Written by: D.S. Ullery
For the better part of two hours, I rode an emotional and visceral rollercoaster as I watched The Conjuring, a horror film written by Chad and Carey Hayes and directed with a deft hand by Saw and Insidious director James Wan. While the film certainly earns its stripes as a superior scare effort, it also entirely blindsided me by working on on entirely different level. But more on that in a bit.
As the story- which, we’re informed courtesy of some on-screen text, is based on an exceptionally nasty true life supernatural incident – opens, we’re introduced to Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) as they relate the events of a prior demonic intrusion case involving a creepy doll named Annabelle to a crowded lecture hall, circa 1968.
From there, we shift forward to 1971 and are introduced to Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lilli Taylor, respectively) and their five children as they move into their new home located in the open country of Harrisville, Rhode Island.
At first all seems well and the Perrons appear to be at the beginning of an idyllic new chapter of their life. But a series of inexplicably weird and increasingly dark incidents begin to occur. Doors open. Clapping is heard when no one is there to clap. Clocks all stop at 3:07am. The dog refuses to come into the house. And so on.
Gradually, these events reach such an intensity that the family has no choice but to seek outside help. That’s when Carolyn tracks down the Warren’s, who agree to investigate the claims and determine what the Perrons are experiencing.
The rest of the film is an account of that investigation and the dark, often terrifying and extremely dangerous places it led everyone involved. That’s all I plan to write about the plot, because when this film starts with the scares in earnest, it throws them at the audience fast and hard and doesn’t relent. Believe me when I tell you, folks, the trailers only scratch the surface.
The performances are all solid, with Taylor and Livingston perfect as the confused and frightened couple trying to protect their family from forces they don’t comprehend. Vera Farmiga is also dead on as Lorraine Warren who has herself experienced her own frightening brush with the unknown and is more aware than most people of how deadly those forces can be.
But the star, in my opinion at least, is Patrick Wilson as the late Ed Warren. This man is already one of my favorite actors, but he delivers a tour de’ force performance here, embodying Ed with both kindness and intelligence. I found myself so invested in this man that his personal struggle to balance concern for the safety of his wife (in regards to the brush with other side I mentioned earlier) against a determination to prevent the evil from harming the innocent people under his charge really mattered to me. Wilson paints a vivid, likable picture of man who has seen things most of us will never witness and is vividly aware of how malignant they can be, yet also understands the skepticism with which most rational people greet his and his wife’s claims.
And that leads me to the aspect of The Conjuring that I thinks separates it from the standard horror movie pack and pushes it closer in quality to films like Poltergeist and The Exorcist. Aside from being a truly frightening horror film- and it is that, with no opportunity to evoke dread, send shivers down the spine or outright startle and shock the audience wasted- there is a human quality going on here that gives the story legitimate, unforced gravitas. Not only are we enlightened as to what befell the Perrons , but we also learn about the series of bizarre and terrifying events that plagued the Warrens (themselves parents of a little girl, who found herself at risk) as they pushed deeper into the Perron investigation. By taking the time to establish a bond with not only the terrorized family but the couple doing the investigating, Wan and his writers make us care about the fate of these people. They become flesh and blood, not just stock characters who fill the stereotypical assigned functions in a thousand spook show B movies. It’s that difference which also makes the otherworldly phenomena that much more plausible and scary.
The Conjuring is the kind of film that honors the genre conventions. It could easily have slipped into cliches’, but instead it gives us such a compelling story and characters that none of the tropes actually seem like tropes. Everything feels fresh.
It also feels refreshing. I was pleasantly surprised to see a film in this day and age that doesn’t paint the Catholic church as a collective of helpless, uncaring buffoons but an agency determined to assist a suffering family when and if they can, reminding us that – ultimately- it’s the twin gifts of love and hope which propel us forward back into the light and out of the shadows, no matter how deep those shadows may be.
The Conjuring gives us believable flesh and blood characters and countless well earned scares, suggesting along the way that – while there are forces in the universe human beings should never summon or play around with – good can and does still triumph over evil. Even if you don’t believe that the Warrens have experienced any of the things they claim to have and hold this film to be a work of fiction, that message is still worth hearing and it’s comes wrapped in what is (fact or otherwise) a superb motion picture experience and one of the most terrifying films I have seen in a long time.