I am an admitted horror film aficionado, yet I will openly confess that I dislike at least 80 percent of all horror films. While the genre is filled with potential, the majority of films labeled within it fall short. They offer a bombardment of violence, gore, and cheap jump-scares in place of a story with substance that lingers long past the credits. These films usually fail to scare the viewer but only shock and repulse, their atmospheric creepiness nonexistent and their psychological impact nil. Still, occasionally there will come along a horror film that rises above schlock and cheap thrills and gives us a truly meaningful and chilling story. The Conjuring is one of those films.
I was skeptical when I first heard about The Conjuring. I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing it. It wasn’t that it didn’t have good source material. The story is based on a real-life case from renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. I simply had preconceived notions based on the crew involved. James Wan, the director, helmed the original Saw, a smart but graphically violent romp, while the screenwriting duo of Chad and Carey Hayes had previously worked on the House of Wax remake. Could these artists go from grisly horrors to recounting a terrifying true story of otherworldly activity?
The answer is yes. Like putting on the perfect glove, Wan and the Hayes brothers have finally found their niche in this macabre masterwork. While it isn’t the greatest genre film of all time, it keeps in step with what makes the greats the greats, and its consistent spiritual element begs the minds of the audience to ponder the events long after the film has ended. The climate of this film is not unique, but it is eerie in its familiarity. Take a handful of The Amityville Horror, a heaping spoonful of The Exorcist, and perhaps some dashes of The Haunting, The Shining, and The Omen, and you will get a feel of The Conjuring‘s superior pedigree. The opening title pays tribute to the style of some of the films in its heritage, yet it manages to make a place of its own in the annals of horror cinema.
The Conjuring is rated R. It isn’t rated R for gore, sexuality, language, or even particularly brutal violence. The film achieved its R-rating on its ability to terrify alone. These aren’t simply disturbing images. Indeed, the terror is often only a shadow, a whisper, a vague form in the background, or simply what you imagine might exist in the dark behind a door. Our fear, instead, is fueled by our imagination and by our two-hour suspension of disbelief that allows the most skeptical viewer to consider that these things might be real. The terror is heightened by the mere fact that we grow to care about the characters. Unusually well-cast with high-caliber actors like Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, the characters call upon the audience to recognize the universal relationship between mother and child, husband and wife, and the protective love central to these bonds. We dread the horrors of the film because they endanger characters we care about; they not only frighten us, they break our hearts.
Our hearts, minds, and even spirits are taken for quite a ride in The Conjuring. The battle between good and evil, darkness and light, God and the devil, is made profoundly real. The Warrens are painted as devout Roman Catholics whose faith guides them in their battle against evil spirits. The real Ed Warren is quoted at the film’s conclusion, “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.” The screenwriters themselves profess to be Christians, and their ability to channel the Warrens’ faith basis without over- or under-emphasizing it in the story is as much a credit to their skillfulness as screenwriters as it is to their own spiritual roots.
Before I gush too much about the film, I will say that no film is perfect, including The Conjuring. Perhaps The Conjuring‘s least effective moments, much like those of others in its heritage, are when it deviates from its predominantly understated method and embellishes the story a bit, such as having Lorraine Warren (portrayed by actress Vera Farmiga) fall two storeys with little more injury than a sprained ankle. Still, moments like this are extremely sparse in a film that overall rings very true.
I highly recommend The Conjuring for its style and substance, for its ability to scare and its ability to stimulate minds. This film is a prime example of what can be achieved when the genre of horror is given the treatment it deserves, and thus why I continue to advocate it as a genre full of potential.
Overall rating: 4.5/5
(Cover image: promotional art for The Conjuring [New Line, 2013])