The Conjuring was James Wan’s tour de force haunted house movie from 2013. It started as something that just scared the living tar out of audiences, and ended up being the first in a movie universe containing at least six total entries. Having already started the Saw and Insidious franchises this is now starting to be old hat for Wan, but you know what? I’m not even mad. Did the movie actually deserve to start a franchise? Were people in 2013 just… sorta… pansies? Read our spoilerific review below to find out what we think.
Reviewed by: Mark
The movie opens by introducing the dynamic duo that have become central characters to the franchise: Ed and Lorraine Warren, as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The Warrens are real life demonologist ghost-buster types who have their hands in so many americana hauntings it’s hard to keep track. Although their real-life counterparts are a little bit more controversial (to say the least) their on-screen adaptations are wildly likeable and charming. We get a taste for their experience as they relay the unrelated story of Annabelle the Doll to a lecture hall for of students.
We are then introduced to the Perron family, consisting of parents Carolyn and Roger (played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), and their seemingly endless supply of daughters. They are moving into their new farmhouse in the Rhode Island countryside for… reasons. Usually people have to move for work, but Carolyn is a stay at home mother and Ron is a truck driver, so I’m not really comprehending what the impetus was for the move. In any case, shit starts to get real immediately. Their dog dies the first night, rampant bouts of somnambulism begin to plague one of the daughters, there are bad smells, knocking and clapping coming from empty rooms. It’s pretty standard bump-in-the-night fare.
When one of the older daughters (it’s honestly difficult to keep track of names) gets attacked by wardrobe ghost, and the mom gets locked in the basement, the family recruits the Warrens to assess the hauntedness of the house. Spoiler alert: Yup, it’s haunted. The Warrens do their thing along with their crack team of lackeys and take photos and shit of the ghosts for science. They find that the land the house was built on is cursed by a witch, Bathsheba, who died during the Salem Witch Trials.
Ultimately Carolyn is attacked and possessed by Bathsheba and is compelled to kill her children. While the Warrens are out attending to their own child, she kidnaps two of the daughters and takes them to the house to get her murder on. Arriving just in time (because Hollywood) the Warrens are able to exorcise the demon, and everyone lives happily ever after. It’s honestly a nice little bow of an ending for an otherwise bleak genre.
What the Movie Does Right
One of the most definitively charming aspects of The Conjuring (which isn’t a movie frequently described as “charming”) is the sense of place. Set in the late 1970s, there is a preponderance of period piece props and costumes. Granted, this is actually when the case occurred in real life, but it also provides a great story mechanism. No one has cell phones, flashlights are a little harder to come by, ghostbusting equipment is pretty limited… it was a simpler time. The other thing that is remarkable is that Wan adopted many of the camera techniques of cinema at the time. One notable example occurs early in the film when the girls are called in to dinner. The youngest is way out in the yard, and instead of cutting to her they do a looooong stationary zoom to show where she is. I wasn’t expecting for a zoom shot to be so nostalgic, but this one really triggered something in my brain.
One aspect that haunted house movies have to nail is the gradual ratcheting up of scares, and this movie is a great example of how to do it right. You don’t even see the initial scary things that happen (clocks stopping, dog dying). From there you have sleep walking in a girl that is already a known sleepwalker. Then the ghost starts literally playing games with people and there’s a spooky music box. Then, boom, demonic possession and psychic assisted murder. So it goes. Hitting this pacing allows the movie to consistently channel the dread directly into your eyeballs without providing a break to the viewer. The result is a long haul scare truck.
Speaking of ratcheting up the scares, it bears clarifying that the scares themselves are also really well varied. In particular I would like to comment on the mixture of jumpscares with what I guess you’d call narrative scares. I feel like jump scares are frequently shat on by the horror world because they’re easy, but using them correctly can really ratchet up the effect of the rest of the scares in the movie as a whole. This movie has plenty of jumpscares, some of them easy and some of them earned, but what is important is it leverages them against each other to keep the audience in a state of tension. Additionally, basically all of the scares happen at night. Until, all of a sudden there’s a big scare in the middle of the day. In my opinion (the other two guys disagreed but whatever, screw them) this is the best scare in the movie, because it takes the one remaining sanctuary the movie allows you, daytime, and plants horror right in the middle of it.
What the Movie Does Wrong
The Conjuring is what has been described by horror hipsters as “popcorn horror.” A stinging indictment to say the least, but it does get at something at the heart of this film. It’s scientifically designed in a lab to be a horror movie. The franchise doesn’t opt to create anything new, but instead decides to retread ground you’ve seen before in horror movies. You know those sports players who aren’t athletic freaks, but just do fundamentals really well? They’re a good analogue to this movie. The Conjuring isn’t a running back that’ll bust a 99-yard run by shaking off every defender, but it will manage 5.5 YPC and never fumble. What are we talking about? Is this my fantasy football blog?
To get this train back on track, there honestly isn’t a whole lot that this movie does wrong. It may not do anything particularly new, but it does do all the fundamentals well. There are some nits to pick, however. There is a transition during of the movie where the Warrens are wrapping up their presentation on the Perron family to a class, and it’s implied that they basically have the perfectly edited hollywood version of the story ready to go for the presentation. It’s not particularly sensical within the bounds of the narrative. Also, a significant plot point in this movie is that the house that the Perrons move into has an entire floor that no one knew about. How is that even remotely possible? It’s where their boiler is. How do you think your utilities work, Perron family? How did your home inspector not find this? Also, the basement isn’t even where the ghost lives so why board it up in the first place? It’s just a trope for trope’s sake.
The final complaint is that there is a significant difference in style between the first two acts and the third act. I don’t know if this is avoidable, but basically once you shift from the “bump in the night” ghost story to a light version of The Exorcist the nature of horror shifts enough to potentially pull you out of the movie a bit. If you aren’t into exorcism horror then the last act of this movie could very easily fall completely flat, which leads to people having widely disparate ratings of the movie.
Story: 6 - Overall it’s a pretty simplistic story that isn’t bringing much new to the table. However, as mentioned above it does basically everything to perfection. There is also a pretty decent pseudo-twist toward the end that is executed well enough to warrant a point above average in this category. Plus, it’s hard to discount the fact that this movie is the first in a major Hollywood franchise. Not saying that’s a silver bullet for a good story, but it at least laid the groundwork well enough to provide stability.
World-Building / Immersion: 8 - First off, world building: This movie does a great job at establishing the sense of time and place for the Perron family. I don’t know how difficult it is to pull off the 1970’s, but the movie does it competently. Second off, immersion: the acting and general level of execution is great. It’s always risky to include child actors prominently in the narrative, but the kids all hold their own. The only real issue comes from the sub-genre shift toward the end of the movie. Pretty minor stuff.
Scare-Factor: 10 - It’s a subjective category, okay. Haunted house movies are my go-to genre for being scared by things. Unseen evil forces that live in the walls get at me more than basically any other spooky thing. The first two acts of this movie have terror in spades with numerous scenes that are incredibly effective and memorable. The last act shifts a bit, but it shifts to another spot that is also generally pretty creepy, and executes the exorcism extremely well. There’s some schmaltz toward the end that breaks it up a bit, but it’s a minor transgression that I’m willing to forgive.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 8 - Aside from the mise-en-scene this is mostly a judicious lack thereof movie. The ghosts seen on camera are basically amorphous black shadows. Bathsheba is barely shown on screen before she possesses Carolyn, and at that point it’s just makeup. The manifestations of Bathsheba’s prior victims are just people who got walloped in the face by a powder puff. Nothing here detracts from the overall arc, but they also don’t risk enough to get a higher score.
Overall: 10 - Scary? Check. Well made? Check. In a weird way the popcorn horrorness of the movie actually helps it out a lot in this category. If you view the overall category as a tool for making recommendations to people for films they haven’t seen, then this makes a lot of sense. I hear the criticism that this didn’t take a whole lot of risk, but if you take this movie in a vacuum and just look at how well it executed then I think the argument becomes very simple. It’s a scary movie that highlights many tropes of the genre, is watchable to both hardcore horror fans and newcomers alike, and is ultimately a great experience.