Built around rock-solid performances and characters who are empathetic, rather than stupid or foolish, The Conjuring earns its scary moments the old-fashioned way: by slowly ratcheting up — and then carefully modulating — the tension, to the point that the suspense becomes unbearable and/or delightful.
James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Death Sentence, Insidious) has gotten better at creating an atmosphere of dread with each movie he has directed. Based on a true story, the main narrative of The Conjuring follows psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they endeavor to help a family that has unwittingly moved into a large Rhode Island house inhabited by unfriendly spirits.
For reasons that are not disclosed, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lilly Taylor) and their five daughters have moved from New Jersey in order to get a fresh start. Roger is a truck driver and Carolyn is a stay-at-home mom — it’s 1971 — and they appear to be loving, supportive parents who are just trying to get by. Their daughters have the normal sort of conflicts that siblings have, but nothing out of the ordinary. Fairly quickly, they begin to be plagued by ghostly noises, strange apparitions, objects being knocked off the wall, and the like. Desperate, Carolyn attends a seminar hosted by the Warrens and then begs for their help. Ed is resistant, but, moved with compassion, Lorraine agrees, and it doesn’t take long for the Warrens to see all the signs that point to unfriendly, unseen occupants.
They agree to take the case, which means they must gather evidence, and so they basically move in with the Perron family, along with their associates (Shannon Kook and John Brotherton), leaving their young daughter behind at home in Connecticut with Lorraine’s mother.
The structure of the film, written for the screen by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes (House of Wax, The Reaping), is traditional, and very little in the film can be considered new — if you’ve seen more than a handful of haunted house movies, you’ve seen them all — yet in the hands of these filmmakers, little tweaks are made and clever twists are inserted that lend a new look and feel to the material. For example, when Carolyn, sleeping alone in her bedroom on the second floor while her husband is away, hears a noise that wakes her up, she goes throughout the house to investigate the source — but the first thing she does is turn on the lights as she goes! So simple, so intuitive for any right-thinking adult to do, but so seldom seen in similar “suspense” pictures that it feels marvelously intelligent here. She acts as I imagine I would act under similar circumstances, and thus, when something happens that is, let us say, unnerving, it makes it all the more frightening to consider.
John R. Leonetti’s photography manages to keep the shadows dark and menacing without making them unrealistically foreboding. It’s a trick of the light, and a masterful display. (Leonetti has served as director of photography on Wan’s films since Dead Silence, and it shows.) Julie Berghoff’s production design, Joseph Bishara’s musical score, and Kirk M. Morri’s editing all enhance the atmosphere without drawing attention to themselves.
A great audience-reaction movie that provoked a lot of nervous laughter at the advance screening I attended, The Conjuring may not genuinely scare you, but it’s a realistic, nerve-jolting suspense drama that absolutely nails a tone of domestic terror.
The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, July 19.