By Thomas Puhr
As soon as the screeching, melodramatic violins nearly overpowered the theater’s speakers while the film’s title, in large, yellow, retro lettering, spread across the screen, my prayer that The Conjuring would be an old school, tension-focused horror film was answered. Indeed, director James Wan has ditched the gore-soaked trappings of his 2004 debut, Saw, for a film that is more focused on building steadily-rising tension and dread. Until the over-the-top, action-oriented finale somewhat derails the suspense, The Conjuring almost perfectly captures the tone of such horror classics as Poltergeist and The Exorcist. It is probably the best American horror film since Ti West’s 2009 offering, The House of the Devil, another film that understands the fundamental truth that a creaky, old house is a thousand times more terrifying than any CGI-produced monster.
Wan proves to be a deft craftsman at slowly increasing a scene’s suspense until it becomes nearly unbearable. In one of the film’s best sequences, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) explores her recently-acquired house at night, while her daughters are fast asleep, and plays a terrifying game of cat and mouse with the entity occupying the house. We first hear family portraits being knocked off the stairwell wall (we only see the aftermath of the destruction), then we hear the ghost clapping (mimicking a hide and seek game the family plays), and then we finally see the spirit in action, opening and slamming doors. This game leads Carolyn into the previously boarded-up basement, where a bouncing ball provides an unexpected jolt. Finally, all of this tension leads to the instantly-classic shock moment when disembodied hands clap behind Carolyn’s head (a truly terrifying moment that was unfortunately spoiled by the trailer). Upstairs, one of Carolyn’s daughters sees a demon-like woman perched atop an old, creepy dresser.
There is a natural, unbearable progression here to Chad and Carey Hayes' script; the audience goes from hearing the force’s actions (the portraits being shattered / the clapping), to seeing the results of its actions (the broken portraits, the opening doors, the bouncing balls), to seeing part of the actual presence (the hands), and, finally, to seeing the entire demon herself. Instead of immediately revealing the demon woman, Wan plays with our senses, piling on detail after detail, slowly revealing more about the malevolent force occupying the house.
Watching the Fuzzy TV
Although The Conjuring obviously owes a lot to films like The Amityville Horror (a haunted, secluded house, basements holding murderous secrets) and The Exorcist (possession, demons), its primary influence is Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic, Poltergeist, to which Wan and the Hayes brothers make frequent allusions.
Similar to Hooper’s haunted house tale (and, admittedly, many other horror films), The Conjuring portrays children (especially little girls) as having a natural, psychic connection to the spiritual realm. And, similar to poor Carol Anne famously being sucked into the TV, one of the girls in this film seems, at one point, to have been sucked through a wall. Also like Hooper’s film, a group of ghost hunters, this time led by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), moves into the haunted house to help the ailing family, sets up audio-visual equipment in an effort to capture footage of supernatural phenomena, and eventually seems to become a surrogate part of the Perron family.
The allusions are seemingly endless. There’s the large, gnarled, monster-like tree in the backyard, a child fearfully peering under her bed (which, though it’s been used a thousand times in a thousand horror films, is still terrifying), a haunted doll (in Wan’s film, a creepy, clown doll has been replaced with a creepy, American-Girl type doll), and people being dragged around the house by unseen forces. Hell, Wan even includes an extended shot of a fuzzy TV screen, which, for any horror fan, should immediately call to mind Poltergeist’s Carol Anne pressing her palms against the snowy TV screen, transfixed by the forces dwelling within it.
The Conjuring is, in many ways, an amalgam of many different horror subgenres. First and foremost, it is a classic haunted house tale; Wan makes excellent use of classic haunted house tropes, such as creaking doors, blowing leaves, foggy lakes, and clanging wind chimes to ratchet up the suspense. Save for some random scenes and a subplot involving Ed and Lorraine’s daughter, more or less the entire film is set in the Perrons’ large, dilapidated, secluded home.
Yet the film also owes a lot to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Toward the end of the film, the story shifts from the haunted house subgenre to the possession and exorcism subgenre; Carolyn is possessed by a demonic spirit that is bent on murdering the Perrons’ children, and Ed Warren is forced to perform an impromptu exorcism on her.
Finally, perhaps in deference to a modern audience’s sensibilities, Wan even throws in a few found footage scenes, such as documentary clips of previous cases solved by the Warrens and an extended, admittedly-creepy exploration of the Perrons’ basement that is shown entirely through the point-of-view of a video camera.
Despite the many subgenres Wan enthusiastically mixes together, The Conjuring does not come across as a tonal mess. Unlike the disappointing Sinister (2012), which similarly tried (and failed) to mesh haunted house, demonic, and found-footage conventions, The Conjuring, for the most part, successfully juggles all of these conventions and styles. It must be said, though, that the exorcism portion of the film is disappointing in comparison to the earlier, haunted-house passages, partly because the big reveal of the evil force is inevitably a letdown in comparison to the suspense leading up to it, and mostly because Wan unfortunately reverts to jumpy, confusing camerawork and editing during the exorcism scenes.
The Conjuring is a love letter to classic horror films as much as it is an example of such films. Despite some undeniable flaws, The Conjuring is unabashedly old school; the early scenes, especially, are chock full of wide-angle shots, extended tracking shots, and slow zooms. Wan even includes a Hitchcockian dolly zoom, to great effect. The period setting (1960s and ‘70s) and the screeching, Penderecki-esque musical score (echoes of the soundtracks for The Exorcist and The Shining) further distances the film from most contemporary horror offerings. By capturing the look and feel of ‘70s through‘80s-era horror films, Wan has crafted the most stylistically-satisfying horror film in some time.
Also, by drawing from the universal human desire to protect one’s family at all costs, Wan has also crafted one of the most emotionally-satisfying horror films in some time. Admittedly, protecting one’s children from evil forces is nothing new to the horror genre, but Wan approaches the family drama with such un-ironic sincerity that he won me over. There’s a reason this trope is used in countless horror films: it works. Most importantly, and most fundamentally, The Conjuring is genuinely scary, and it admirably relies on suspense over gore (I don’t see why it couldn’t have gotten away with a PG-13 rating; it is really no more violent than Sam Raimi’s PG-13 Drag Me to Hell, although it is more straight-faced and grim than Raimi’s film) in order to generate its many scares. Call me a convert; Wan can craft a hell of a horror film.