Purportedly based on a true story, The Conjuring is a horror movie involving a ghost haunting a family. If that gets you excited, take a look at a list of horror DVDs and realize how often these types of movies have been done before. You’re now likely to be less excited, especially if you’ve seen some of the titles listed. Now read the rest of the review so you can become hyped once again, because The Conjuring is one of the good versions of this story.
The film centers on a family who move into an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It consists of the father (Ron Livingston), the mother (Lili Taylor), and five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Mackenzie Foy, Joey King, Hayley McFarland, Kyla Deaver). There’s something weird about the house, however. A cellar was boarded up, the clocks all stop at 3:02AM, doors open and close by themselves, the dog won’t enter it, and so on. Being set in the 1970s, the family has presumably never seen a horror movie, and thus decides to ignore all of these warning signs and just go on with life.
Eventually, they turn to the aid of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). This leads to a few scenes in which a couple of horror tropes are picked apart, but soon enough we find out that, yes, the ghost is for real, and that it will either have to be dealt with or it will kill. Scares ensue, and before you know it you’re going to be digging your fingernails into the skin of the person sitting beside you.
What I’m saying is that The Conjuring is scary. There are some points where it completely misses the mark, and instead of scaring you it will make you laugh, but the majority of attempts land. And I’m not just talking about jump scares — which startle, not frighten — even though there are a couple that are well placed; the film is actually scary because of its atmosphere and feeling of there being a genuine threat. That, with the addition of good filmmaking, makes for a movie that accomplishes most of the scares it tries.
Atmosphere is something incredibly important in a horror movie. The tone has to be set early on, and it must be maintained in order for scares to be achieved. The Conjuring establishes its atmosphere right off the bat, in which the Warrens recount a story of one of their most fascinating cases, and we get to see much of what happened. It involves a possessed doll, and I will say no more because this short story is actually better than the rest of the movie, in large part because of its short length.
The Conjuring is a long movie, which is its primary problem. Perhaps it’s just that the expectation of a horror movie is that it’s 90 minutes, but The Conjuring seemed to play forever at only 112 minutes. Part of the problem is that there’s only so much door slamming that one can take, and the film reached that quota about midway through. Many of the scenes involving the Warrens feel like repeats of both other movies and of earlier points in The Conjuring. When horror repeats to the same effect it loses a lot of its impact.
Another problem that it has is its use of stock characters. Nobody has any depth to them, and if you’re going to ask me the first name of a single character whose family name isn’t “Warren.” The daughters are all indistinguishable from each other, and even the parents don’t have much personality beyond (1) looking frightened and (2) “caring” about their daughters — by which I mean they run when a daughter screams so that they, too, can be scared.
Still, when a film does such a good job of placing us in an environment like this one, really making us feel like we’re there and therefore giving us a reason to be scared, I have to call it a success. I was frightened while watching The Conjuring. I jumped a couple of times. I was on the edge of my seat. And that’s how you determine the success of a horror movie. And at this point, with so many boring horror films coming out, simply being scary is good enough, isn’t it? It takes a fantastic film to be about something more; I’ll settle with “scary.”
Ultimately what you need to know is that The Conjuring is an overlong film with terribly developed characters, but its sense of tone and atmosphere, as well as its director’s skill at creating scares and tension, allows for it to be a frightening experience. There’s some repetition in its screenplay and a few scares that don’t quite work, but in this day and age, I’ll take a mostly successful, truly scary movie. This will probably wind up as the best horror movie of 2013, and if you like scary movies, this is one you need to see.