Directed by James Wan
Distributed by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Most of the time, this writer has found such grand proclamations in some reviews to be eye-rollers – hyperbolic, lazy bits o’ shorthand that simply seem to say little more than “Hey! I really liked this!”. As a reader, I generally tend to shrug at such phrases. As a reviewer, I’ve tried to avoid using them in my own critiques – though some would-be TalkBacker could probably prove otherwise, I’m certain.
All that said, the notion that a newly-released film might deserve consideration as among the very best of its kind isn’t entirely impossible, is it? Why shouldn’t a film immediately soar to the ranks of “classic” if it succeeds on just about every possible level – acting as a yardstick by which every other to-be-released movie of its ilk will almost certainly be judged?
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you – The Conjuring.
Helmed by Saw and Insidious director James Wan and based upon a case file from renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring tells the story of the Perron family: mother Carolyn (Taylor), father Roger (Livingston), and their five young girls. As the film begins, the Perrons have just moved into an old farmhouse that must’ve just screamed ”Haunt me!” upon its first day standing. The family manages to settle in just before a series of bizarre events begin to plague them: strange smells, odd noises, the unexpected death of a beloved pet. When Carolyn begins to exhibit strange bruising even as her daughters begin receiving nightly visitations from malevolent spirits, she seeks out the help of the Warrens (Wilson and Farmiga), the real life ghost hunters who consulted on thousands of cases over the course of their career – including the events which inspired the films The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut (another noteworthy case of theirs, involving a possessed doll named “Annabelle”, is chronicled in The Conjuring’s super-creepy opening sequence).
Though initially reluctant to take the case due to a recent exorcism gone awry which nearly claimed Lorraine’s health and sanity, Ed agrees to visit the Perron household with Lorraine, who immediately determines that an evil, likely demonic presence has infested the household. The Warrens set up shop in the home, determined to suss out the evil’s origins and document it for the purposes of securing the Vatican’s blessing for an exorcism. Unfortunately, neither the Perrons nor the Warrens could possibly guess at the demon’s true, diabolical intent. At least, not until it’s perhaps too late…
From top to bottom, first minute to last, The Conjuring is a sterling example of haunted house filmmaking that I’d easily place alongside Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. It’s that rare thing – a big studio release (R-rated, no less) that favors character and mood over gore and cheap jump scares, and doesn’t pander to its audience or water down its content in order to secure the interest of a younger audience. And for all the horror films that grace or pollute theatres, video stores and kiosks each year – how many are actually scary? Well, call me a wimp if you’d like, but I found The Conjuring to be genuinely terrifying throughout. This film’s scares are expertly orchestrated, running the gamut from creeping dread to quiet terror, nerve-shredding tension to bombastic horror. This flick puts you through the wringer and makes you love it for doing so.
All that wouldn’t be possible, of course, if we didn’t care about the characters – all those people in harm’s way. The writing, direction, and especially the acting ensure that we actually care about each of the families involved in these terrible events. Kudos to writers Chad and Carey Hayes for penning a screenplay which not only offers up a number of chilling and horrific moments, but for also giving the characters the kind of depth that is sadly seldom seen in films of this sort these days.
And did I mention the acting? As Ed and Lorraine, Wilson and Farmiga deliver typically great work, disappearing into each role and imbuing their characters with a warmth and intelligence that makes them immediately likeable. And as the Perrons, Taylor and Livingston are just great – making Carolyn and Roger seem utterly real from their very first moment on screen. Their interplay early on makes one feel as though they’re peeking into someone’s actual life. Due to the nature of the tale, Taylor is given more to do in the film, but both actors do a marvelous job of making their characters completely believable throughout.
Also successful is the film’s beautiful, shadow-drenched photography. There are also a few neat, dated techniques employed to root the film in the 70s (zooms, rickety tracking shots), and I applaud the filmmakers for pulling these moments off without dragging viewers out of the film. Speaking of the 70s, the film’s production design and costumes are wonderful, and do a great job of seeming authentic and effortlessly selling the time period. Add to all of this Joseph Bishara’s unnerving, old school musical score, and you have a film which has been marvelously constructed at every level.
Bringing all of these elements together is director Wan. The filmmaker has dabbled in spooky horror a few times now with varying degrees of success, but The Conjuring must surely be his best film. His work in this movie is nothing short of masterful, and even if the rumors that he’s leaving the genre for good are true, fans should feel lucky that he visited here at all. Bravo, sir.
Still, though the movie is great, it is briefly hamstrung by a few unfortunate choices. For all the work that went into making the film feel as though it takes place in the 70s (indeed, as though it were made in the 70s), a crucial montage sequence at the movie’s midpoint is set to the music of…Ryan Gosling’s band?! This isn’t a huge flaw, mind you, but one wonders why an appropriate track couldn’t have been pulled from the proper period (as with other moments in the film). It’s a strange choice that does remove one from the film’s carefully constructed reality, if only for a moment.
Also unfortunate, and equally jarring, is a moment in the film’s climax. Though the previous eighty minutes seemed to employ practical scares and rely on mostly shadows and sound, a major moment during the film’s otherwise intense finale is ruined by the inclusion of a flock of birds – all created by some dodgy CG. It’s quite bad, though mercifully brief, and could’ve easily been cut from the film with no damage done to the narrative. Why this setpiece was created in such a way, let alone left in the film, is beyond me.
One final niggle: for all my praise of the film’s script and the talented actors populating the film (all well-deserved), one wishes the filmmakers had taken the extra time to flesh out the supporting characters a bit more. Sure, we care about our four leads, but we barely get to know the Perron’s daughters or the Warrens’ associates even though they are integral to the plot. I’m nitpicking, certainly, but these flaws stand out and are more easily noticed precisely because the rest of the film is so great.
Warner Brothers Home Entertainment has brought its surprise summer hit onto Blu with a beautifully detailed picture and an alternately creepy/thunderous audio track. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of bonus features, save for three (admittedly very good) featurettes. They are: Face-to-Face with Terror, a discussion with the real life Perron family who look back on the events which inspired the film (this is a surprisingly moving and chilling piece at times); A Life in Demonology, a fifteen-minute documentary about the Warrens’ exploits, featuring Lorraine and various protégés of the Warrens discussing their career and legacy; and Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You, a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s making – featuring Wan, the Hayes brothers, and various producers discussing the film’s origin and production, along with a peek at how some of the film’s scares were crafted. A decent enough package, quality-wise. Still, one wishes that this successful film might’ve been rewarded with a more substantial set of bonus features (even the film’s effective theatrical trailers fail to make an appearance on the Blu). Ah, well…
Horror fans, hear me out: if you haven’t yet seen The Conjuring (and judging from the movie’s numbers, there can’t be too many of you left), get thee to your nearest disc dealer and secure yourself a copy. It’s a smart, scary, incredibly well-directed throwback to a better era of horror filmmaking. It stands as not only one of the best genre films you’ll see this year, but one of the best films period.
Is it perfect? No.
Instant classic? You betcha.
4 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5