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James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is a Modern Horror Classic

October 28, 2013

By John Corrado

The Conjuring PosterAs we approach Halloween, many people have been counting the days by revisiting classics of the horror genre, and James Wan’s artfully crafted and terrifically terrifying The Conjuring already deserves a place alongside them.

The film opened in theatres back on July 19th, grossing over $300 million at the worldwide box office, and was released on DVD and Blu-ray this past Tuesday.

The year is 1971, and Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) along with their five daughters have just moved into a big old farm house in Rhode Island.  But then strange things start to happen, when they discover a cellar that has been boarded off and their dog mysteriously dies.  Doors move for no reason, all of their clocks stop at precisely 3:07 AM, and Carolyn starts waking up covered with strange bruises.

They reach out to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who believe that God brought them together for a reason.  When they uncover the shocking demonic forces that have come back with a vengeance and are trying to reclaim the house, they must rely on their faith to help overcome these malevolent spirits.  But everything that the clairvoyant Lorraine experiences sticks with her, and this unspeakable evil threatens to take a personal toll on her.

I am fascinated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, who could be called real life superheroes who fought against the ultimate forces of evil.  The parapsychologists are probably most famous for investigating what has become known as the Amityville Horror, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see more of their cases brought to the screen.  They keep a room of artifacts from every case they have ever investigated, including a creepy doll named Annabelle that we are told about in the chilling prologue.  This room, which exists in real life and has been blessed by numerous priests over the years to keep the evil spirits at bay, opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to building a franchise out of the film.

There is a brief scene where Ed and Lorraine visit another young couple who believe that their house has been inhabited by a supernatural entity, and the Warrens reassure them that the sounds they have been hearing are normal, the creaking of floorboards as amplified through pipes.  The fact we are told there are logical explanations for many of the things that scare us is reassuring in a way that just makes the rest of the film more unsettling.  As we start to witness things that are undeniably caused by something beyond human, even skeptics might find themselves convinced otherwise, at least for the duration of the 112 minute running time, which is carried by excellent performances.

This a big part of what makes The Conjuring so masterfully effective.  The film uses things we can relate to as jumping off points for the terror, including an ingeniously set up game of hide and seek that takes a sinister turn.  The music by Joseph Bishara is haunting, and the cinematography is first rate.  The way the camera moves through the house helps ratchet up the tension, creeping around corners and taking us through the dark cellar, which is sometimes lit only by matches or a flashlight and provides a chilling backdrop for the finale.  Although what we actually see on screen skirts the edge of a hard PG-13, this constant feeling of terror got the film stamped with an R rating by the MPAA.

James Wan is no stranger to the horror genre, having also directed the original Saw and both entries in the popular Insidious franchise, but The Conjuring is easily his best film yet.  The way that the tension builds with an encompassing sense of fear, without relying much on actual gore, could be compared to the 1982 classic Poltergeist.  When it comes to perfectly crafted supernatural thrills with something deeper beneath the surface, the film sometimes tonally recalls what M. Night Shyamalan achieved so well with The Sixth Sense in 1999.  This is simply one of the most well crafted horror films since William Friedkin’s The Exorcist back in 1973, which remains a crowning achievement of the genre that still manages to shock after forty years.

Like The Exorcist, The Conjuring is just such a well made film, that presents religious beliefs in an honest light and uses them to help validate the scares.  There is a sequence where they set up cameras and microphones, hoping to capture proof of this supernatural entity that will get them the permission they need from the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism.  As we watch their small crew prepping the house with recording equipment, I was reminded of the many things that happen behind the scenes on an actual film set.  Movies are one of the most powerful tools when it comes to transporting people and allowing us to believe in things beyond our reach, and for me the use of cameras within the film provided a powerful visual metaphor.

The horror genre has been cheapened by films that feel they have achieved their goals simply by scaring us with a barrage of unsettling images, but for me some of the best examples of this genre are ones that have the power to make us believe.  Alongside the opening title card, we are told that The Conjuring has been “based on a true story.”  Many will question this disclaimer, but whether or not you are convinced by the events that unfold all depends on what beliefs you bring to the film.  “The fairy tale is true,” a quote from Ed Warren tells us.  “The devil exists.  God exists.  And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

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