In the first scene of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Dan Aykroyd playfully asks, “Do you want to see something… really scary?” This is my question for viewers regarding The Conjuring, James Wan’s new horror film. By October, it will likely be declared a new genre classic and could even become the most financially successful horror film of the year. Its biggest selling point, hands down, is that it’s as scary as you’ve heard.
In the 1970’s, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married pair of demonologists (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga), are investigating their current case, involving a doll that seems to be alive. Meanwhile, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their four daughters have moved into an old house in Rhode Island that they immediately discover to be haunted. The Perrons beg the Warrens for their help, as the spirits overtaking their home lash out in cruel, violent ways. Even creepier, one of the ghosts enjoys playing the same “Hide and Clap” game as the Perron girls. All of this, we’re told, is based on a true story.
The old fashioned opening credits, in which the title seems to swallow up the screen, and acrobatic camera moves declare Wan’s confidence and bravado as a filmmaker. He knows he’s made a whopper of a fright fest and clearly enjoys frying your every last nerve. Wan is responsible for the over-praised Saw, the little seen, classically scary Dead Silence and Insidious, still his scariest, most enjoyable haunted house movie.
You get the impression that he must spend hours thinking of the best ways to scare his audience, taking notes on the most effective ways to jury rig a door to squeak open by itself. Most of his films, including his latest, go light on the blood and gore but are heavy with moments that will make you scream out loud.
I liked that there’s a good explanation provided why the Perron family doesn’t just leave their home after all the nightly disturbances. Another great touch is how the family dog knows immediately that something’s wrong. On the other hand, everyone splits up during the over-produced finale, a big no-no in horror movies.
Those who cried foul and accused Insidious of borrowing too many plot points from Poltergeist will have a field day with this one. The Conjuring owes a lot to The Amityville Horror as well as The Haunting, The Exorcist, The Innocents, Child’s Play, Drag Me To Hell and others. The characters are well played but lack sharper definition. This is especially disappointing of the Warrens, who intriguingly declare themselves believers and servants of God. Not enough is made of this, though Fermiga and Wilson are solid in the roles. It should be noted that Taylor starred in the woeful 1999 remake of The Haunting but is far better here.
What exactly is the point of this movie? Poltergeist offered the solid moral of not building homes over sacred, historically rich land. Here, the lesson seems to be the far less sophisticated warning: Parents, Please Don’t Kill Your Kids.
While it effectively scared the dickens out of me, I didn’t find it any fun, as the story puts such an emphasis on children being murdered. Kids in peril is nothing new to movies like this but many horror films, like The Sixth Sense or The Shining, take a Brothers Grimm approach, making the child a worthy opponent of the evil forces.
Lesser entries, like this one, depict terrified children being harmed in ways that feel exploitative. The real lesson of The Conjuring is Seriously Parents, Don’t Even Think of Taking Your Kids to See This.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Score)