Horror, like comedy, can be a fickle beast. It’s hard to gauge what will scare most people. James Wan has had experience scaring people in many different ways; he directed the first Saw film, spawning a franchise that was shocking, gory and gruesome as they come. More recently he directed the relatively quiet and atmospheric Insidious. With The Conjuring, he has crafted the horror buff’s dream that may give you nightmares.
Patrick Wilson, who also starred in Insidious, plays Ed Warren, husband of Lorraine Warren. Together, this real-life power couple solved mystery after creepy, haunted mystery in the 1970s and 80s. Their most recognizable case is referred to as ‘Amityville,’ which became the inspiration for The Amityville Horror. Lorraine is played with tremendous commitment by Vera Farmiga. Hers and Wilson’s on-screen chemistry is dynamite and their relationship is the most entertaining and intriguing part of the film before the scares kick in. This dedication to the truth of the story and the people behind it really shows the level of thought and care that went into this film. As a horror nerd, I am ecstatic to see this great mental and emotional effort put into a Hollywood-produced horror film, because it doesn’t happen often.
As the film gets into the case it’s based on, there is a sense that the Perrons’ haunted home was truly the most dreadful and terrifying case that the Warrens ever dealt with. But it’s not just that the sights and sounds are chilling, it’s also that each new aspect of the case ties in thematically with things that the Warrens are dealing with in other parts of their lives. Also, the Perrons are very well-fleshed out, especially Carolyn (Lili Taylor), who becomes the target of the demons that are running rampant through her house. We are specifically shown the depths of her love for her husband and daughters, and this is what makes the film truly terrifying; we care about what happens to this family because we like them and can relate to them – they’re not just kill fodder. So when we see horrible things happening to this family in a seriously scary climax, it’s even scarier because we’re worried that she might not make it. This concept also ties back into the Warrens’ subplot – their love for their young daughter and their desire to protect her after she becomes a target of a demon. I was almost in tears at the hilt of the scares because contemporary studio horror films so rarely do anything like what The Conjuring does. It focuses on the power of love and family over demons and false beliefs.
Besides mastering an old-school tone, the film also masters an old-school look. This is a 70s period piece, and not one chair, light fixture, costume or prop looks out of place. That grounds the audience and helps create a sense of immersion into the Perrons’ nightmare.
All things considered, I think this is the best film of the summer of 2013. It’s emotionally resonant, truly bone-chilling and a really fun ride. You probably won’t want to clap at the end (you’ll see why), but you’ll definitely want to see it again, and that’s saying something for a horror film built on the element of surprise.
– George Napper