Judge Gordon Sullivan has the Ten of Clubs up his sleeve.
Based on the true case files of the Warrens.
For decades and decades the wisdom surrounding horror was that the less the creator shows, the better. Terror, the highest of the fearful faculties, could only be produced if we didn't know what was around the corner. With the first Saw film, however, director James Wan pretty handily demonstrated that terror could go pretty well hand-in-hand with showing the audience. In fact, the more Wan showed, the scarier his film got, and if innumerable sequels have ruined the Saw formula, we would do well to remember that the first film was a tense thriller that was scary because of what we saw (pun intended). Wan has moved away from the explicit nature of Saw with subsequent horror films. Dead Silence saw him channeling a carnival atmosphere, and Insidious is a haunted-house style exercise in terror. The Conjuring finds Wan perfecting his style, offering up a near-perfect orchestration of all the elements of the haunted house genre in one neat package.
Facts of the Case
Ed (Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) are paranormal investigators (based on real life figures). In the early 1970s, the Warrens are called to an old farmhouse in Rhode Island into which the Perron family has moved with their five daughters. The house feels haunted, so Ed and the clairvoyant Lorraine agree to investigate. Unsurprisingly, since this is a horror movie, there is something to the Perrons' concerns.
You can take a checklist for haunted house clichés to The Conjuring and come away with every box filled. We've got the lonely, old farmhouse. We've got the family with several children, the voices of children who don't belong to the family. We get strange happenings, and the subsequent call to the paranormal investigators comes at just the right moment. The investigators are earnest, believable folks, sympathetic to the plight of the haunted family even as they seem a bit strange for believing in the paranormal. Things, unsurprisingly, go bump in the night as the terror mounts before the inevitable showdown.
Despite this, The Conjuring is actually an effective movie. Essentially, by executing every single element perfectly, the film transcends what should be its shortcomings to deliver a scary little thrill ride. So effective is the film that it earns an R rating strictly for "Disturbing Violence and Terror." There's no nudity, no cursing, no gore, just scene after scene that amps up the tension until audiences are spooked. It's an interesting move to make in a market that's saturated with either over-the-top gorefests or tepid PG-13 competitors. By sticking with an R rating while not offering any of the traditional gore elements, The Conjuring signals its intent to be taken seriously as a horror film.
The success of the film starts with its cast. So many horror films are filled out with generic faces looking to cash a paycheck. The Conjuring takes a number of familiar (though not overly familiar) faces who are also really excellent actors. Patrick Wilson has probably never been as sympathetic as he is here, and Vera Farmiga really sells the difficulty of having a psychic gift. Lily Taylor is perfect as the concerned mother who first realizes something isn't right with the new house, while the rest of the Perron family is filled out with actors who convincingly communicate the terror of the haunting.
The unacknowledged player in The Conjuring's stable is the house the Perrons find themselves in. It seems like the perfect place for a large family, with plenty of room and an invitingly rundown charm. Slowly, however, it is revealed as a terrible place that holds dark secrets, and its once-comforting contours are revealed to hold monsters. The house is perfectly chosen and then dressed and lit to perfection. Wan, of course, knows how to frame a scene, and The Conjuring finds him time-and-again choosing interesting angles to give us a new peek at an old scare.
The Conjuring (Blu-ray) is also solid. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch. The film is set in the 1970s, so the most obvious thing to notice is the attention to an older, slightly desaturated look. The film is supposed to look like that, and this transfer does a fine job keeping skin tones accurate while the earthier tones of a bygone era play out. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is particularly effective. We get audible dialogue throughout, and surrounds are used to great effect in the scare scenes. This is a track that does an amazing job establishing a space and then using that knowledge to surprise the audience. Clarity is strong throughout, and the LFE channel is especially impressive.
Extras start with a great featurette on the real-life Warrens, including archival footage and Wan's take on the couples' work. Another featurette talks to the real-life Perrons, offering their insights into what happened to them, with some input by Lorraine Warren. Finally, the disc includes a third featurette that finds Wan walking us through what kinds of cinematic tricks tend to scare viewers. The set also comes with a DVD and a Ultraviolet Digital Copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Conjuring doesn't change the haunted house game. This is a film that takes the basic components of the haunted house film and executes them with consummate skill. However, the film doesn't do much to elevate the material. The film understandably made a lot of money, but it doesn't have any unique elements that other films are going to be stealing from for the next few years.
The movie was a surprise hit at the box office, and deserves a slightly better set of extras than this. All the featurettes could have been expanded, a commentary would have been nice, and more behind-the-scenes info would have been appreciated.
The Conjuring is an above-average horror film that relies on skillful execution of a time-tested formula. Thanks to a stellar cast and strong camerawork, it effectively conjures an atmosphere of dread for the family residing in the Rhode Island farmhouse. Warner Bros' excellent Blu-ray release makes this one easy to recommend for rental or purchase.
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