Halloween beckons. Instead of spending the days leading up to this fear inspired annual late October day watching edited mid-1980s horror flicks on AMC, why not try on “The Conjuring”for size? It’s probably not the best scary movie you’ll ever see (and we all have our own personal opinion on which title fills that role, don’t we?), but it’s very far from the worst. In relying on elements from titles both classic and contemporary, “The Conjuring” layers everything together so it fits snugly into an initially slow but very much worthwhile 112 minutes.
It’s possible, but maybe not extremely likely, that you’ve heard of Ed and Lorraine Warren. They were some of the country’s very first ghostbusters, or, to be slightly more dignified, paranormal investigators. Their specialty? Haunting cases. Of course, the Warrens themselves would tell you that a logical explanation often lies behind one’s fears associated with strange noises, images, shadows and things that otherwise go bump in the night. Among their more prominent claims to fame are exorcising a werewolf demon in the mid-1980s, the Amityville horror haunting in the late 1970s (did you know that since the book was released in 1977, nearly a dozen movies related to it have been made?) and the case of the Perron family, which inspires “The Conjuring.”
Among the best lines spoken in “Ghostbusters 2” comes near the film’s beginning, when the court case being tried is rudely interrupted by a few less than nice violent ghosts. When asked to do something to contain the ghosts and their rampage, it’s Harold Ramos who calmly responds with, “Why don’t you tell them you don’t believe in ghosts?” Truth be told, having some belief in the supernatural will probably increase your willingness to like “The Conjuring.” If you’re like me, and you’re hunting for the film value aside from the supernatural phenomenon, some of the air might be deflated from the balloon.
Throughout the film, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) are seen giving lectures on college campuses to packed houses. They explain their most prominent cases, some specifics related to their abilities and how they often, but not always, are able to provide a solution. They’re well received, questioned frequently and unafraid to defend the positions they have and the work they do. Their relationship as people versus their relationship as professionals weaves their way into “The Conjuring,” but not so much it slows things down or distracts attention. In fact, things eventually ping pong to the Perron family as they begin to get settled in their new run down residence on Rhode Island.
Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) Perron seem like nice parents who are struggling to make ends meet. Their five daughters are also in the film: Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) and April (Kyla Deaver). As they move in and get settled, bizarre things start to happen. Their dog refuses to go into the house, Carolyn develops bruises across her body, clocks all stop at the same time, strange noises are heard and a boarded up basement cellar is discovered. Things get really interesting when a few of the girls start sleepwalking, a few others violently attack each other, the final daughter sees a dead young girl in her wardrobe cabinet and Carolyn is locked in the cellar and terrorized.
As you might predict, one family finds the other, and “The Conjuring” spends its final two thirds trying to identify what the heck is going on and how to stop it. The theories abound, the weird stuff gets weirder and the two families push and pull on each other in an effort to survive. I don’t want to give away too many details, so I’ll just state that if you think the first half takes a bit longer than it should, hang in there for the second half. It’s worth it. Trust me.
If one question abounds regarding horror films, it’s often, “Does it work, and why?” Well, “The Conjuring” works because it draws from a classic story and leans on some more modern touches to connect what would otherwise be pretty scattered dots. James Wan directs “The Conjuring,” (you may remember his name from the “Saw” franchise) but his emphasis is on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and guts. The jumpy noises pop up every now and again for the occasional chill, but it’s the quickly edited scenes where the demons invading the Perrons and Warrens daily routines come out to play that really steal the show. Drawing on elements from classic titles like “The Exorcist,” “The Conjuring” pulls them together with some first-person camera work you’d expect from “The Blair Witch Project” or “Paranormal Activity” in a way that establishes an eerie, creepy undertone without much difficulty.
The twenty-first century horror fan might have a harder time than others with “The Conjuring.” It takes time to develop and asks its audience to hang on for the ride. But eventually it snowballs into something with more than enough to entertain. Its box office performance (almost $310 million) speaks for itself, but any real horror buff will tell you that’s just the tip of the iceberg when evaluating a successful scary movie. You’ll need lots going on all at once to impress most fans, including blood, music, villains and then some. “The Conjuring” has it all, but it doesn’t walk around with a huge chip on its shoulder to the point where you want to smack it upside the head. Instead, you become drawn in gradually and develop a methodical, but important, understanding of what you’re about to endure. And, yes, it’s a worthy investment.
The story is the real star here, even though Wilson and Farmiga get top billing. They’re good, and as they should, they get some sense kicked into them. As is so often the case, what scares us the most is what we cannot see. “The Conjuring” lifts its veil enough to convince us something is there, but not so much we know what its story is going to do for us.
“The Conjuring” is probably among the best ten horror films made within the last five years. While it wouldn’t make my personal list of favorites because I think it’s pace is its weakness, it does offer a fascinating on combining something old with something new. Of course, the Warrens themselves deserve much of this credit. Hopefully director Wan didn’t just make a profitable film, but something those connected to its true case files will affirm.
Warner Bros. offers “The Conjuring” in its original 2.40:1 screen aspect ratio, juxtaposed with a pretty good 1080p High Definition image from beginning to end. The picture quality isn’t among the top releases from Warner Bros. that I’ve seen, but for a film like this, I suppose it doesn’t really need to be. The images are more or less grain free, but the coloration isn’t so hot. Brights more or less have no life during “The Conjuring,” as they very well shouldn’t (it is a scary horror flick, after all), but that should mean the darks take over and run with the torch full speed ahead. They don’t pop or offset in the way I had hoped, and they don’t increase the tension in a manner I desired. Thus, we’re given good, but not great, visual quality here.
The film’s audio helps to save it. The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is critical to “The Conjuring” from start to finish. Background noise is superbly recorded and audible. Everything from matches being stricken on the side of a box to floorboards creaking on old rotting staircases comes through with a vivid sound I greatly welcomed. The dialogue is audible just fine, too, but the script isn’t all that well-written. Music by Joseph Bishara and his team of foley artists is ever so well chosen, placed and performed. Additional options for soundtracks include French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1s, while English, French and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A standard definition DVD and digital HD Ultra Violet offering accompany the Blu-ray disc. Also offered are three featurettes: “The Conjuring: Face-to-Face with Terror,” “A Life in Demonology” and “Scaring the @S*% Out of You.” I like how balanced these special features feel, as they bring together the actors, the filmmakers and the people “The Conjuring” is based on to offer a different analysis than you often get with such films.
A Final Word:
“The Conujring” is more than worth a look, and it’s likely you’ll enjoy its creepy factor. Relying on it as an instant classic seems premature, but calling it a stand-out among so many other forgettable works isn’t going too far.