Now 6 months after it was unleashed upon audiences, it’s not new information that The Conjuring is a ‘horror film’ – but let’s talk about that for a minute. The initial reaction to the term (and the genre in general) is likely, for most people, to assume that the story involves, to some degree, the supernatural – ghosts, monsters, demonic killers, various other bumps in the night – and therefore takes place in a heightened reality above that of the viewer, creating almost a comfort within its own level of fiction. But horror films rooted in reality – most recently 12 Years A Slave, or Paul Greengrass’ devastating United 93, for example – can be equally horrifying, and perhaps even more so, for portraying unsettling and terrible truths about the world we live in. And so we come back to James Wan’s 2013 film, and the reason I found it so unnerving: based on the real writings and interviews of paranormal investigators from events in 1971, The Conjuring works by both definitions. This is a story about real people, and what they claim happened to them. Of course, how much is true is debatable – and the term ‘based on true events’ gives the filmmakers room for exaggeration – but still. That comfort blanket of the knowledge that it’s just a ‘supernatural horror movie’ sure feels a lot thinner while watching.
So I’ll be straight-up about it; I found this a very, very frightening film. While the set up is nothing we haven’t seen before (family moves into a surprisingly cheap new home, things start to get weird, somebody call the ghostbusters), The Conjuring is a masterful exercise in building dread and suspense. Taken from the accounts of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) who were at the time among the leading paranormal experts in the world, we watch as the adorable Perron family move into a large country home to start anew, but it doesn’t take long at all before the idyll starts fracturing. Birds mysteriously fly into the house and break their necks on impact; the family dog won’t come indoors; rotten smells pervade the house at night. Oh yeah, and the basement? It was probably boarded up for a reason, guys.
What perhaps makes the film so effective is that it’s fairly relentless in storytelling approach. After an introductory sequence with Ed and Lorraine involving the casework on incredibly creepy possessed doll ‘Isabelle’, we go straight to Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lily Taylor) and their five daughters on moving day, and from the very first night it’s clear that their new dream home is merely a facade for the family’s worst nightmare. Carolyn wakes up to find herself with a nasty, unexplained bruise, the dog is discovered slaughtered, and every clock in the house stopped at 3:07am. And this is just the beginning. With occurrences ramping up with both frequency and ferocity in the house, the Perrons desperately reach out for help… and that’s when things start to get REALLY bad.
The audience is given almost no time to relax during the entire running, as the film goes from sinister to shit-your-pants-scary in the first 30 minutes alone, the gradual reveals of the terrible history of the house mounting the terror with each escalating paranormal assault. It’s all expertly crafted by Wan who directs with a totally assured hand, weaving moments of tension with jolts and flat-out terror to make for a wholly unsettling experience. While there are more than a few familiar genre tropes being utilised – suddenly slamming doors, ghostly children, dolls and clown faces, mirrors, a creepy music box – it’s the deft manner with which they fit together, and the excellent performances across the board, that make The Conjuring as effective as it is. Now it’s hit DVD and Blu-Ray, this is definitely one to check out for horror fans – whether you like your scares based in fiction, reality, or both.
Just maybe not the first night in a new house, okay?