The Conjuring — check it out if you dare

By on July 27, 2013

Question: What do you get when you cross a virtual mélange of horror classics like “The Haunting,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist”? Answer: The aptly-titled “The Conjuring,” which, if nothing, plays like a sort of greatest hits of horror that includes haunted house movies/ghost stories, possession flicks, evil witch tales and even tosses in a creepy ventriloquist-type dummy for good measure, because why not shoot the works?

mark'smoviesThe newest horror flick from “Saw” writer/director James Wan, this film marks the auteur’s latest attempt to transition from gore-fests like that series to much more subtle terrors like the superb “Insidious,” which will get a sequel later this year, making Wan the hardest-working director in horror-dom. Even more retro than “Insidious,” thanks in no small part to that early 70s setting, “The Conjuring” is a good old-fashioned ghost story that relies much more on atmosphere and a near-overwhelming sense of dread to craft its tale than the violent approach that marked Wan’s earlier efforts. It’s a welcome development, to be sure.

Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on a steady diet of slasher flicks and gore-a-paloozas like “Hellraiser,” “Evil Dead” and “The Re-Animator” and there’s absolutely something to be said about that approach, especially if it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek. And certainly, at the time the new wave of gore-fests came out like the aforementioned “Saw” and similar offerings from the likes of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, the horror genre needed a shot in the arm of films that were actually unrelenting and cringe-worthy.

That said, when I think about my all-time favorites within the much-maligned genre, it’s actually stuff like the films I mentioned in the first paragraph, along with more subtle and effective horrors such as the original “Halloween,” “The Shining” and so forth. In short, films that earned their thrills the old-fashioned way, by building suspense subtly and gradually, and without going too over-the-top with the violence. In other words, what many would call the “Hitchcock” approach, where the horrors are more in the audience’s head than up on the screen.

It’s not an easy thing to pull off these days, when audiences have become more accustomed to the go-for-broke, just-how-disgusting-can we-make-this-thing take on things. However, if the last few years of horror cinema have shown us anything, it’s that sometimes less is better. Witness the runaway success of the gore-free “Paranormal Activity” series, as well as the likes of “Mama,” “Dark Skies” and others in that vein. Say what you will about the varied quality of those films and their ilk, they play like gangbusters at the box office, and despite observations to the contrary about horror being a guy thing, in no small part thanks to a sizeable female audience.

“The Conjuring” is one of the best of this more recent bunch, thanks to the ever-effective “based on a true story” gambit and the aforementioned everything-but-the-kitchen-sink take the film adopts. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the stories behind all those other freaky objects d’haunt the Warrens had in their room from Hell were about as well. I smell a sequel! (I also question the logic of putting all that stuff in one room if that is indeed true, but I digress.)

The movie tells the story of the infamous Warrens, a husband-wife team that victims of potential spooky incidents call in when no one else can get the job done. (They were also the ones brought in to investigate “The Amityville Horror” for real.) More often than not, the incidents in question are easily explained away, but in this case, not so much. The Perrons are a family almost entirely comprised of women, with mama Carolyn (Lili Taylor) often left to watch over her massive brood while trucker hubby Roger (Ron Livingston) is on the road. In no time, after moving into a sprawling farmhouse, the girls are up to their necks in the creepy stuff and it’s no wonder, as a small army of people have died on their land, including a witch that allegedly cursed the property. (Obviously, the family was not informed of this before moving in, but they should have been tipped off that something wasn’t right when they got the property for a super-low price…can’t imagine why!)

Things get progressively worse, and Carolyn brings in the big guns, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren, who are a rare church-ordained demonologist and a clairvoyant, respectively. Practically tackled by ghosts from the get-go, Lorraine insists they help the family, despite a recent, draining possession experience that really took its toll on her. In no time, a team is assembled, equipment is installed, and evidence collected, in hopes of convincing the church to allow an exorcism of the entire property. Unfortunately, these particular ghosts are not content to wait around for the church to give any go-ahead, and things go from bad to worse in no time.

As you might have heard, this leads to one of the more intense final acts of a movie in recent memory, as demons possess, ghosts go wild and kids are constantly put into harm’s way. It’s one thing to have a child or two in peril, but this is the rare film in which the entire family is besieged to such an extent that it even spreads off-property to other locales and the Warrens own home. Oops! Bet that room o’ freaky stuff isn’t looking like such a great idea now!

Wan has really honed his skills here, learning from past mistakes, i.e. that whole ventriloquist dummy thing works way better in small doses (witness- or better yet, don’t- Wan’s own “Dead Silence” for an example of how not to do it). He also keeps things jumping by keeping the viewer guessing just what will happen next and from where and in what way. By the time someone got possessed, I was like, of course that was going to happen with this many spooks on the loose…it was kind of inevitable. Still, points for amping up the scary just when you thought things couldn’t get worse.

Another positive lesson learned: a good horror movie often has a superb cast going for it that elevates the tension even more. This one has a doozy of a cast. Farmiga was born for this sort of thing, Taylor is perfectly cast, and each of the little girls (including the Warrens’ daughter) is absolutely perfect, somehow managing to hone out an identity for themselves within what could have been an overtly-cluttered scenario.

I especially liked the one girl, Cindy (Mackenzie Foy, aka Bella’s ridiculously-monikered baby Renesmee from the last two “Twilight” films) who kept bashing her head into the wardrobe cabinet- no Narnia for you, sweetie! Joey King, who played Christine, is also one to watch, having cropped up in other projects of this ilk, like “The Ghost Whisperer,” “Medium” and “Quarantine.” She might just be the next Chloe Moretz in the making, methinks.

All of these things work in tandem to create one of the more memorable horror films I’ve seen in recent memory, and one made even sweeter by the fact that it positively crushed the competition at the box office, and on a modest budget at that. Horror may not get the respect it deserves, but if they keep making movies of this caliber, maybe one day it will. If you even remotely like the subgenre of ghost stories and possession flicks, you’re gonna want to see this. Hell, even if horror isn’t typically your cup of tea, you might want to check it out, if any of the above description piques your interest. With that level of talent on display, I’m going to have to give it the ever-elusive A+. Check it out, if you dare!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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