What truly scares us? In my opinion, it’s largely the fear of the unknown. It’s why when horror movies show us what’s behind the curtain our fear begins to subside. A good horror director will use the idea of the unknown to their advantage, increasing the fear factor, while also improving the production’s bottom line. In recent history director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) has used the fear of the unknown to his advantage and he does so again with The Conjuring, something of a Paranormal Activity meets The Exorcist, supernatural thriller certain to give even the most seasoned horror fan the chills.
Like many horror films before it, The Conjuring makes use of the idea it is based on a true story. In this instance, the story of the Perron family who bought a place in the early ’70s in Harrisville, Rhode Island that eventually turned into ten years living among the dead. Their story is told over the course of two volumes written by Andrea Perron (find both volumes here), the eldest daughter of the family, and her story is adapted here, and changed quite dramatically, for the screen by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Reaping).
Here we meet Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) who have five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Kyla Deaver, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Hayley McFarland) and it isn’t long after they move into their secluded farmhouse that the stench of death attaches itself to their ever-waking moment.
The Perron’s dog refuses to ever enter their house, birds crash into their windows, breaking their necks and twitching to death on the ground and a hidden cellar is revealed in the midst of a game of Hide and Clap, which immediately brings to mind the knocking game in J.A. Bayona‘s The Orphanage.
In fact, what Wan and his team of sibling screenwriters have done is take the pieces of what’s worked so well in today’s horror films and combined each technique into one hell of an impressively creepy movie. As much as many of these tactics have been used in horror long before the likes of Paranormal Activity and The Orphanage, it takes a certain measure of restraint and timing to truly scare today’s audiences and The Conjuring manages to not only be scary, but more importantly, it’s got a creepy factor that’s hard to achieve.
To my earlier point of selling the fear of the unknown, The Conjuring doesn’t entirely conceal the darkness at its core. If there is any complaint about the Paranormal franchise it’s the idea that all we see are doors closing and people being dragged around a room, but here the audience is given just enough of a glimpse at the evil that lurks in the shadows, allowing your mind to fill in, and fear, the blanks.
The blanks I’m referring to are filled with the rumbling bass of a demon unseen, the use of matches and flashlights as the only source of light, creepy possessed puppets, the fiend in the darkness only the characters on screen can see and the dread felt by characters that hunt evil spirits for a living. Each one of these details and then some contribute to the overall sense of fear The Conjuring provokes and that last one is an important one.
One of the my favorite moments in 2007’s Paranormal Activity is the moment the psychic runs from the house, afraid of whatever demon lurks in the darkness. When someone accustomed to dealing with such darkness is so scared their only instinct is to run where does that leave the rest of us?
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the professionals in The Conjuring. He’s a Vatican approved Demonologist and she’s a world-renowned clairvoyant. They’re equal measure of confidence, fear and determination gives the situation weight and allows a certain level of leniency when decisions are made that will have you saying to yourself, “Don’t do that! Don’t go in there!”
Much has been made about the R-rating the film achieved, supposedly because it was simply too scary for a PG-13. Well, that’s a bit of Hollywood build-up. I’d argue The Conjuring is more creepy than scary and a PG-13 would have probably suited this film just fine, though they probably would have had to snip a couple of bloodier moments a little tighter than they currently exist in its final form.
For the most part the performances work, though a few people did laugh a bit toward the end of my screening, but I often attribute laughter at a horror movie to a general sense of unease. So, in this case, it’s probably a good sign.
Curious enough, while I despise the fact they are already planning on turning this into a franchise, the ending was a little too tidy for me. As much as I respect a film for having a beginning, middle and end, I wish the ending had been left a little more open. Granted, there are several directions even I can already come up with as to where future installments could go, but still, a little nugget of fear at the very end would have elevated the film a bit further in my eyes.
Still, Wan has captured a mood similar to his last horror success Insidious, taken advantage of the only creepy part of Dead Silence in repeating his use of creepy puppets and given us a horror film we can respect, which is more than I can say for a lot of 2013’s releases at this point.