Directed by James Wan
Written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
A door slowly creaks open, nudged from its closed position by a slight gust of wind. The wooden structure of an old farmhouse settles at inopportune moments, expanding and retracting minutely with unexpected knocks echoing through its halls. A shadow crosses through the moonlight that shines onto a bedroom floor, nestling itself just underneath the mattress, waiting to leap out and terrorize the bed’s resident, a helpless child. All of the hallmarks of the ghost-story genre, including these most familiar ones and more, are on display in the relentlessly scary film The Conjuring, which is two hours of pure, almost painfully unfiltered dread.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal experts called in to investigate the mysterious happenings at a Rhode Island house in late 1971. If that set-up—introduced via an opening crawl that emphasizes that this true story is so scary, it’s been kept secret for decades—sounds almost comically simple, well, that’s The Conjuring and its wheelhouse in a nutshell: simplicity. Director James Wan and writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes take their sweet time in setting up the conflict between the blandly friendly Perron family—Lili Taylor as the mom, Ron Livingston as the dad, and their five daughters—and the demon or demons who roam their new abode, but there’s barely any plot to speak of. Nor does there need to be much in the way of story; the creaky old multi-story house is a horror director’s playground, replete with a hidden, darkened cellar with one swinging lightbulb; a dock that leans out against muddy waters; closet after closet that hides within it frightening, ghostly secrets; and more. Wan revels in creating a recognizably spooky atmosphere, then putting each of his characters through the ringer for ample shock value.
The Conjuring does not want for spookiness from the get-go, and doesn’t stop to give anyone a breather. This film is, in essence, a series of escalating sequences in which one member of the Perron family, or Ed or Lorraine, walks into a room of the house and is thrown, shoved, or otherwise badly harmed by a mostly invisible specter. The ways in which Wan and the Hayes brothers continually create fear are expert; if anything, the problem is that after 2 hours, The Conjuring becomes kind of exhausting. None of the characters serve as comic relief; the one genuine attempt at humor, at the expense of a local cop, is out of place because of how determined and serious the rest of the proceedings are. The Perrons and Warrens aren’t exactly dour, but the smiles that crack onto their faces are less inspired by good humor and more by a shared sense of community in the face of unspeakable evil.
That evil, when it manifests, looks an awful lot like the same demons and ghosts who populate the majority of modern horror movies. And when Roger, the amiable but out-of-his-depth Perron patriarch, asks Ed about the bottle of holy water he’s wielding to ward off spirits, it’s hard not to feel as though The Conjuring is treading on extremely worn ground. Yes, the film is set in 1971, before the breakout success of the film version of The Exorcist, when such Catholic rituals became more mainstream and recognizable. Roger Perron, thus, wouldn’t know the true significance of the tiny vial Ed Warren lugs around next to a handful of crosses, but here, as in a number of spots, we’re ahead of the characters thanks to the prevalence of horror-movie tropes in pop culture. However, in spite of just about every horror-movie cliché being thrown on screen—creepy clowns, creepy dolls, ultra-perceptive dogs, a flock of menacing crows, and more—The Conjuring still works, its atmosphere trumping the familiar.
The actors aren’t here so much for their performing abilities as they are for being audience surrogates, looking adequately confused or scared in equal measure at the unknowable horror that lurks just beyond the shadows. Wilson and Farmiga, playing, respectively, a demonologist and clairvoyant, do not have the swagger that people on reality shows profiling so-called ghost hunters evince. They look like average people, as much as Livingston and Taylor do, which is perhaps the ensemble’s secret weapon. There are no movie stars in The Conjuring, just regular people. Taylor, as the kindly but harried mom in the possessed house, makes the strongest mark, reviving the quavery, off-kilter charm she brought to a slew of 90s-era indie movies to a more suburban role.
The Conjuring is a haunted-house attraction at the old state fair or carnival that comes by your small town once a year. Each trick and scare within the rickety old house is well-executed and agreeably startling, though maybe the music that accompanies them is a mite overbearing. (The film’s score almost elicits laughter initially, blaring as soon as the studio logos appear on screen.) You’ve got your ticket to the haunted house, you paid your money, and today, the attraction’s operator has decided to give you your money’s worth, and then some. The Conjuring is a two-hour haunted-house attraction, and you’re going to experience every scare that house has to offer, even if you’re worn out halfway through. The style of the scares change, and they all work on their own, but it’s unrelenting and slightly wearying all the same, to the point where you’re glad to stumble back into the daylight after you finally escape that house’s clutches.
— Josh Spiegel