Any fan of classic horror films, particularly those of the 70’s and early 80’s, should get a kick out of The Conjuring. Director James Wan (Insidious) and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes understand that a good horror film requires atmosphere and stakes that are often missing from modern gore-fests. Mixing modern tropes like handheld cameras with classics like creepy children, this is one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in theatres in a long time.
Allegedly based on a case of real-world paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the film concerns the ghostly experiences of the Perron family when they move into an old farmhouse. Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) need more space for their five daughters, and the house seems perfect until the sun goes down. The clocks all stop at 3:07 every morning, Carolyn awakes daily with mysterious bruises, and daughters April and Christine encounter people in the house that the rest of the family can’t see. As the activity becomes more violent, Carolyn reaches out to the Warrens, who slowly realize that the spirits terrorizing this family are stronger – and more malevolent – than they could have imagined.
The film gives the Warrens a young daughter too, along with anxieties about spending too little time with her and fears that their lifestyle could endanger her. The hokiest scenes in the film aren’t cheesy ghosts, but slow-motion flashbacks of the Perron family to establish how much they mean to Carolyn. These scenes are necessary, however, as motherhood becomes a strong motif in the film. Without spoiling too much, Ed Warren has to overcome some self-imposed obstacles, but this film is ultimately about the strength of mothers. Horror has a long history of graphically torturing women, and women are the primary target for the demonic wrath here, but they also hold the strongest power against evil.
The bond between mother and child provides the stakes for the film; we want the good guys to win because we see what they have to lose. When you care about the characters, even a bit, it’s easier to be scared for their well-being. The creators also up the ante using a veritable grab-bag of scare tactics; startle scares, slow-builds, eerie sounds, creepy make up, and sparingly used gore all contribute to a degree of unpredictability, since you’re never certain what they’ll use next. Wan often frames characters to one side of the screen in medium shots, during which I searched desperately for movement in the background, and the lack of non-diegetic soundtrack for much of the first half of the film had me straining my ears listening for spooky sounds. These tried-and-true methods create dread anticipation that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The retro aesthetic reaches as far as the opening credits, and much of this film could have been released in the 70’s, when it takes place. Some aspects are distinctly modern though, such as the soundtrack, some of the CG effects, and brief uses of a home-video camera. The creators pay homage to a long line of haunted house movies, picking through them for some of their most effective scare strategies. If you’re looking for a horror movie like none you’ve seen before, this probably isn’t for you, but if you want a film that will scare you, look no further.
The Conjuring is very spooky and I’d give it a solid 8/10.