‘Despicable Me 2’, ‘Grown Ups 2’, The Smurfs 2’, ‘Red 2’, ‘Monster’s University’ (or ‘Monsters Inc 2’). Aiya! So many sequels. Not this one though. ‘The Conjuring’ which is now in its fourth week of release has already grossed $113 million on a +$20 million budget. Horror movie usually open strong at the box office; then, bad word of mouth pushes it out of theatres quickly. ‘The Conjuring’ did what no 21st century horror movie has done – it actually scared me. A lot. I’ve been comparing it to classics of the genre; but, so have most people – in the last few weeks, this movie has been described by most as “the scariest movie since «insert person’s favourite horror movie here »”.
It’s haunting in all the right ways; we can now forgive Lili Taylor who was in the terrible remake of ‘The Haunting’ back in 1999. Supposedly based on a true story that took place in 1971, the film follows paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed as they try to help a family terrorized by a demon in their farmhouse. That kinda sucks – you dump all that money into the house only to have Satan jump in and seize control. All of a sudden, the family dog won’t enter your house. The clocks stop working at 3:07 a.m. Unexplainable bruises appear on the mother’s arms/legs/back. Ghosts of children start to appear. Some WTF stuff takes place. You want to shout “Get out of the house!” Then the characters explain why they can’t simply move out. And still, you want to shout “Get the @%^& out of the house!”
The creaking sounds of an old house can ratchet up dread. What makes ‘The Conjuring’ a very good horror film is that it presents us with old school scares. This is a bit of a surprise coming from director James Wan who essentially invented the torture porn genre with the first ‘Saw’ film – thanks to him (and his many imitators), most contemporary horror movies consist of us watching deranged people inflict pain, suffering, dismemberment, and death on innocent victims; such films show these scenes from the torturer’s viewpoint so we don’t get to sympathize much with the victims. There’s something really unsettling about that sub-genre of horror pictures; it isn’t for me and I’m not really sure who those movies are meant for aside from the criminally insane. Truthfully, I blame James Wan for it. But, ‘The Conjuring’ isn’t as bloody or gory a film like most modern horror pictures; and Mr.Wan (with both this movie and ‘Insidious) has gone back to old school horror filmmaking.
Though shot digitally, the film feels like a classic horror picture from the 1970s – you know, the ones that relied on creative intelligence rather than elaborate torture setups. Wan has some fancy camerawork – slow zooms and complex long takes. There’s great attention to lighting and color effects; atmospherics and slow simmering tension keep the jump scene “gotchas” coming and there are a lot of them. They even worked on me – I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies during my lifetime; I thought I knew all the tricks and couldn’t be fooled but this movie had me. There is a creepy doll in this movie named Annabelle – the very thought of the doll in its enclosed case gives me chills. The restraint Mr.Wan employs is very admirable, even if his technique becomes increasingly hysterical, especially in the last act containing a cray cray exorcism.
Now, some of you are going to skip ‘The Conjuring’ because you think it might be too scary for you. And some of you need big, recognizable stars to hook you in – I can almost guarantee that you will see better acting in this little horror flick than any other big budget summer blockbuster currently playing in theaters. You may not have heard of Patrick Wilson – he’s a very good actor and an underrated one; he’ll get the appreciation he deserves at some point I’m sure. But the movie belongs to the women, both young and old, who deliver believable performances (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Shanely Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, and Mackenzie Foy). If you haven’t already, give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised as I was. Now, I’m off to another horror picture called ‘We’re the Millers’ – oh, it’s not a horror flick? Oh. QED.