The religious subtext in The Conjuring is at once provocative and minor.
In 2004, James Wan's first feature, Saw, initiated the most popular slasher franchise since Freddy and Jason. Yet, apart from a story credit on Saw III, Wan had little involvement with the seven-part Saw series. Instead, he has moved on to a less gory horror subgenre, the haunted house thriller.
One of these, Insidious (2010), led to another sequel (the upcoming Insidious Chapter 2), and a second, The Conjuring, opened 19 July, earning an estimable $41.5 million, as well as yet another sequel. In both Insidious and The Conjuring, families move into houses where they are menaced by half-seen supernatural forces. And in both films, paranormal investigators come in to assess the situation, and wonder if they may be in over their heads.
The Conjuring re-teams Wan with his Insidious star Patrick Wilson, although Wilson plays the expert now, rather than the ineffectual suburban dad. His Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are based on real investigators of the same names. One of their cases was filmed filmed, sequelized, remade, and revived, as The Amityville Horror. A less publicized "actual event" is the basis of The Conjuring: Here Roger and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) move into a Rhode Island farmhouse with their five daughters and soon encounter unsettling noises, sights, and incidents.
According to the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes, the Perrons' traumas take familiar forms: an impressionable child has an invisible friend that may be an evil spirit, the wary dog and a few birds issue dire warnings, and a doll looks quite malevolent. Insidious also uses many of these same elements, though that film has a more original hook, concerning a comatose boy stuck in a demonic dimension.
But Wan's craft behind the camera has improved since Insidious, which itself was a step up from the grim and rather relentless frenzy of Saw. The Conjuring explores the Perron house via long takes, often with a limited field of vision, shots that simulate both the inhabitants' inability to look away from or to see what's troubling them. The fluid camerawork also provides deft visual exposition. A lengthy tracking shot through the house on moving day introduces each family member and a stitched-together 360-degree shot follows the investigators as they walk through the house, bugging one room after another.
Such careful, quiet visual build-up elevates what could have been easy jump scares into full-on spook-house blasts, best experienced with an appreciatively screaming audience. The Conjuring doesn't have the indelible nightmarish quality of great horror films, as the imagery uses too many unsurprising tropes. But it does milk the creepy possibilities of an old music box with a spiraling mirror so thoroughly that, by the end of the movie, the mere sight of the box is enough to provoke a sense of dread.
More innovatively, the movie boasts an unusual shared point of view: it begins with the Warrens investigating an unrelated case, then flips to the Perron family moving into their new home and experiencing their haunting, which causes them to seek out the Warrens and an intersection of the two stories. These dual narratives might have had more punch if the movie was a touch less admiring of the supportive, loving Warrens (the Perrons are supportive and loving, too, but there are seven of them and most of the daughters barely register). The Warrens' dedication to saving the demon-afflicted looks impossibly saintly, despite or perhaps because of their skillful incarnations by Wilson and Farmiga. They're firm believers in the paranormal who are nonetheless debunking a possible haunting as mere creaky pipes, a plot point that seems calculated to affirm their authenticity and dispel any notion that they could be opportunists or zealots. Lorraine notes, reasonably, that there's "usually always some kind of rational explanation" for suspected demonic activity.
That semi-contradictory phrasing -- "usually always" -- passes by unmentioned in the film, but the mixing of a qualifier and an absolute hints at the complicated structure of the Warrens' beliefs. They sound measured and rational ("usually") but are, in the movie at least, unmistakably based on the "always" of traditional religion. God protects us, Satan is the source of evil, and a Catholic exorcism is (usually always) the way to vanquish the latter. When Roger Perron non-confrontationally mentions that his family doesn't go to church, Ed politely suggests that they reconsider. With this in mind, there's a slight smugness to the way Ed places crosses all over the genially godless Perron home: it pisses off the demons, he explains. But should a demon need to be pissed off by our religious iconography? If a demon is evil for the sake of evil, why does God enter into it?
Such religious structuring in The Conjuring is at once provocative and minor. Mainly, the movie wants to scare us, and it succeeds. But the pro-God material stands out because it's the movie's only shot at subtext. Its dedication to big scares leaves no room for much interpersonal conflict beyond a minor storyline about Ed's concern for Lorraine's safety. We know going in that good people here face evil forces, and we're never invited to feel their scares -- as opposed to our own -- very deeply.