The Conjuring is a textbook horror film. The success of a horror film depends on what textbook you are using and the grimoire James Wan picks up is a bloody good one. There are jump scares, sneaky scares, eerie images, silent jolts, goosebump-inducing revelations and also a few jokes to give some relief.
It has ghosts, witches, demons, creepy dolls, creaking doors, it has everything! What it doesn’t have is the one thing that has ruined horror films lately – gore. Thank god for that. What’s more, there is a good mix of original scares and clichéd scares – plain old spooks. A split-second moment, which I liked the most, involves a white sheet. Remember ghouls under white sheets? That.
Here’s the thing: If you’re a fan of horror films, get to that damn theater. Right. Now.
The first thing I noticed about The Conjuring when the film started was the old-school approach adopted by the filmmaker. The way the title of the film fills a black screen with a pale yellow font. The next thing we see is the camera zooming in from inside a house. Followed by a few more zoom-outs and zoom-ins.
Zooms. I thought we lost them in the 70s. At least, using them well is a thing of the past. There isn’t much use of visual effects except those that could have been done in the past century. The tracking shots, focus shifts, the shadows and other basic camera movements become the apparatus used for creating dread and horror and not cheap trickery. It is pure craft that creates the retro feel, which makes it more authentic as the film is set in the 70s, also on a true story.
I was reminded most of The Amityville Horror (1979) while watching this film (I find The Conjuring a better film though). The funny part is that The Amityville Horror is based on a true story and that true story is one of the cases handled by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The couple played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are what you call ghosthunters, or ghostbusters. The haunting of the Perron family was a case they chose not to discuss and now we get to see it dramatized on film.
Infestation. Oppression. Possession. These are the three stages of a haunting as prescribed by the Warrens. Every good horror film lets us into its world by making us a part of the findings. First, 'what' is happening. Second, 'how' it is happening. Finally, we discover 'why' through the rest of the film. An interesting plot (there is a difference between original and interesting) like this one always helps.
What helps more is when you have good actors. Lili Taylor and Patrick Wilson are strong but the film belongs to Vera Farmiga. I was immensely impressed by her performances in Up in the Air (2009), The Boy in Striped Pyjamas (2008), Source Code (2011), Orphan (2009), Bates Motel (TV show) and mostly in her directorial debut – Higher Ground (2011). This time I was happy to see her make a mark in a mainstream film. She plays a clairvoyant, the character that makes us feel safe in an otherwise menacing territory because she knows things nobody else does and uses her gifts for the higher good.
There is one sequence that gave me a 5-minuter chill with full-bodied goosebumps. The Warrens go to rescue their daughter from an unfortunate situation. I find it difficult to watch children in peril. While I was gripped in sheer suspense, I could feel the dread mounting and expanding as it progressed.
This film reminded me of old classics of the genre, especially The Exorcist (1973), The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963) and Poltergeist (1982). There is also a tiny homage to The Birds (1963) near the end. Sure, the story isn’t as great and lacks depth. If only the filmmaker had spent more time on the script, we would have had a truly great horror film. But that's a minor nitpick. This film is darn good.
The horror genre usually runs on autopilot nowadays. It is refreshing to see someone giving us an occasional bump. James Wan has directed several horror films before (Saw, Insidious and Dead Silence) but it is this one that cements him as a luminary of the genre.
I’d like to end this review by being a bit more direct.
Prepare to get scared. Go to the theater. Right. Now.