Let’s be honest, the main reason we watch horror movies is because we like to be scared. We experience a euphoric adrenaline rush while watching characters escape death time and time again. “Got-ya” moments provide a quick jolt, while long suspenseful scenes make us squirm in our seats with tension. James Wan’s The Conjuring toys with both of these tactics, but it is the successful use of the latter, combined with well attuned character development, cinematography and production design, that sets it apart from most other horror offerings.
Wan’s film sets us up with an unusual pair of protagonists for a haunted house story. Ed and Lorraine Warren are a husband/wife team of psychics / parapsychologists / demonhunters / crackpots (their words, not mine) famous for getting to the root of paranormal disturbances (and, as in one featured case, noisy old heating pipes). Often these types of characters are regulated to the deus ex machina of horror movies. They come in halfway through the movie to provide background on the entity terrorizing whichever family failed to do research on their new home. The Warren’s are based on a real life couple of the same name who have documented hundreds of hauntings, including the Amityville House on Long Island (on which most of these similar typed haunted house movies are based). He’s the only demon hunter recognized by the Pope; she’s has some parapsychic abilities. They have a daughter, a great repartee, and take the risks of their work very seriously.
As they should. Given the nature of the current haunting they become vulnerable—perhaps more so than the family who they are helping. The Perrons share a similar background with other haunted house families: two parents, not a lot of money, a brood of five daughters, an offer they couldn’t refuse on a large old house in the middle of nowhere. They experience a series of mysterious happenings, contact the Warrens, and, instead of things getting better, they only get worse. The presence of the heroes, the supernatural experts, only makes the spirits more volatile and the experience more terrifying.
As the audience, we experience this elevated terror largely due to our with our connection to the Warrens. The Warren’s background story provides a particular subtext to the haunting plot that raises the stakes for all involved.The Conjuring has its protagonists quickly discover the motive behind the haunting, which has the near immediate effect of making the case more dangerous, and the film more suspenseful. By giving the film a directionality and purpose beyond “ambiguous evil spirit with uncertain plans”, Wan creates something much more concrete and menacing to the characters and their lives.
It’s this type of plotting that helps elevate the film’s tension. There’s not just one demonic entity, but a plethora of them waiting in the Warren’s history that could come back to wreak physical and psychological havoc at any time. Some of these loaded guns go off, some don’t—but there always remains the possibility that our heroes are never truly out of danger. And while one or two of these smoking guns may seem like dangling plot threads, for a genre based on fear and anticipation, it’s nice to keep the scissors sharp without actually having them cut (and build for the inevitable sequel).
The Conjuring implements the usual PG-13 horror tropes of semi-gory closeups and loud noises, but when combined with a conjunction of long takes and steadicam shots that build tension, the shock scares don’t seem as cheap. The steadicam shots guide us through the house. Noises coming from every direction; tension builds as the camera follows behind a character, allowing us only fleeting glimpses as to what may or may not be in front of them. Shadows lurk around every corner-possibly hiding something dangerous. In one scene, one of the Perron daughters claims to see something creeping behind her bedroom door. Is it lurking in the hallway? Did we just miss it before the camera turned away? What’s that blurry object in the room across the hall? What about that shadow behind the door? Wan lets, the scene play out, the camera looking over the actors shoulder into the darkness, the characters squirming in fear.
Through the combination of video and audio effects, the house becomes a character. Everything from the ugly wallpaper, to the wood paneling and crummy horsehair plaster walls (no modern drywall here) gives a sense of believability to the old farmhouse. To any horror movie fan, it screams “Do not move in here! Bad things will happen!” Very early in the film, the camera roves the halls as the Perrons move in, the daughters playing “hide-and-clap” as the audience gets an understanding of the layout of the house. This knowledge becomes important when things go thumping about in the night, as we know exactly where and who the ghost is attacking, and, more importantly, how far away our protagonists are from helping them.—-interesting paragraph
The picture on the DVD/Blu-Ray combo is clear enough that all the clever mise-en-scènes employed by Wan and his team are easily readable and intentionally ambiguous. Sound is wonderfully mixed—I could easily discern characters whispering to each other without having to turn the sound down when things started to crazy.
Extras include a general EPK with Wan, a couple of producers, and members of the cast talking about how he has been able to elevate the genre beyond blood and guts with his ability to simply craft tension and build characters (certainly ironic, seeing he was the mastermind behind Saw, which put him on the horror radar and helped boost similar splatter-fests). Another segment provides some history on the Warrens and their cases (including a few featured in the film) and a third features the real-life Perron family talking about their experiences (which, given the way they are presented here, doesn’t do much to credit their story).
The Conjuring takes a run-of-the-mill haunting story and elevates it through character perspective and an expert use of cinematography, sound and production design. Wan takes pains to raise his genre beyond cheap scares and low-budget slop, pulling from classic horror and Hitchcock. It pays off and the result is pleasantly terrifying.