Mania Grade: A-
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- Rated: R
- Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland
- Directed By: James Wan
- Written By: Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes
- Studio: Warner Brothers
- Run Time: 112 minutes
- Budget: $13 million
Mania Review: The Conjuring
Top tier demon possession film or more of the same?
By Chuck Francisco
July 19, 2013
Demonic possession is a problematic subdivision of the horror fold. An election winning majority of these movies deal with a malevolent entity which opposes the god of Abraham and his acolytes. Final confrontations typically entail a priest forcing out the demon with the help of bible passages and religious iconography. Director and horror film historian John Landis famously noted that as a non believer, none of these films scare him except for The Exorcist. Boiled down, the hearty stew of his statement becomes: "here is a film so good that despite my skepticism, I was frightened." Saw director James Wan has assembled a top tier demonic possession movie that (dare I say it) has a depth of fright which rivals The Exorcist.
Having gotten that bold proclamation out of the way (pick your stunned jaws up off the floor, I have a case to make), let's look at the puzzle pieces which combine to form this Voltronic spine tingler. The Conjuring does nearly everything right, but two elements prominently take center stage: the acting and the cinematography. Based on one of the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren (the husband and wife demonic investigative pair most famous for their work on the tale behind The Amityville Horror), The Conjuring smartly broadens the focus beyond the family being terrorized to also include the investigators as well. This takes the film beyond being an Amityville knock off, but to avoid diluting the tale a strong quartet of acting talent is required. Vera Farmiga brings a lovely sense of purpose as Lorraine Warren, an emotionally wounded but selflessly dedicated medium, while Patrick Wilson is the far more practically grounded Ed Warren. These two characters love each other, and I don't mean in the way action movies try to convince us the leads have attraction through cheesy love scenes. Farmiga and Warren possess an inaudible longing for one another, transforming their characters into real people whom audiences will care about.
The Warrens would steal the show without a strong opposing pair to balance the scales. Playing Roger and Carolyn Perron are Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor. They're the working class parents of a veritable brood of girls, who move into a country house with a malicious history. Livingston puts in a solid performance, but it's Taylor who really earns her paycheck with comfortable grace and passionate resonance (and still more). The story wisely revolves around the parents and the investigators, rather than the children as so many modern possession films are wont to do. It's a refreshing break that will help set The Conjuring above the pack it runs with. Yet despite that, all five children are well cast and utilized in perfectly proportioned amounts, never overstaying their welcome.
Strong casting is only half of the work though. James Wan is no stranger to horror films, kicking off the blockbuster Saw franchise, reviving our deep seeded fear of dolls with the underrated (if slightly formulaic) Dead Silence, and blowing the doors off with 2010's surprise hit Insidious. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, Wan again teams with cinematographer John Leonetti (who filled the same roll for Insidious). This lucky stroke of brilliance led to a horror film which never settles into the rut of predictable camera movement. Instead the pair play three card monte with the audiences' expectations, constantly pulling out new visual configurations to both intrigue and unsettle. One early establishing tour through the house takes the form of a nearly sixty second unbroken shot. Moving from room to room, swooping around to change direction, it's incredibly reminiscent of the opening to tour of Serenity. By taking this approach, the audience has now been given an unrestricted look at the whole house, which lulls them into a very vulnerable feeling of false security (making the scares more heart pounding by comparison).
What form the scares come in run the gamut, at once indulging in a few well placed jump startles, yet at the same time working hard to stroke the kitten of the long dread. There are frights packed in for both sensibilities, but The Conjuring leans far more heavily on creating a sense of panic through atmosphere and looming unknown. Missing nearly entirely is messy, slapdash gore. What is present takes the form of gnarly, deformed faces and gashes to the afflicted. This all serves to make the scant blood far more shocking when it shows up. Most importantly of all, this is a horror film which is actually frightening, an incredibly rare sight as of late.
There are a few minor issues with The Conjuring which are worth noting. The most glaring is a pacing dead spot right around the middle of the film. It's noticeable, drawing more attention to itself because the surrounding film is vastly superior to it. This doesn't ruin the film, nor does it last all that long, but it was evident. Clocking in at an unusually long (for a horror film) 112 minutes, there's an entire subplot which could have reasonably been excised to tighten the film up, but the wealth of content perhaps makes this film more than its contemporaries. One very fascinating structural choice was to start the film at the climax of one of the Warren's other cases', in very much the same way a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie begins. This goes a long way toward establishing the story as simply another supernatural adventure from among a long line of them for this husband and wife demonic tag team.
This is the best horror film of 2013 so far, harkening back to the implied, unknown menace which was quite common of horror films leading into the early 70's (the time in which it's set). The Conjuring occupies a dimension of nightmare right between The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, raising blood pressure and hair to the point where release is not only desired but severely coveted. If you're looking to actually be scared by a well produced demonic period piece, with great performances and camera work, look no further; James Wan's newest movie has got you covered.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.