'The Conjuring' is worth screaming about
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
While the work of noted real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren has been the subject of a number of previous films -- they investigated the actual Amityville Horror, for instance, which has spawned no less than 10 films -- James Wan's "The Conjuring" is the first feature film to actually use Ed and Lorraine as essential characters in service to storytelling. While "The Conjuring" ostensibly focuses on one of the Warrens' most terrifying cases of creepy home-based paranormal activity, Chad and Carey Hayes' script also builds in enough information about the Warrens and their experiences exorcising both demons and cases of mistaken identity to give the film surprisingly emotional heft on top of its skin-crawling scares. The result is a well-made film that reaffirms Wan's ability to take seemingly tired genre films and turn them into something worth screaming about.
The bulk of "The Conjuring" centers on the haunting of the Perron family (with Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor serving as the Perron parents to five bursting-with-life teen and tween daughters). In the days after they move into a new farmhouse dating back to the colonial era, Wan and the Hayes establish early that the film will also spend plenty of time with Ed and Lorraine played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. They are both fantastic and able to bring nuance and emotion to their roles independent of the Perron investigation. The film starts with another investigation, in fact, one that involves a doll so creepy that she'd give the murderous Chucky a real run for his money (the Warrens' insistence that she's simply a vessel for evil doesn't quite lessen the impact of her scarred visage, and Wan absolutely knows it).
The Annabelle doll case is relatively tame by Warren standards, a welcome change to their workload, as we soon come to understand that the clairvoyant Lorraine is still recovering from an exorcism gone terribly wrong. That experience nearly keeps her and Ed from pursuing the Perron investigation, but by the time a rattled Carolyn Perron (Taylor) tracks them down and begs for assistance, she and her family have been through enough, and while we as the audience are suitably chilled by that point, it's merely the beginning.
What audiences really want to know about "The Conjuring" is just how scary it actually is -- which just so happens to be very scary. The film utilizes a veritable toolkit of haunted house tricks to ratchet up expectation and fear -- from the standard bumps in the night, stopped clocks, bad smells and eerie whispers that horrorphiles all love -- all the way up to a twist on hide and go seek that will handily ensure that you'll never hear clapping the same way again. It's both crafty and crafted, which is what makes its heart-stopping final act so jarring and so terrifying, as it veers firmly away from classic "boo!" moments and delves deep into far more psychological terrors.
While "The Conjuring" benefits from the expectation that it will provide classic haunted house scares (and it certainly does that), it surpasses the hallmarks of its genre with an actually dramatic storyline and all-around solid acting. Just don't think you can go see it alone.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in New York City.