What you’re looking for in a horror movie is, essentially, lightning in a bottle.
The tropes and genre conventions are there because they work. But in this, as in everything, timing is key and the cliché only becomes shackling when uncreative minds use the formula as if the formula is all there is. May the Cenobites, bless their flayed skins, feast on their souls.
What I’m talking about is that volatile mix of misdirection, atmosphere, and pacing. But mostly the first. The soothing of the audience, lulling it into a false sense of relaxation, and then, when everything’s hushed, bam! You go for the kill.
There’s a scene in “The Conjuring” within the 15-minute mark that scared the bejeezus out of my friend so much that he declared, “I wish I’d pissed before I sat down.” So, in consideration of those with excitable bladders, kindly do your business during the trailers.
For the faint of heart and those terrified of demons: skip this movie altogether.
It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) have just bought a great old property in Harrisville, Rhode Island. They’ve moved their family of five daughters to this dilapidated farmhouse for a fresh start.
Things take a quick turn for the tragic on the first day as their dog, Sadie, refuses to step into the house and so is left outside. The next day, she’s found dead. Bad omen? You bet.
Preternatural signs quickly manifest as the mother wakes up with mysterious bruises that she thinks are signs of her growing iron deficiency, and a boarded-up cellar is found containing many antiques.
Carolyn is soon put in touch with supernatural sleuths and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) who begin investigating the weird stuff going down in the house every night. The family, at this point, are terrified of their beds and have taken to sleeping together in the sala downstairs.
It is from here on that the haunting escalates. The Warrens dig deeper into the house’s history and discover the demon that has been assaulting the Perrons. Her name is Bathsheba.
It must be noted that Ed and Lorraine Warren are real demon-busters and that this story is a case they handled back in the ’70s. The film’s PR says that they’ve kept it “secret” in their files because the world was not ready of this kind of story, so there’s also that “true to life” tag going for it. But there have of course been liberties taken with the facts so you don’t need to believe the hype to appreciate the craft that went into this.
For one thing (and this is not a spoiler), the haunting of the Perrons happened over a span of 10 years. One of the daughters, Andrea Perron, eventually penned “House of Darkness House of Light: The True Story”, a three-part memoir of her family’s experiences at the house.
Manipulated facts aside, I must tell you that “The Conjuring” is that rare breed of horror movie without a sense of urgency. It’s pure, 100-percent scare tactics.
Since director Jason Wan is one of the torch bearers of the modern gore movement with previous outings “Saw” and “Insidious,” you may think I’m just talking about the gross-out factor here. No way. These are genuine frights in the milieu of ghosts and demons executed with great timing, subtlety, and filmmaking sleight-of-hand.
That Wan and his team have managed to combine both in a movie that has well-nigh zero digital effects is a triumph of analog, old-school horror filmmaking. The 1970s setting is fused very masterfully with the plot and narrated in a way that our discoveries at specific points are just enough to inform us about the nature and reason for the next startling fright.
You’ve likely seen the moment in the trailer where the kids and their mother play hide-and-seek, when a cabinet suddenly opens and two wraithly hands clap twice to lure the blindfolded seeker close to the cabinet. For that scene alone, anyone who’s ever played this fun barkada game will never play it again. I mean, ever.
This movie is relentless like that. It is full of sympathetic pathos. It will make you want to watch it from between your fingers.
The escalation of frights is paramount in the genre. Which means the denoument needs to be a “gulpi de gulat” event of majestic proportions. Sounds easy? The dozens of B-movies trying to figure out how is testament to the elusiveness of this dark feat. But “The Conjuring” has it. It ranks right up there with “Alien”, “The Descent”, “The Shining”, “Audition”, “Final Destination” and, of course, “The Exorcist.”
Often, the tension is stretched so exquisitely that I experienced a sweet, sweet terror – that high, keening sensitivity that Lovecraft talked about in his essay and summarized in the maxim: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The Warrens are really the centerpiece of this movie. Farmiga does a masterful performance as Lorraine, the clairvoyant and scout of the team, who bravely walks point exploring the hidden nooks, cubbyholes, and crannies of the Harrisville house.
Lorraine is so fearless that, at the media screening, the audience was very vocal about expressing their adulation of her fearlessness. It’s through her psychic sight that we “see” the origins of the demon Bathsheba, the history of the house and why it’s haunted, and it’s her sympathetic eye that lets us trace the tragedy that eventually became a marauding evil.
I also love the Warrens’ collection of supernatural memorabilia. It reminds me of the Ghostbusters’ Containment Vault. It even houses one of the most malevolent pieces of infernal anchoring there is: the Annabelle doll, which is also featured in the film.
The flaws in this movie are minimal but they are there, and mostly due to the omniscient first person; how it jumps with sudden shifts from one Perron daughter to another, the mother and thence to Lorraine’s enhanced psychic sight. It can be disorienting, but Wan even makes this seem integral to our enjoyment.
I’ve already said that the way the escalation of frights is handled makes or breaks a horror story. Here, the the fact that the climax is pulled off without being sappy or overdramatic but still comes off as terrifying is a small miracle in itself.
If you brought a date to the theater hoping for cuddles, it’s guaranteed said date will be clutching your arms like an octopus after 15 minutes. By the midway point, she’ll be burying her face into your chest. She’ll likely be screaming too but, hey, that just means “The Conjuring” delivered like a wicked overhand right. After all, you’ll likely be screaming, too.