The summer months usually hold no rewards for avid horror fans and gore hounds. If a horror film is released in July, it usually means the studio has laid a kiss of death on a bad, bad picture which won’t make weight to compete with the autumnal fright flick juggernauts later in the year. See last year’s offering, The Possession (2012), for proof. This seasonal horror anemia is what makes The Conjuring so surprising, for it is a damn good horror film with very little to complain about.
The events of the film center around two families. The first is the Perron family, a clan led by parents Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor), who move to an old country home with their many daughters. A series of disturbing paranormal events forces them to call upon Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, a team of married paranormal investigators who enlist the extramarital help of a cop and a college kid for the case. What follows is a tensely atmospheric ride through the Perron’s demonically haunted house.
The keyword here is “tensely,” as tension is the driving force and mechanism behind The Conjuring, with each scare following a meteoric rise in emotion and anxiety. The technique is very effective, and an obvious throwback to the atmospherics and ambiance of horror’s golden age in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The framework of the film’s unease begins with the uncanny portrayal of a period of adjustment when a family moves into a new home, and gracefully transitions this innocuous unfamiliarity into absolute terror.
Without giving away too much, I will say that an engaged viewer can find many intentional connections to The Amityville Horror (1977). However, I found some blatant references to the criminally underrated horror classic Burnt Offerings (1976) as well. Director James Wan is a director on top of and deeply entrenched in his craft, and his art department is on the same level. The farmhouse in The Conjuring, like the houses from Amityville and Burnt Offerings, has an unmistakably evil vibe as the camera wanders its halls and rooms, revealing more to the viewer than it does to the characters and leaving us biting our nails during the family’s frequent games of “Hide and Clap.” One particularly terrifying scene will have me checking the tops of armoires for years, just as Psycho made me check behind the shower curtain.
The Conjuring, however, is not without fault. For a film rich with solid writing and heady symbolism, I was disappointed to find that director James Wan still felt the need to force in his two most overused symbols: creepy dolls and spirals. The aforementioned items add negligible drama or meaning to the story, and have started to seem like James Wan’s rubber stamp. The religious overtones in the film, although not totally ham fisted and arguably necessary for a demonic horror film, end up seeming silly. I couldn’t help but chuckle when the Warren’s imply that the entire ordeal could have been avoided had the Perron’s simply chosen to baptize their daughters and attend a few Sunday mass services. I find it hard to believe that the twisted demon in the film could have been deterred by a few bedtime Hail Marys. The power of Christ does not compel me, even when I suspend my disbelief.
Have you ever had a big gulp of water after running around on a hot day, and it tastes so good that it feels unreal? The Conjuring is like that glass of water, in that it benefits from being a beacon of darkness in a summer full of light fare at the movies. Horror fans should flock to the theater for The Conjuring, for they are unlikely to be this satisfied until the leaves start falling and the fake blood starts flowing this fall.