It seems that for every demon-based movie today there are five straight to DVD rip-offs, vengeful critics, and audiences mocking like bullies teasing the kid named Milton Waldorff Pennyworth III. But, once in a luminous starry night, a horror movie come along that’s so terrifying you leave the light on at night, too scared to act like an adult.
The Conjuring directed by the ever-improving James Wan is that horror movie, leaving a residual effect as haunting as the demons it features. This is largely in part thanks to Wan’s decision to stick to a more grounded style, and validating it using the true story of real-life demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).
The case the movie is based off involves the Perrons, a New Jersey family who moved into a secluded house in the woods (tax rebates should be given to families who do this. Nothing good ever comes from it). Ron Livingston, Lily Taylor and a talented group of young girls make up the family, and they contribute to sense of realism thanks to their relaxation around each other. Like any great on-screen family, they are just normal people who you can tell have spent all of their time together. No stereotypical family badgering the kid who just wants to listen to Seether and be weird while they wonder what they did wrong. Just an average, charming family who you automatically feel bad for knowing what Hell is going to happen to them.
The Warrens are treated like-wise, a grounded husband and wife team who exude love for their daughter, professionalism, and fear of that very profession. They don’t walk around with their eyes closed “getting a reading” and speaking in impending stock phrases. These are real people, and are played and written that way. I could imagine them, after an exorcism, going home and having a similar conversation: “Ah, honey, that demon really gave me a headache, do we have any green tea?” “Oh, sorry, I’m drinking the last cup.” “Oh okay, that’s fine, I just banished a demon, but that’s okay, drink up.” “Oh don’t act like a baby.” “Oh I’m the baby? Mr. Eew I Don’t Wanna Go Over There He Just Spit up Pea Soup!” “I told you not to bring that up!” Ah, marriage.
But the well-drawn characters aren’t the only elements that contribute to movies sense of naturalism. No. Like a ghost making scratching noises under a child’s bed, I’m just getting warmed up.
What evolved the horror genre from castles and monsters was the usage of the creepy, creaky and all-around dusty houses we all have raced our bikes past as children. The Perron house has a life all its own, with hidden holes in the walls, unpolished floors and banisters, and furniture that looks like it deserve it’s own stake to the heart. Each step has its own sound, and Wan uses every dark corner, sound effects and even a cruel child’s game to drag you deeper and deeper throughout the house. I didn’t shout at the lead character for walking over to the corner because they were stupid, but because I didn’t wanna have to go with them.
What’s even more remarkable about the movie is how the horror and the coming together of the two groups are treated just like a good ghost story. No good movie family (or a real one for that matter) would experience one bad occurrence and just call the brigade. The horror the Perrons have to go through slowly evolves from tiny happenings to full on contact. The Warrens don’t get called in till the extreme happens, and the extreme is so expertly built up to. The suspense is palpable and the ghouls are menacing. Each horrifying payoff is preceded by even scarier development.
Sure, Wan shows some signs of his old ways, using dead beings with nothing characteristically off-putting about them other than white make-up, and a rather fast-paced ending. Those are hard habits for any filmmaker to break. Luckily, all those instances are either brief or are given a surprising jolt of energy. One scene involving a dead maid sent me from ‘meh’ to ‘oh, shit!’ in 3 seconds flat. Eat it, Earnhardt.
To think the man responsible for the worst torture porn franchise in history would create something so seemingly real is inspiring. Wan succeeds in taking a skeptically true story and making it feel real, horrifyingly and everlastingly real. The films terrifying content and emphasis on a realistic style and characters make not for just a terrifying, old-school horror movie, but a great movie in general. It’s a gift from Heaven (or Hell. I don’t know which is involved with horror movies) that Wan was able to realize that overly violent “horror” was becoming the “beating a dead horse” of cinema.