As horror films go, THE CONJURING can be very effective and scary, but it depends on what audiences bring to it. There are several leaps that THE CONJURING asks the audience to take - leaps of faith, if you prefer - and there's a fragile sort of trust that's built. Audience members who go into THE CONJURING with something to prove may find that the scares and thrills will pass them by. You should approach THE CONJURING with an open mind, allowing James Wan and the script and the performances to wash over you and to tell their story, and you might find that THE CONJURING is truly as frightening as you may have heard.
James Wan's direction is the definition of restraint - he sets up the stakes very slowly, tightening his grip so carefully, and it's impressive how much Wan ramps the tension to almost unbearable levels. He commits to the script by Chad and Carey Hayes; skeptics of this sort of thing may find themselves scoffing in the early moments, but it's important to know that whatever your beliefs in the paranormal, the filmmakers commit to the premise to the point that you cannot help but be carried along this dark river with the characters. Any misgivings about the reality and the truth of these events get tossed aside, in sheer appreciation of a terrific storyteller, spinning his yarn over a campfire, with an audience ready to be scared.
Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) are paranormal researchers, probably most famous for their investigation of the alleged haunted house in Amityville. Those events haven't happened yet in THE CONJURING - the Warrens, when not investigating such things as possessed dolls and creaks in attics, go on the lecture circuit about their experiences. It doesn't matter to the Warrens if others believe in the truth of these spiritual occurrences. For the Warrens, this isn't faith, it is simple fact. There are spirits, both benign and malevolent, that seek to interact with the world of the living, and for the Warrens, religious debate doesn't enter into it. For the Warrens, the debate is over. When not looking into matters of the paranormal, the Warrens raise their young daughter, and are very happily married.
For Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) issues of the afterlife and demonic spirits haven't even crossed their minds. Roger and Carolyn already hav their hands full with their five daughters and a newly bought house. Roger works on the road, leaving Carolyn to help take care of her rambunctious and generally happy children. But there seems to be something sinister stalking them in the house, something that leaves bruises on Carolyn's arms and gives the children terrible nightmares at 3:07 every night. As events progress, and the attacks continue, it becomes clear to the Perrons that something horrible is happening, and so they desperately enlist the Warrens' help to put an end to it. It becomes quickly apparent to both Lorraine and Ed that this is something more dangerous than anything they have ever faced, something that reaches across the spirit world to attack them all. None of them are safe.
With sounds, or a door opening, or a light going out, Wan lets the movie build naturally, so that by the time the crazy events of the third act come along, we are incredibly invested in this story of one family's fight with otherworldly demons and the two paranormal investigators who are pulled into the tempest with them. It also helps tremendously that Wan has cast such terrific actors as Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Vera Farmiga, and Patrick Wilson, and they give THE CONJURING a sense of honesty and even verisimilitude that makes everything feel genuine. We believe it, because they believe it. It maks it easier for the unlikely events to become more palatable. Sure, THE CONJURING is based on true events, and regardless of whether or not you believe the Warrens, it becomes almost irrelevant for the movie to work as well as it does.
James Wan is one hell of a horror director - it's almost a shame that he's leaving the genre (for now) and I'm very curious to see what he does with INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 when it's released later this year. I especially admire how with very little money Wan can expand on much larger ideas and themes, and still create a movie that is so riveting and terrifying. THE CONJURING feels like it's a 1970s movie in the best of ways, much like THE EXORCIST or those other fantastic horror films of that era. No excessive CGI here - just mood, tone, a great score by Joseph Bishara that sounds like a stack of violins being possessed by demons, and performances that commit to the story and the script. Audiences that let THE CONJURING in, that believe in what the movie is presenting, may find themselves very disturbed by what they see. Without much gore, Wan has created something scary in the best ways, and in ways that will have audiences taking the movie home with them when it's over.
There's a lot of ideas and possibilities almost offhandedly tossed around in THE CONJURING - I especially love the way Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the Warrens not so much spiritual as practical. At one point, Ed tells Roger to go to church, and he says it with all the weight of a dentist telling a patient that he should floss as well as brush after meals. You can sense the possibilities of many more stories about the Warrens - the opening sequence, with a doll that has been possessed with a dark spirit, could have been a movie on its own, and I would love to explore the back room where the Warrens keep the totems from their various investigations. Every one of them has a story, and James Wan gives us a glimpse of a much larger universe in just a few shots and moments. I love when movies do that; they allow us to explore the world of the movie in our minds, and I would happily welcome more stories with the Warrens.
It also doesn't hurt that Wilson and Farmiga are terrific in their roles; both funny, engaging, and yet very serious about their faith and what they do. It's hard not to be reminded of other husband/wife teams in movies; if they aren't Nick and Nora Charles quite yet, both Farmiga and Wilson still exude charm to spare. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor also turn in great work - they are a loving couple, and we are sympathetic to their plight. Lili Taylor, especially, does stellar work; as she becomes increasingly tormented, Taylor doesn't let up and the suspense becomes almost overwhelming. Again, these actors make us believe that they believe in the events of THE CONJURING, and it goes a long way to giving the movie a more genuine, almost documentary feel.
Whether you believe in the Warrens or not (and as a skeptic myself, I can at least appreciate that Lorraine Warren truly believes it), THE CONJURING is made so skillfully, and presented so matter-of-factly that you can't help buying into it despite any misgivings. Time will tell how THE CONJURING will measure up to those great horror films of yesteryear, but I feel confident in saying that there will be many audiences who will be truly frightened by it. It's the sign of a great horror movie that has you questioning your own perceptions, beliefs, and realities when you leave the theater. In that respect, THE CONJURING is a great horror film, indeed.