Ghosts. Spirits. Apparitions. Demons. These are all things you can expect from James Wan’s 2013 film The Conjuring, a film that has nothing to do with the Conjuration School of Magic from 2011’s Game of the Year Skyrim (sorry, gamers). The Conjuring is directed by James Wan and stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingstone, and Lili Taylor. It is a modern horror film, shifting slightly away from the classics that have been reviewed so far on this site’s countdown to Halloween, and provides a glimpse into the evolution of genre pictures from the early Universal gothic horror films to the modern horror films of today.
Wan’s film is particularly good at building up tension through the innovative use of camera work, lighting, and set design. The home in which the majority of the film takes place feels simultaneously homey and creepy with the design choices that were made, while the lighting casts long dark shadows when building tension to a peak before a scare. It needs to be made clear, this is a film that simply does not work without the masterful editing and sound design that are present. Genre often gets passed over for awards, which is a shame considering some of the best and most innovative special effects and editing can be found in films like The Conjuring, and genre films certainly deserve more credit than they receive.
The acting choices in this film range, which can be expected when the majority of your cast are children. While there are some great performances by the younger cast members, there is the odd and unnatural line read here and there. The film really shines with the performances of the four main characters, with Ron Livingstone turning what could have been a one-dimensional performance into a rather nuanced and interesting performance of a man who is obviously in over his head. Lili Taylor is fantastic, displaying a great range in playing a role that goes through several evolutions through the course of the film. Patrick Wilson delivers a solid performance as Ed Warren, delivering an earnestness in his line delivery and marking that tends to be underappreciated in film these days. The standout star of this film, however, has to be Vera Farmiga, who steals the show and has some of the most intense scenes in the film. Her range from playing a calm, cool, and collected woman to a person wanting to be able to step back into her role as a medium, to a person able to pierce the veil between the world of the living and the dead is compelling and interesting. Her acting choices, some subtle and some overt, make for a performance that feeds off of her fellow performers.
The Conjuring does not necessarily elevate special effects, but uses existing techniques and ideas to their maximum output. Once again, the editing and sound design are of the highest caliber to make things seem to transition from one perspective to another without seeing the cut of the film. Unfortunately, The Conjuring also suffers from an issue that many horror films are infected with: the jump scare. All too often a cheap jump scare from a loud noise and something unexpected jumping onto the screen are used to “thrill” the audience, but it has become old hat at this point. While some horror audiences will see a film like IT and claim it’s “not scary enough,” it is likely that they have become accustomed to the jump scare. From this reviewer’s perspective, it is far more interesting and frightening to let the tension build until a truly scary scene occurs, rather than have that constant gratification of something loud happening. It becomes annoying after a while, and it fails to live up to the precedent set by some of the truly great horror films of the past.
The Conjuring is absolutely a film that I would recommend to others, whether a fan of genre or not, not just for the film itself but as a case and point of how good editing and sound design can make or break a movie. Pair this film up with a stiff shot of bourbon to calm your nerves, and a good old bowl of New England Clam Chowder (that’s the white one) and some oyster crackers. If you are in Southern California, you can check out Andrea’s at Ventura Harbor and order a “buoy” to get some of the West Coast’s best clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
I’m going to start out by telling a personal story, something I tend to avoid on here. When The Conjuring came out, I was about to become engaged to the eventual father of my son. This film brings up a lot of memories for me, both good and bad. To sum up what could be a novella, my son’s father got in a fight with a group of sixteen-year-olds sitting in front of us. It’s the only time I’ve ever walked out of a movie theatre, simply from pure embarrassment. We went to an old-fashioned drive-in a few days later to catch the film, and I have to say, the swampy, Florida fall air definitely added to the creepiness factor.
First off, let’s acknowledge the story is likely based on a little bit of local folklore, a little bit of some sort of energy (I won’t go as far as spirits, but some homes just do have some sort of juju attached to them), and a lot of Warren bullshit. I think the Warrens are fascinating people; I also think it’s safe to say they were expert manipulators. This doesn’t mean Lorraine (RIP) didn’t have some sort of special ability, nor does it mean EVERYTHING they said was a load of bullshit; however, I tend to take anything connected with them with a hefty dose of salt. Here’s a video from the current owners to disprove some claims surrounding the home (Author’s Note: The book was written by Andrea Perron, one of the kids who grew up in the house; however, with the Warrens involvement in anything, I just hold doubts):
As far as the film itself, there are a lot of historical inaccuracies; however, most of them appear to be based on local folklore. Take that how you will. It’s kind of a run-of-the-mill Wan film. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Wan’s work, but I would hardly describe him as really adding a whole lot to the horror genre besides an over reliance on jump-scares and stories “kind of” based on folklore. He’s one of those people I enjoy watching, but I don’t sit there and NEED to watch his work.
One thing I do appreciate is Wan’s parking in not utilizing a huge abundance of CGI in his work. Is it there? Yes, but not to the same extent as films like IT. He relies a lot on lighting, score, camera work and makeup to scare us, which lends itself to a creepier feel versus an animation screaming at us (Annabelle Comes Home is a good example of a film ruined by CGI).
Overall, I like the film. I’s pair it with some lobster sliders and cognac.