As you take your first steps into the world of THE CONJURING, two things become very apparent.
First: you realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. James Wan knows what scares you. He knows how to build a scare that reaches beyond quick movements punctuated by a loud noise. He doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. He knows how to place the camera to make use of a room’s space, knows when to keep the shot tight to limit your field of view, knows how to choreograph not just his actors, but where and when you need to have your eyes on something important. He knows when to offer you a glimpse, and when you need a nice long look at the terror.
Second: this story feels real. Haunted house movies are a dime a dozen. Many claim their stories are based on true events, almost all of them fail to evoke anything more than a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that goes away once the lights come up. THE CONJURING lingers long after the credits roll. Movies that portray demonic powers often fail to capture the sinister malevolence captured by stories such as THE EXORCIST. We like our movie evil easily vanquished, or so powerful as to be almost god-like. The reality lands somewhere in between, but far removed from the ease of defeat. There’s a sense of dread Ingmar Bergman created in THE SEVENTH SEAL when the angel of death appears. “It’s the angel of death passing over us … and he’s very big.” THE CONJURING does not shy away from evil’s size. It is not easily vanquished, nor is it given powers far beyond its true scope. But it is very big.
Rich characters underscore the genuine feel of the story. Wan builds an ensemble in which every character lives and breathes with well-defined traits, making each of them a separate person. The Perron family earns empathy through their love for each other, the energy of their play, how quickly play turns to conflict, even the underhanded sneakiness siblings ply against each other.
After a short time, however, the Perrons encounter some very troubling things about their home. Spirits lurk in the dark, and they only mean harm. Their actions assume every shape, from mockery to outright cruelty. The slow assertion of their presence prompts Carolyn Perron (ably performed by Lili Taylor) to seek help from two ghost hunters—Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make the Warrens a couple that rise above the oddity of their work. These two earn your sympathies by making you believe that what they’ve seen is real. They face it with courage punctuated by clear conviction. Farmiga in particular owns the movie. She knows just how to react, just how to look, just how to make you know exactly what she’s thinking. We never really get a good picture of the Warrens’ faith life, and I think that’s a good thing. The day-to-day practice of faith never looks very exciting on film. It needs legs, and the film sets those legs to run at a full sprint.
Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hays have written a tight narrative. Almost nothing goes to waste in this picture. It’s a lovely thing to weave a tale that manages to knot nearly every thread and this one does not disappoint. Every element matters. Things that first appear extraneous come back into play in clever and unexpected ways. The brothers Hays even address a pair of old haunted house clichés and overcome them with ease. A story that could easily have turned the Warrens into a joke treats the subject at hand with level-headed seriousness. It makes neither comedy nor melodrama of their work.
Given the religious underpinnings of the tale, I appreciate the filmmakers’ respect for the Catholic milieu. Movies like this usually ignore Jesus Christ. They make use of his name as a curse or as a totem easily tossed aside by the forces of evil. The name of Christ carries authority in this film. Regrettably, it isn’t as much as I would have preferred, but the one who speaks in his name knows whose hands are keeping him on his feet.
THE CONJURING musters a solid sense of the numinous. As the dread mounts, a subtle reminder of the greater reality—a deeper magic, if you will—works underneath it all. The glimpse offered behind the fabric of the world is a terrifying one, but it leaves you with the knowledge that while evil is very big, much bigger than we ever like to dwell upon, there is one who is bigger still. While his heel may be bruised, the head of evil is always crushed under his weight.
A final note of caution: this is an R-rated film, so take it seriously. Much of the story’s violence affects the Perron’s children. Though it doesn’t push any envelopes or try to break new ground in blood or gore, the threat involves some disturbing thematic elements.
Written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hays
Directed by James Wan