimes it feels like visual kin to The Amityville Horror or The Exorcist, more so than modern horror outings.
Which all circles me back to the frights. The film mostly forgoes humor in the interest in pursuing pure, unrelenting, visceral terror. Sure, there are moments of comic relief, but they're infrequent and cleverly utilized.
At first it's just things falling off the walls and strange noises in the house every night when the clocks stop at 3:07 a.m. Then it's the daughters sleepwalking and having conversations with people who aren't there. Then it's a music box with a mirror. When it stops playing, you see the reflection of someone who used to live there. Then it's one of the daughters waking up in the middle of the night because something yanked her leg (and the scene that follows is one of the most frightening sequences I've seen in modern horror). Then it's one of the daughters being drug across the room by a violent invisible force by her hair. Then before we know it we're into the dark truth behind the house's past .
This film is an onslaught of intensity. It really never gets bloody or violent. And the language is even kept in check readily. It's rated R simply because it's intensely scary. This thing latches into your nerves and locks its jaw until the credits roll.
All of this works because of director James Wan. I dug what he did with the first Saw, and I enjoyed Dead Silence. I was not a fan of Insidious. At all. But none of that matters because Wan is on another level with The Conjuring. This is some of the most focused, controlled, intelligent, and patient horror filmmaking I've seen since Ti West's The House of the Devil. He's not afraid to let sequences build, sometimes in a slow-burn fashion, until the suspense is so palpable that you can't hardly take it one more second.
And then maybe something horrifying happens. And maybe it doesn't.
Wan understands, to quite an impressive degree, what Hitchcock once said: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." This isn't to say that Wan's film never goes BANG! It does. Often. And when it does, it sincerely resonates. And not just on a jump-out-and-startle-you level. I hate in modern horror how there's so much reliance on quick jump-scares underlined by a loud orchestral hit. Making the audience jump and really scaring them = not even kind of the same thing. Wan gets this. No, rather he pours all the tension into the anticipation of the bang. And when the gun does go off, it's consistently a bullseye.
There's so much about this film that feels iconic. And it's refreshing, as the horror genre can get rather tired in the hands of an inept storyteller. And while things get a bit fantastical at times, it never goes full force into the implausible. For the most part, this feels like this is believable and possible. So while you have to allow for Hollywood inflation, there is still a genuine sense of authenticity here. And it very well might make you question moments alone at night in your own house.
James Wan has crafted a horror film that I have no doubt will go down as an all-time classic, and I have no problem referring to The Conjuring as a modern horror masterpiece. Rife with fierce performances, elegant cinematography and some of the best direction the genre has had in years. As of right now, this one ranks as one of the best of the year on my list. A scary movie that's actually, legitimately scary. Who knew? Very highly recommended. But make sure you watch it correctly: at night, with all the lights out and the sound all the way up. Oh, and I wish you pleasant dreams.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
• Jakob Bilinski is a writer for Going For Gusto. Please help us out by liking the Facebook page at Facebook.com/GoingForGusto.
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