Thursday, July 25, 2013
Thursday Review: The Conjuring (2013)
No really, it’s okay - I was planning on never sleeping again anyway…
There’s nothing I love more than seeing a filmmaker truly grow. With the first Saw, James Wan didn’t show a whole heck of a lot of promise: the premise was great, but it was saddled by some really amateurish work and it’s overall impact was lessened by the shaky, quickly-cut set pieces. Dead Silence was also something of a misfire, although the fact that it was the complete opposite of his previous film at least showed that there was more to Wan than readily apparent. With Insidious, Wan truly came into his own - it didn’t reinvent the wheel, and the ending left more than a little to be desired, but it was a solid haunted house movie, and one that was genuinely creepy. Now with his sixth film, Wan has arrived - fully achieving the greatness hinted at in previous efforts; making The Conjuring one of the most terrifying horror films made in recent memory.
Based on a case handled by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring tells the tale of the Perron family, who after moving into their new house in Harrisville, Rhode Island, immediately begin experiencing things that can’t be readily explained - the mother Carolyn begins receiving strange bruises, and the smallest of their girls starts talking to an invisible friend. Things escalate as time goes on, and whatever’s plaguing them begins making it’s presence known with more frequency, starting to act out in violent and shocking ways. With no one else to turn to to handle the malevolent entity terrorizing them, the Perrons call on Ed and Lorraine, who quickly deduce that they’re dealing with the spirit of a witch who killed herself and placed a curse on anyone who tried to move in on her land. Everyone who’s lived on the property has been killed in strange ways, and as a result the house is haunted by several spirits, but the angriest and most hateful is the witch, Bathsheba, who’s taken a particular interest in the Perron mother.
The best thing about The Conjuring is how it doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff - the movie opens on Ed and Lorraine investigating another case, the Annabelle doll (which is creepy enough to warrant a whole movie of its own), and then when the film switches gears to the Perron family, the freaky-deaky starts going down almost immediately as the family moves into the house. The film builds from this to a pitch of intensity we sadly don’t see enough of in the endless horror sequels and remakes unleashed upon us year after year. That level of intensity makes all the difference in the world, as otherwise there’s nothing special or groundbreaking about the story itself - The Conjuring works merely by being a good story, well told.
Helping in the telling are the portrayals of both families, the Perrons and the Warrens. It’s very refreshing in how the film deals with the Perrons themselves, especially how the filmmakers’ kept all five of the girl children - they could have easily trimmed that number down, but Wan and his crew chose to stick with the facts, and as a result the family dynamic feels very real; although I certainly couldn’t tell you any of the girls’ names from memory. But any other subplots involving them individually would have just bogged the movie down unnecessarily, and derailed the exquisite pace Wan achieves - that leanness of the story is crucial, and it allows Wan and company to steadily keep ratcheting up the tension. The most important thing the film gets right is presenting the family as likable. So often in this genre, the family dissolves as the film goes on: the husband doesn’t believe the wife or the parents don’t believe the kids and everyone winds up shouting at each other in a tired attempt to build conflict, but none of that happens here, thankfully. The family immediately bands together and grows closer once the terrible things start piling up, and we feel closer to them as a result. The acting from all involved is solid throughout, although special mention should go to Lili Taylor as the mother Carolyn, who brings an awful lot to a character that could have otherwise devolved into cliché.
As important as the Perron family dynamic is, the real backbone of the film is draped around Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren. They play them not as super-powered saviors or devout zealots, but rather as an ordinary couple who just want to help out whoever they can, however they can. The case turns personal for them as well once the spirits of the Perron house begin to target their own child, but still Ed and Lorraine soldier on and see the events through to their conclusion. Wilson makes Ed both strong and vulnerable, while Farmiga exudes warmth and caring as Lorraine - the affection they show each other is wholly believable, and also helps to endear the audience to them almost immediately. Ed is also constantly worried that the cases they work are taking their toll on the clairvoyant Lorraine, who was especially disturbed after a recent demonic possession case, but a scene near the end illustrates the two of them are at their best when they work together.
That scene, where Ed himself is forced to stage an exorcism, is probably the most harrowing depiction of good versus evil on-screen since The Exorcist. I watch a lot of movies, and am usually averse to this stuff by now, but The Conjuring legitimately terrified me. So many horror movies pull their punches at the last minute - jump scares that turn out to be cats, and the like. But The Conjuring delves whole hog into the most frightful depictions, as the witch Bathsheba terrifies the family by pulling the legs of the sleeping girls or hovering over their beds or just jumping down on them from dressers. Wan doesn’t rely on CGI or explicit violence to get his scares (there’s not really any explicit anything, making the R rating the movie received proof-positive of how intense and horrifying The Conjuring actually gets), instead relying on the lighting and his framing of shots to do most of the work. It all comes to a full boil in the exorcism scene, which is not only harrowing, but also kind of touching and cathartic there at the end, as the Warrens try to remind the possessed Carolyn of her happiest memories to rid her of the unwanted spirit.
The Conjuring is a welcome addition to a summer season already overstuffed with mega-budget, special effects-driven nonsense. It doesn’t offer much in the way of originality, but it is certainly the first genuinely scary horror movie that fires on all cylinders to come our way in quite some time.
* Although “Based on a True Story,” it’s very easy to see how the events in real life could have been attributed to domestic abuse and/or severe mental illness (Carolyn receives bruises and explains them away as being haunted, etc.), but that’s all just conjecture. Considering the story relies entirely on first-hand accounts, I suppose we’ll have to take the Perrons and the Warrens at their word.