The Conjuring: James Wan’s Horror Masterpiece
Guest Post by Billy Russell
Tonight is a perfect night for a horror movie. From my window, I can see flashes of lightning illuminating a half-dead tree with dying, brown needles shedding off of it and decaying on the ground below. There’s a stillness, an electricity in the air and the smell of rain is thick enough to cut with a spoon. Drunken whoops and hollers from my degenerate neighbors are echoing across the neighborhood, mimicking a carnal, bestial howl. And there is a scary-ass staircase lurking in the shadows behind me as I write this review:
The Conjuring is the latest movie from director James Wan, famous for the first Saw movie and 2011’s Insidious, which also starred Patrick Wilson and its sequel is due out this year, making this “The Year of James Wan.” Insidious 2 landed on The Ghost Diaries’ list of most anticipated horror movies in 2013, despite its predecessor having fallen apart in the last reel, because the first 2/3 of it is genuinely unsettling and creepy.
Where to start with The Conjuring? Well, it’s easily the most anticipated horror movie to come out this year and had much hype behind it. It’s been compared favorably to classics of the Haunted House sub-genre such as The Amityville Horror (the real life case having also been investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren), The House of the Devil (a masterpiece of the “slow burn” philosophy of horror filmmaking) and The Changeling (also well-known for being Rated R by the MPAA for simply being “too scary” for a young audience despite featuring no explicit gore, nudity or foul language).
The plot, based on a true story, concerns a pair of paranormal researchers, Ed and Lorraine Warren who are commissioned to investigate a supposed haunting in the house of Carolyn and Roger Perron and their five daughters. In a wise script decision, their skepticism is dealt with in a short, earlier scene with another couple afraid of a haunting which ends up being just another creaky old house. Many movies feel like it’s necessary to have the True Believers doubt the pleas of The Victimized to replicate the audience’s natural skepticism. Usually, this is just annoying. Ed and Lorraine enter the Perron residence and immediately sense a sinister presence among them.
So, does The Conjuring live up to its hype? You bet it does! I’m not sure how faithful the film adaptation is to the true story, but I don’t want to let a silly thing like “reality” interfere with how the movie plays out. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I feel confident in exploring the true-to-life testimonies and eye witness accounts I’ve been avoiding in order to keep from spoiling myself. The movie, on its own, is a masterful exercise in the art of horror. If you were to refer to the word “masterpiece” in its original form, in that one artist can only have one, only one person can ever be appointed one masterpiece of their own work—instead of citing multiple excellent works—The Conjuring would certainly be James Wan’s.
Now, let’s see what the future holds for his career. I hope, perhaps naively, that it will grow better and better. The trajectory of his career certainly seems to be heading that way. His movies only seem to improve. There is no comparison between Saw and The Conjuring. It would be like comparing a really well-made Burger King concoction to a soufflé.
Well, maybe not a soufflé. The Conjuring is incredibly derivative, but that’s not a damning remark by any means. Not one scare or intense scene in this movie is wholly original. Not one terrifying element hasn’t already been done by someone else in another movie. This movie, though, takes familiar elements of suspense and puts a spin on them. It takes a familiar cliché we all know and love and exploits our expectations. Maybe The Conjuring is more like taking your refrigerator’s leftovers, frying some rice, adding ballsy ingredients to some vegetables, and emerging from the kitchen with something wonderful and unexpected. Please consider the obligatory “who the hell would go in that basement?!” scene, which I would never dare spoil, and enjoy how the filmmakers know no one in their right mind would ever do such a thing and play with the results.
The results are: Scary. As. Hell. Much of what we see and enjoy and actually get a scare from is as subjective as anything else we enjoy. Speaking for myself on a personal level (I guess what other kind of level would it be?), I felt intense levels of discomfort throughout the whole screening. My hands sweated profusely. Literal goosebumps crept up my arm and my neck hair stood on end. My stomach was in knots. It’s easy to become jaded watching horror movie after horror movie and with this year’s offerings so far in the scary department, maybe it was a good thing to have to wade through so much crap up to this point. It was worth it.
All four leads, played by Patrick Wilson, Vera Farminga, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are solid, with good writing and dialogue to match. A persistent problem with a lot of movies in general is to present the audience with a group of people no rational human being could ever sympathize with. Not one character in The Conjuring is unlikable. The resulting terror is from not wanting to see anything terrible happen to them.
Our greatest fears come from the unknown. What we don’t see is the scariest of all because our own morbid curiosity kicks into autopilot and overdrive and we manufacture what it is we’re most afraid of. The Conjuring understands and exploits this to an incredible extent. The very best scene in this movie has two little girls in their bedroom reacting to something that we, the viewer, don’t see. The biggest laugh also comes from this scene, a brief moment of levity, seeing the daughter with the large glasses react to the aftermath of the terror with such comically oversized glasses and a priceless gawk of sheer awestruck horror plastered on her face.
Similar to Insidious, The Conjuring does fall apart a bit at the end, eschewing its love of subtle build-up in favor of an explosive climax. As far as explosive climaxes go, though, it is simply aces. It would have been preferable to have kept the same slow-burn methodology to the entire film, but for an over-the-top ending, it is excellent.
The Conjuring is by far the best horror movie I’ve seen so far this year (though I do have high hopes for Berberian Sound Studio). Though it’s competing at the box office against a slew of family films which always dominate the box office, it will probably come in at No. 2 this weekend with an overall positive gain at the box office. With a relatively low budget for Hollywood standards, it will most likely make a healthy profit. I would love nothing more than to see this movie stay at number 1 for weeks. I want everyone to see this movie. I haven’t felt this giddy and alive leaving the theater in a long, long time. I feel like, in years to come, The Conjuring will be compared alongside our genre greats and remembered fondly as a movie that knows how to subvert audience expectations and create awesome, scary scenarios.
I highly recommend The Conjuring.