Movie Review: THE CONJURING Is The Real Deal

James Wan's latest brings the scares.

Before I begin my review of James Wan's The Conjuring, I should offer up a disclaimer: I'm not the biggest fan of haunted house movies. I don't know if it's because I saw what is undoubtedly one of the best (Poltergeist) at the age of 5 and thus got an early desensitization, or maybe I'm just a jerk, but they just fail to get under my skin the way they do for the populace. There are exceptions, of course (Wan's previous film, Insidious, is one such example), but your average Amityville or Haunting wannabe just doesn't do it for me. So I'm happy to say that this is also one of those exceptions; I didn't get as frightened as the folks around me, but certainly enough people in the crowd were screaming and muttering "No no NO!" often enough to know that it was working like gangbusters, and should clean up for Warner/New Line next month when it takes its slot as their annual summer horror movie.

And it's no surprise, really - the movie got an R rating simply for being too scary. I recently got a side gig as a Netflix "tagger," which has me checking off what the movie has/doesn't have to help them categorize it on their site, and there's one section devoted to the type of things that would give a film a higher MPAA rating: gore, violence, profanity, drug use, sex/nudity, etc. So I have to pay more attention to those things if I have been assigned that particular film, and it was actually kind of amusing filling it out later - I was selecting "NONE" for every one of those categories! There's actually only a single profanity in the entire film (a "God dammit!"), no real gore to speak of, and while folks get thrown around the room and fall through holes in the floor of the ancient, no extreme violence either. Yet, I fully endorse the MPAA's decision, as a PG-13 would mean younger kids would fill up the theater and older adults might pass it by assuming it was tame (or specifically aimed at teens, like Prom Night or whatever other PG-13 movie is your "go-to" example for such kiddie fare).

Because I'm telling you, while I only got those much wanted jolts a couple times (my wife, on the other hand - well over a dozen), the movie is intense as all hell. Things start going wrong for the family the second that they move in, pretty much - the dog refuses to go inside the house, and they find out that they have a basement that was boarded off "for some reason." The clocks all stop at 3:07, the daughter starts sleepwalking, mom (Lili Taylor, seemingly seeking penance for 1999's abysmal Haunting remake) gets bruises all over her body... all of this in the first reel! And that's not even mentioning (well, now it is) the prologue that introduces Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) where they investigate a creepy, possibly possessed doll that should please those unfortunate few fans of Wan's Dead Silence.

In short, this isn't one of those slow burn movies like Burnt Offerings or whatever; Wan (and the script by the Hayes brothers, who also wrote the underrated House of Wax "remake"*) starts the movie at about a 7 or 8 and deftly ramps it up to 12 by the finale, where his penchant for long shots that go in and out of rooms proves to be a wonderful match for scenes that find the demonic presence dragging people around by their hair and tossing would-be rescuers into walls and through glass doors. CGI is kept to a minimum, which certainly helps add to the scare factor, and as with Insidious, the director has enlisted his composer (Joseph Bishara) to play the film's demon under heavy makeup. Since he (well, SHE) was the source of those two jolts I mentioned, I'm guessing it's a worthwhile collaboration, and merely got me more excited for the upcoming Insidious sequel.

Also, likable characters. The plot is the same as a dozen other movies in this sub-genre (not financially well off family gets a seeming bargain on a house, things go awry, paranormal investigators come to the rescue), with the major change being that the investigators are introduced in the first scene instead of being dropped into the movie at the halfway point. It's a fine approach; the two families get about equal screentime, and thus we're just as concerned for them as the family that's actually being haunted. I wish we got to spend more time with Ron Livingston as the family's father (he's a truck driver, so he's MIA for a few chunks), but the interesting dynamic - five daughters - along with Vera Farmiga's top billed role makes this a refreshingly female-driven horror film. At first I was worried since the oldest daughter (Detention's Shanley Caswell, whom I quite like) was introduced as the generic "teenager who hates that they have to move" character, but that side of her quickly subsides as the danger becomes more prominent and she has to protect her younger sisters. With the focus on the Warrens and the mother (who seems to be a specific target for the demon's possession skills), the kids have to sort of fight for screentime and prominence, but kudos to the creative team for keeping the family unit intact as it was in reality, rather than condense their number to something a little more movie friendly.

And yes, reality. While details on the real case are scarce compared to the Warrens' other big cases (i.e. Amityville, which gets a cute mention), it seems they stuck pretty close to the "facts" of the case per the Perron family's account and the Warrens' investigation (Ed has since passed away, but Lorraine was heavily involved with the film as a consultant). Since Ed is the only non-ordained person recognized as a Demonologist by the Catholic Church, you have to give them (and by extension, the Perrons) the benefit of the doubt that they weren't a bunch of bullshitters. My belief is that there are indeed ghosts/"forces" in the world but that they rarely if ever manifest as much violent energy as we see in movies, but unlike, say, the Lutz family, I'm willing to bet that what happened to them in that house wasn't just hysteria. I look forward to buying the book (written by one of the daughters; linked below for your convenience) and reading three pages of it on the can before putting it in the pile with all the others I never seem to find the time to finish.

When I got out I was shocked to learn that the film was just under two hours; I thought for sure it was only around midnight when we walked out of the theater post Q&A only to discover it was 12:40. That I didn't even check my "watch" (read: tap the power button on my phone, concealed in my pocket, and pulling it out just enough to see the time) once during the movie is sort of an achievement on its own, but I swear on my life, I didn't see a single cell phone once the entire screening. This is rare no matter what, but at a festival, with a lot of the execs and self-appointed "important" journalists in the crowd, it's almost unthinkable to believe that a two hour period would go by without anyone being a selfish asshole. If that alone doesn't convince you that this movie's the real deal, I won't know what will.

*It's actually a remake of Tourist Trap. Sssh, don't tell Charles Band.

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