All images come from the film’s official Facebook page, except the main poster.
Offering almost nothing new in terms of tactics, The Conjuring is instead a film that exemplifies the fact that films don’t always have to be doing anything ground-breakingly new in their respective genres – just doing it well.
If you’ve seen any haunted-house movie before, you’ve already seen the tricks this movie uses. Doors slamming, things moving when they shouldn’t, faces appearing where there oughtn’ta been no faces before – they’re all here. As well as creaking floorboards, psychics whose preliminary research is accepted as gospel truth and the age-old “based on true events” component of the film’s marketing.
For the record, the film is most certainly true in that Ed and Lorraine Warren were/are real people and the rest I don’t particularly care about. The movie is damn effective based on what it’s doing, not what may or may not have happened in real life.
The plot is this: the Perron family moves into a stately farmhouse and soon begin experiencing the usual signs of a haunting. Strange noises in the night, bruises appearing on arms with no prior injury, clocks stopping at exactly the same time each night, and tragic events peppered throughout the property’s history.
It gets to a point where the evidence of ghosts running rampant in the house is far more believable than creating a rational explanation, and the Perrons consult Ed and Lorraine warren, demonologists and captors of things that go bump in the night. The Warrens quickly conclude that the house is haunted by a particularly malevolent being and set about busting said ghost.
Now the film offers very little that’s new, but what it does bring to the table is done supremely well.
For starters, the economies of the screenplay are perfect, and I shall list below.
Firstly, all the characters are incredibly likeable. I’ve harped on enough about this before, but having nice characters who aren’t total dicks the entire time instantly puts me on side with them and makes me care. The film has quite a few characters and doesn’t bother trying to develop them too much, so they come fully-formed as decent human beings who you don’t want to see suffer. It makes all the scary that much scarier.
Ed and Lorraine could easily have been incredibly flaky characters but are instead dignified and proactive in the story. This is helped by good performances, but the film treats them without cliché. There is no requisite scene of scepticism from someone who doesn’t believe, there’s no labouring of the fact that people don’t think they’re genuine – the film acknowledges them as the answer to the problem and even gives them some of their own backstory, without distracting from the main piece.
John and Carolyn Perron are also handled well – not treated as simpletons, not questioned about what’s really happening in their house. They’re obviously beleaguered without being tiresome, and they’re clearly a very loving couple that you want to see pull through against the haunting.
Secondly, the movie is almost perfectly constructed.
It follows the reliable three-act-structure and even calls attention to that fact. One of the lectures the Warrens give details the stages of a haunting: 1. Infestation, wherein things go bump in the night; 2. Oppression, wherein things go bump into you, and 3. Possession, wherein you become the thing that’s bumping. And guess how the act structure of the film is divided?
It’s a knowing wink to an audience that’s cottoned on to exactly how the movie is going to play out, but it’s also a completely logical way to set up this story.
By starting the main storyline with the Perron’s moving into their new home, we’re simultaneously introduced to the characters but also the house itself – understanding its layout, its size, and most importantly, it’s dark and shadowy corners. By cutting between the Perrons and the Warrens, the film manages to stay buoyant with story, also introducing elements and plot points along the way that all come into play towards the end of the film. It is clever and sly and eases different points and parts of the story into itself without ever jarring the viewer into saying “where did that come from?”
I like that it’s also willing to side with its characters. Like I mentioned before, there’s no pointlessly arbitrary scepticism, there’s no plot-required stupidity on the part of the characters – Ed asks John why they don’t just move – John rightly points out how much their house is costing them, plus the fact that they’re a family of seven and not just immediately uprootable. And the beats of the story don’t come at the expense of the characters’ integrity.
Also, and this is probably the most important point to make – the movie is scary. It doesn’t rely solely on jump scares (although there’s a-plenty to be jumped at) but instead starts with ominous tension before ratcheting it up into outright horror. This is a film that knows being startled is one thing, but being trapped is a much worse thing – that strange noises in the night are one thing, until you start seeing what’s causing them. I was spooked. I enjoyed it immensely. I wouldn’t have thought a wardrobe could feature so prominently as a scare-tactic, but lo, it does, and it works. I’ve heard some complain that the film “isn’t scary at all” but I’d argue these are the misguided minds who are waiting for things to jump out at them and ignore the masterful work being done building the tension and dread. The soundtrack alone is a testament to the power of a good bass-track.
It’s also a decent (albeit incredibly subtle) homage to the look and feel of the more intelligent horror films of the 70s – no doubt the writers were mainlining The Legend of Hell House and the original Amityville Horror to capture the right mood (the similarities between the stories and alleged true events between the latter and The Conjuring are noticeable and plenty, but never distracting). Even the opening text scrawl and the title card itself hearken back to the days of 70s low-budget horror films that outclass all the measly efforts today.
Performance wise, everyone’s on their a-game. Patrick Wilson is the most interesting he’s been since Hard Candy, and Ron Livingston brings a quiet charm to the set-upon John Perron. It’s nice to see Lili Taylor get a better deal with this haunted house than she did in The Haunting and she conveys the necessary physicality of her role with great conviction.
Once again though, I was completely smitten with Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren – not the strongest character in the movie, but the most interesting. I blame Farmiga’s face – that damned, captivating, interesting face and all she conveys with it. Lorraine would have been the easiest to portray as an outright stereotype, but Farmiga makes her graceful and determined.
Also, for a film full of child performances, they were all pretty decent! None of the characters were needlessly precocious, and none of the actresses performed them that way. You got the sense of family and sisterhood amongst them, even if they suffer from even less character-time than the main protagonists.
Now the movie is not perfect, of course. Some moments are very obvious, and although the film does it incredibly well, anyone who’s seen a haunted house movie before will be mentally ticking off the next trope to be played out. And although they’re very few, there are some moments when the characters act with less intelligence than we’d expect (why yes, call out the exact location of the lost child within earshot of the monster in the middle of an exorcism) and some moments suffer unintended giggles (one of the daughters is hurled around the living room by the ghost, while all the adult bodies attempt to pin her to the ground and one almost imagines Yakety Sax playing in the background).
The backstory for the primary ghost is mentioned in passing and becomes accepted as the definite cause-and-reason behind everything far too quickly, and it also disregards a lot of the very real tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials for the sake of providing a fitting fictional context. And of course, one begs the question of why anyone would ever own a doll that looks like this:
But these are nitpicks I’m willing to overlook
The Conjuring is a film that hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but instead made a pretty damn good version of it. It’s excellently constructed, finely performed and scary to boot. It’s already reaching hypemania, so I suggest getting in and seeing it before that settles in too much.