Dread is rare in horror movies these days. It’s that fear of what’s coming next that truly keeps audiences on the edge of their seat. And too many modern horror movies are so formulaic that the audience tends to be about 10 minutes ahead of what’s happening on screen. This is not the case with THE CONJURING which just opened. It sustains a sense of dread down to the last second and had me on edge the entire movie. It’s quite an accomplishment.
|Vera Farmiga in THE CONJURING|
This sublime scarefest is helped by the fact that THE CONJURING is based on a true story. In the 70’s, Ed and Lorraine Warren (played earnestly by accomplished actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were paranormal investigators whose ghostbusting adventures turned them into minor celebrities (http://bit.ly/bSdLyM). They were called in on many cases, including that famous one up in Amityville, New York. And their investigation into the Perron family’s problems with their Rhode Island farmhouse may have been their most disturbing investigation, and up until now, it’s never been fully disclosed.
Perhaps it was kept secret due to it being too incredible. This ghost story had it all – ghosts of homicidal mothers, creepy children, demonic dolls, an elaborate exorcism – but the events are documented and that helps make this movie all the more creepy. It also helps that this movie is told without a lot of stylistic flourishes that could have gotten in the way. By and large, director James Wan (SAW, INSIDIOUS) lets the taut and tight screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes do the heavy lifting. On occasion, Wan still indulges in cocked camera angles or self-conscious POV shots but his restraint is admirable, letting the events speak for themselves.
|Patrick Wilson in THE CONJURING|
And speak they do, as these ghosts call after the Perron family with eerie effect. Their torment of the children in particular is relentless. They speak to them, pull at their feet in bed, slam their bedroom doors, and even attack them by pulling hair and choking these adorable little girls. Yet none of these are ever presented as cheap shocks that so often populate horror films. Particularly frightening is how the ghosts repeatedly mock the family. The girls’ game of “Hide and Clap” is turned into a fiendish attack that will make you jump out of your seat.
There’s a lot of that in this movie - all genuine, all truly frightening. It’s made even more so by the fact that Lorraine is psychic and can see the ghosts and other ghastly visions from the ‘other side’. When she’s introduced to the family, she tries to be cordial and soothe the distraught girls but she can see the ghostly presence clinging to them. Vera Farmiga, so sublime as Norma Bates on BATES MOTEL (http://exm.nr/11iJ9cU), works more wonders here. There’s no actress working today who conveys fear better. Her expressive pale blue eyes are as haunted as the house!
|Lili Taylor in THE CONJURING|
The rest of the A-list cast gives it their all too. Patrick Wilson straddles his true believer with a witty sense of skepticism around the edges. And Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor really make you ache for these kind and unassuming people, struggling to keep their wits and their family together in one piece despite all the terrible events occurring in their home. And when Taylor becomes possessed by the demon, it is truly horrifying. Taylor’s full-throttled commitment as an actress is a marvel. She will not likely get any acting awards for this role, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning of an accomplishment.
And it’s a shame because, unlike the Emmys acknowledging Vera Farmiga for her work on BATES MOTEL this week, as well as 17 nominations for the likes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY (http://bit.ly/15OS1cf), the Academy Awards rarely honor such genre accomplishments. That’s an utter shame, as the artists at work here deserve such acknowledgement. Wan’s direction, as well as Joseph Bishara’s score, Kirk Morri’s editing, John Leonetti’s cinematography, and Julie Berghoff’s production design are easily some of the best this year.
Originally, the trailer was worrisome as it gave away so many of the best scares: the sheet flying off the clothes line that outlined the figure of a ghost nearby; the ghost’s hands clapping behind Lili Taylor’s head; the children being pulled out of their beds, etc. But there are so many other scares in this movie, and they all come legitimately out of the story, that you’ll walk away feeling totally satiated. And I can’t remember the last movie that had me squirming in my seat, wondering what was coming next, and fearing for the lives of the characters on screen.
I’ve had some issues before with James Wan’s showmanship (http://exm.nr/Qol5SS) but here exhibits marvelous control. He even downplays the dog’s demise, which is one of the first sign that’s something is amiss in the house, and the only egregious cliché in the film. But other than that, this film doesn’t strike a wrong note. And it sustains its moodiness and terror right until the last shot of a spinning toy stopping right before the credits. THE CONJURING is easily the best horror film on the big screen so far in 2013, and with more true stories to be told from the Ed and Lorraine Warren casebook, I’m hoping there are sequels. Bring on the ghosts!