James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013)

Loraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) are two paranormal investigators helping people out with haunted houses, exorcisms, possessions and stuff. Loraine is a clairvoyant. Ed, her husband, is demonologist. Together they solve cases throughout America, while also touring local schools to present their work in hopes to gain more credibility and respect. After one of their lectures they meet a desperate Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) mother of five girls that begs them to take a look at her house. Even though her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) is a bit skeptical about the two, the unusual and violent episodes taking place in their new home soon convince him that something supernatural is going on. Loraine immediately senses malevolent forces. Something terrible has happened many years ago and is coming back to haunt them. Ed suggests that the house needs an exorcism. However he can’t perform the ritual himself, because he’s not a priest. To get a priest they’ll need evidence of the haunting. That however turns out to be the least of their worries, when the evil spirit in the house starts possessing people, throwing around furniture and even farting, believe it or not. 

After two smash hits, Saw and Insidious, Australian horror director James Wan took on what seemed more of a passion project. Set in the 1970s The Conjuring is a great showcase for Wan’s stylish, yet dark sensibilities. The film does a great job of recreating the feeling of 70s Americana. Even though I’ve never been to the States and wasn’t even born in that decade, I have no doubt people were dressing exactly that way and chose to decorate their houses in mostly brownish colors. However tempting it would have been to either go in a too glossy direction or try to emulate every minute detail, Wan finds a good middle ground that doesn’t alienate the audience by over stylizing his production or trying too hard. Of course though, it’s not a James Wan film unless you have a creepy puppet popping up throughout the picture. More than any of his other films, up until now, Wan manages to create psychological terror and an intensely frightening atmosphere for most of the runtime.

Some structural choices and subplots distract from the main story and make the film feel unfocused. Some clever camera movements take you out of the action, because you find yourself marveling about how they pulled it off or even constructed a complex shot like that. It’s not that James Wan is showing off, but sometimes he seems to be choosing to do something cool with the camera, over just something “normal”, which nevertheless could have served the tone of the film better. What makes the film really worthwhile are the performances and the scary sound design and score. This is one of those films you want to watch with a loud sound system to get the full effect and let it scare you properly. As for the actors I especially loved Vera Farmiga‘s performance, aside from being a beautiful woman, she has this unique quality of conveying so much emotion while seemingly doing nothing. This is a rare gift only the best actors and actresses posses, and she definitely has it. I’m not an expert, but I think it’s just something you’re born with.

Now, thematically the film is fairly similar to Insidious although trying to stay more grounded in “reality”. The filmmakers insist on letting you know that the story is based on true events and the way the two investigators work has a very scientific quality to it. This is a smart move, because many skeptics and non-believers will dismiss supernatural horror as silly superstitions and thus are rarely scared by it. Because the two leads are however professional, serious and human they appear more sincere. That’s also why you genuinely feel for them and are worried when they find themselves in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, the Perron family isn’t characterized as successfully, aside from the mother and the father. Another way to make you buy into the supernatural aspect is by keeping the religious discourse at a minimum. Choosing to go with Catholic symbolism is what really made the film scary for a Protestant like myself. I am not familiar with many of the mystic and superstitious rituals of the Catholic church, but I always found the way they deal with the occult very chilling and discomforting.

Naturally, the whole film could be read on a rational level. If we take Freud‘s point of view there is no doubt that Carolyn was merely hysterical or tripping on acid, it was the 70s after all. The marks on her body could be just self-inflicted or her husband beating her, the kid’s traumatic experiences could be again blamed on an abusive father. What did Roger do all day? It didn’t seem like his idea to move to the country. In a rational reading of the story he could be depressed and taking it out on his family. It is interesting how witchcraft and infanticide are linked. At some point it almost feels like the film is trying to make a pro-life statement. Even if we try to explain the story by taking out the supernatural, the film remains scary. I did most of this reasoning after finishing the film, because I was too busy being creeped out while I was watching it. If you want to believe in ghosts and spirits that’s matter of faith, but if you want to be terrified I can assure you that this is one of the scariest movies in recent memory.

Rating on First Viewing
(on my laptop)
7 out of 10

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