Can a movie be too scary? If you’d asked me just this morning, I would’ve chuckled a “no” because, as I’m often fond of telling friends who get all freaked out at horror movies, a movie’s never really frightened me.
Movies have shocked me and grossed me out, sure. The Exorcist is really well-made and compelling, but not particularly scary. I’d always admit that The Night of the Living Dead came closest to scaring me, and that was in part due to the near-documentary look of it and seeing it at a young age. But, no, I’ve never thought movies were truly scary.
Until I saw The Conjuring.
This one took me by surprise, as I’d not read much about it, and had seen just a snippet of a television commercial. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, though, especially when I remembered why I recognized director James Wan’s name: he helmed the first Saw movie. Granted, that one is the least terrible of that ugly franchise, but the whole mainstream torture porn horror industry that sprung up from it was an incredibly negative thing in my eyes, so I just expected some gross outs and nastiness from The Conjuring.
What unfolded instead was a very deliberately-paced movie that begins with its version of a James Bond pre-credits sequence, introducing us to the heroes of the movie, demonologists Ed and Lauren Warren (a never-better Patrick Wilson and truly affecting Vera Farmiga), having a creepy possessed doll adventure that is fairly unrelated to the main plot. Then we get text explaining that these are real people, and the following movie is based upon a true story that took place in the glorious fashion horror show that is the 1970s. I don’t know how much was changed or embellished by the filmmakers, but this gave the movie an air of authenticity that added to the experience.
We soon meet the Perrons: parents Roger and Carolyn (Ray Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their FIVE daughters – all played amazingly well by child actors. We get to know the family as they move into their only kind of spooky old house – that the dog refuses to enter. (Note: dogs are smarter than humans.)
These introductory scenes are all very natural and make us care about the Perrons, which makes the demonic horrors they end up facing effective. The happenings at the house start off slowly… all the clocks frozen at 3:07 AM, mysterious bruises, a rotting meat smell… but it escalates steadily and gets to the point where the Perrons can’t explain away the weirdness and clearly need some help.
The acting, from the leads to the kids to the supporting characters, is all top notch in this film. I believed these characters completely, so once the Perrons seek out the Warrens for help with their haunted house, I was completely invested on a surprisingly emotional level. I not only didn’t want anything bad to happen to these hardworking parents and their lovely family, I also worried for the Warrens.
Rather than just spooky ghost chasers, Ed and Lorraine Warren are presented as a loving married couple with a daughter of their own. They aren’t thrill-seekers or whackos, but people who are trying to do the right thing. Also, very importantly, their work takes a toll on them, especially the clairvoyant Lorraine. As Ed explains to Roger, each case takes a little bit of her – their last one the most of all. He very much wants to help these people, but he fears losing his wife, which ups the already high stakes.
Interestingly, there is no human “bad guy” in this movie, no skeptic or naysayer trying to shut down the operation. Yes, some don’t believe in the paranormal, but no one goes to absurd lengths to explain away what they see. The characters here are all presented as good people trying to do the best they can, from the leads to their assistants to the priest who takes the case all the way up to the Vatican.
With very little gore, no nudity, and nary a swear word, this movie completely and utterly earns its R rating. This is an INTENSE movie. I found myself fidgeting throughout much of the runtime in the best way. Near the end, during one of the most harrowing climaxes I’ve ever viewed, I had trouble catching my breath and wanted it to end not because I was bored or uninvolved, but precisely the opposite. It was almost too much. This isn’t a movie full of cheap jump scares and gross out shocks, this is a full-on drama about characters I genuinely liked and wanted to see get through this ordeal. At first I pegged the cast for this type of movie as overqualified, but, on the contrary, they utilize their skills not to elevate the material, but to match it.
The script by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes has an old-fashioned structure that builds, a sense of dread mounting from the Perrons first night in their new house to the end. It’s all expertly directed by James Wan, who has grown so much since the clever but trashy Saw. There was not a wasted shot or camera movement, great framing, and as much careful attention paid to the performances as to the scary bits.
Walking out of the theatre, I was exhausted, slightly teary eyed, and half-expected to see a head of fear-created white hair when I looked at my reflection in the men’s room mirror as I splashed cold water on my face to calm down. The truth is that I’ve never seen a scarier movie, nor have I seen a better movie this summer. The Conjuring hit all the horror movie buttons I didn’t even know I had.
D.J. Kirkbride is the co-writer and co-creator of AMELIA COLE, an ongoing digital series from Monkeybrain Comics (in print from IDW). He won an Eisner and a Harvey as an editor and a writer for the POPGUN anthology from Image Comics and co-wrote stories in TITMOUSE MOOK 2 and OUTLAW TERRITORY 3. D.J. also wrote a book of ninja poetry called DO YOU BELIEVE IN NINJAS? (Creative Guy Publishing).