The Conjuring feels like a culmination of the nostalgia trip that we’ve seen with recent horrors like Insidious or Sinister, a conscious attempt to move away from the gore-laiden or found-footage-heavy approach to contemporary horror. Indeed, The Conjuring owes a fairly sizeable debt to director James Wan’s previous horror effort, Sinister. Not only does the film inherit leading man Patrick Wilson, it also follows roughly the same structure, right down to “paranormal investigators explore the house in a briefly humourous interlude.”
However, The Conjuring flows a lot easier than Insidious and is spared the third-act problems that plagued Sinister. The film is stronger for the honesty of its nostalgia. Even the title card is rendered in a font that looks like it could have been used for a forgotten seventies possession horror. The Conjuring doesn’t really push the boat out, and there’s nothing that will startle hardcore horror veterans, but there’s a very clear skill in its construction, an honesty to its affection and a sincerity to its charm that helps the film rise above so many contemporary horrors.
The story of The Conjuring is – a titlecard informs us – pulled from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The duo are among the world’s best known occult investigators. The couple are best known for their involvement in the events that allegedly inspired The Amityville Horror, a film that The Conjuring borrows heavily from. However, they’ve had a long and illustrious career, involving a high-profile murder case where the defendant argued that they were not guilt by reason of demonic possession and a werewolf case.
The movie’s introduction assures us that this is their most terrifying case, in what feels like a delightful nod to classic horror – a nice way of setting the mood by goading the audience. This file, we’re told, was buried away from sight for decades. It was only unearthed now. The convenience of this set-up is the entire point, lending The Conjuring a decidedly pulpy feel – the feel of one of those sensationalist “true horror” paperbacks that news vendors used to stock for young customers to leaf through.
One of the nicer touches of The Conjuring is the strange trophy room maintained by the Warrens. explaining why they keep haunted and possessed memorabilia in their nice family home, Ed explains, “Think of them as loaded guns. It’s better to have them off the street.” of course, most people don’t keep an unlocked room packed full of loaded guns just downstairs from their daughter’s room, even if a priest does bless them once a month. Still, it’s a fascinating concept, and one which hints at a much broader canvas.
As Ed gives a news reporter a tour of the room, we get hints of other pulp adventures waiting to be told. The Curse of the Monkey Toy!, perhaps. How about Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Samurai Armour of Doom! We come in on the tail end of one adventure, featuring a demonic doll, and it creates a nice sense of the macabre world inhabited by these characters. It’s fun to imagine what a television show centred on the duo could look like, with an entire room full of demonic trinkets.
However, as playful and as fascinating as the set-up is, director James Wan excels with the haunted house sequences. The heart of The Conjuring is very much a piece of seventies horror, at least in spirit. It’s the story of a family in dire economic straits who discover that their new home is threatening to swallow them up. The Perron family find themselves haunted by ethereal otherworldly forces, but also chained to this house.
When Ed wonders why they’re still hanging around, the father replies, “All our money is tied up in this house.” The demonic assault that pushes the family to finally seek help occurs while the father is away on work, forced on a long haul journey for half his usual fee in a desperate attempt to make ends meet. The Amityville Horror is the most high-profile example of what Stephen King described as “economic horror”, where a recently purchased property squeezes the life out of a struggling family Using that plot as a basis for The Conjuring is an inspired touch.
Then again, the seventies setting lends the film a strange legitimacy. Whether it’s Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the most seventies couple ever, Vera Farmiga’s wonderful period wardrobe, the use of a spiral mirror, Ron Livingston’s delightfully retro lunch box or even the cheeky use of Time of the Season on the soundtrack, the entire production screams seventies. Given the era was a golden age for these sorts of horror stories, it’s a shrewd move and one that works well.
Wan knows how to wring suspense from a scene. He keeps the camera relatively tight and constantly moving, creating the impression that something untoward might not only enter the shot, but it could have been there all along. Wan’s approach might not subtle, but it’s relatively understated by the standards of modern horror, and it helps create a constant sense of dread. There’s a sense that not only might something spooky pop out, but that it’s been hiding there all along.
The tricks and techniques that Wan uses are all very old-school. He relies on a blend of dread and “jump” moments, but in a very traditional manner. The music cues are effective all the more for feeling familiar. Wan isn’t really reinventing the genre or anything as dramatic. He’s simply blowing the dust off tricks and tools that have been brushed aside by the genre in recent years. There’s no gratuitous gore, but there are “scare” chords and sudden reveals and twists.
Given the kind of film that Wan is making, it is all about execution, and he very clearly appreciates it. Coupled with the seventies aesthetic, it works very well. The film even manages a functional, if unspectacular, third act – a problem for many a contemporary horror film. While the plotting could be smoother and things wind up getting a little overblown, it makes sense and it feels like a logical climax of the horror so far.
The only real problem with The Conjuring is the scenes of the paranormal investigators prying around the property. These feel carried over from Insidious, and the decision to add a comic-relief skeptic character (and a tech support geek) feels just a little too generic. It takes the edge off the mounting sense of doom and gloom, and makes the movie feel a little more formulaic for having a character whose entire function is to provide the humour. Similarly, all the effort taken showing the set-up feels old-hat at this point, and could easily have been trimmer.
Still, these are minor complaints. The Conjuring is a delightful throwback to a particular kind of horror, one well-constructed and effectively produced.