Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie Review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring
Directed by: James Wan.
Written by: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes.
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren), Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren), Lili Taylor (Carolyn Perron), Ron Livingston (Roger Perron), Shanley Caswell (Andrea), Hayley McFarland (Nancy), Joey King (Christine), Mackenzie Foy (Cindy), Kyla Deaver (April), Shannon Kook (Drew), John Brotherton (Brad), Sterling Jerins (Judy Warren), Marion Guyot (Georgiana), Morganna Bridgers (Debbie), Amy Tipton (Camilla).

James Wan has quietly become one of the best directors of mainstream horror films working in America today. While many horror filmmakers are obsessed with the more violent films from the 1970s and 1980s – and all seem to want to make the next The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Wan has his sights on an era slightly earlier – the classic possession films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His last film was the excellent, under rated Insidious, and now comes The Conjuring – an even better film, that feels like a forgotten horror film from the year it is set – 1971. Since Wan directed the original Saw, he has often been lumped in by the unobservant with the “torture porn” crowd, which isn’t accurate at all. While the Saw series certainly devolved into that, the first film – the only one Wan directed (he was an “executive producer” on the rest, which probably means he had very little input into them) was really more about atmosphere than torture. The same goes for the awful Dead Silence (2007) that was his follow-up. Even the violent revenge film Death Sentence (also 2007) – which is inarguably his bloodiest – also has a great sense of atmosphere. And that is what The Conjuring excels at. Here is a horror movie with almost no blood, guts or death – and it is easily the scariest film I have seen in a theater this year.

The film is about the Perron family – father Roger (Ron Livingston and) and mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters – ranging from teenager verging on adulthood, to cute pre-school age. They are a picture perfect family – as we literally see in the many family portraits they have – who move to an old farmhouse in the middle of the Pennsylvania country. As you can guess, the house is haunted – but by what? As the family reaches the end of the rope, and things start spiraling out of control, they reach out to famed “Paranormal Detectives” Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) – best known for The Amityville Horror (which is referenced at the end of the movie, as this case predates that one) to figure out just exactly what is haunting them.

From the opening credits of The Conjuring on, Wan does his best to recreate the look and feel of the films from the era – I don’t think I’ve seen an opening scrawl quite like the one in The Conjuring in any many movies made in recent decades. This extends to the costumes and art direction as well. While often movies made today but set in the 1970s pretty much mock the clothes and style of the decade, The Conjuring does an excellent job of recreating them, without going overboard and becoming a distraction. Even the cinematography harkens back to the films of that era – a difficult thing to recreate in the digital age. The film is obviously inspired by masterpieces such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist – and while it would be nearly impossible to equal those two films (and this film doesn’t), The Conjuring easily ranks among the best of those two films many, many imitators.

Like those two films, The Conjuring depends more on atmosphere and slowly increasing tension rather than blood to scare the audience. Normally, I tire of horror movies that rely heavily on so called “BOO!” moments to scare the audience, but they are put to effective use in The Conjuring, because Wan knows not to overdo it, and enjoys toying with the audience. Sometimes, he is seemingly setting up a “BOO!” moment that never actually comes, and other times, they do, and yet other times, they come out of nowhere. An effective horror movie has to keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next – which Wan does amazingly well in The Conjuring.

But what elevates The Conjuring above most other horror movies is simple – the film is full of characters you actually like and get to know, and the film actually takes the Warrens and their beliefs and practices seriously. It is easy to mock Warrens – where Ed is a “demonologist” and Lorraine is “clairvoyant”, and if we’re talking in reality here, then no, I don’t really believe in either of them. But this is a movie after all, and the movie does take what they do seriously – and Wilson and especially Farmiga are excellent in their roles. Add in an excellent performance by Lili Taylor – playing for the most part a normal woman – and you have a horror movie that takes its subject more seriously than most, and contains performances far superior to most of what the genre has to offer.

I have tried not to reveal too much of the plot to the movie – in fact, I think I probably revealed less than the trailers do. As with many horror movies, surprise in a major element to the effectiveness of the film. The film may not break new ground, and may not be the masterpiece that the films that inspired it are, but as an example of the horror genre, it does everything just right.

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