Review: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring is this year’s The Woman in Black, a deliciously creepy period horror movie that understands that real scares come from dread within the frame, not surprise from without. While most modern horror films rely upon jump scares to unnerve the audience, The Conjuring makes you stare at the supernatural horror happening on screen. And unlike the sequels to 2009’s marvelous Paranormal Activity — which are still scary — The Conjuring also boasts strong acting and well-drawn characters that we become attached to. It’s a pleasure to inhabit this film’s universe, even when the supernatural happenings are at rest.

What makes The Conjuring work so particularly well is its masterful direction. James Wan, director of Saw and Insidious, understands how to play each scene to maximum effect. He makes something as innocent as a white bed sheet scary and understands how to build suspense. As my friend mentioned after we exited the screening, Wan is so successful because he operates on the Hitchcock principle of horror, not the modern jump scare method: he tells the audience the bomb is under the table, or in this case, the demon is in the basement, and uses that foreknowledge to wring out as much suspense as possible.

The film’s first act balances between demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and the Perrons (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), who have recently moved into a nice rural Rhode Island home with a bit of a demon problem. The Warrens are probably the most famous demonologists of the twentieth century, involved in countless hauntings, like the real life events that inspired The Amityville Horror, and we meet them in the midst of a case involving a possessed doll. Soon enough, the problems in the Perrons’ home grow too large to ignore and the Warrens are called in to clear it up. This is a classical situation ripe for some good scares.

And boy does this film have some good scares. Any horror film lives or dies on its fright factor. Luckily, The Conjuring is terrifying. I won’t repeat the details of its scares so as to not steal away the surprise factor for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, but suffice to say, Wan does some dastardly things with the children’s game of hide and clap. There's also a brilliant recurring bit involving a music box with a mirror, and a sleepwalking child results in some ghoulish moments.

Not unlike other horror films involving paranormal experts, The Conjuring also has fun with the Warrens often explaining supernatural events while they’re occurring. Doors open and carefully-placed cameras go off, all the while Ed and Lorraine explain why this is happening and follow the demon around on its haunting. By the time we hit the third act, however, the demon has become most malevolent and the Warrens are playing catch-up. The clever exposition of the second act has given us such a clear understanding of what’s happening, we are never left pondering motivations and are instead able to soak in the horror.

There is something charmingly conventional about The Conjuring. It draws upon the conventions of a time when horror movies were about characters we cared about in situations that terrified us. It’s also the rare horror film with a happy ending, which after the nightmare-inducing scares that precede the finale is something of a necessity to decompress the audience. The Conjuring is a must-see for horror fans, but best not go alone. There’s nothing like sharing a good scare with friends.

8 out of 10

The Conjuring (2013/USA)

Directed by James Wan; written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes; starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, and John Brotherton.