Director: James Wan
Studios: Warner Bros., New Line Cinema
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston
Tagline: Based on the True Case Files of the Warrens
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, family drama, haunting, possession, exorcism, witch, ghost
Scare score: A
Plot overview: After moving into a historic home in a small Rhode Island town, the Perron family is hoping for an easy transition and a fresh start. Shortly after moving into the house, however, strange events begin plaguing the family such as the persistent smell of rotting meat, bruises appearing all over wife Carolyn's (Taylor) body, unexplained sounds, and broken objects throughout the house. Things become worse when husband Roger (Livingston) has to go away for a few days, as both Carolyn and several of her five daughters witness the horrifying presence of various spirits in the house. Desperate for help as the haunting worsens, the Perrons call acclaimed paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Wilson) who is a demonologist and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Farmiga) to help them save their house and family.
Now back before my days writing The Horror Blog, I would have considered going to the movies by myself to be an unthinkable act of social embarrassment. However, this summer helped me prove my dedication to horror movies as I was compelled not once but twice to go see a horror movie alone during its premiere weekend. It's not my fault if my friends are too scared; it simply had to be done. You'd think Horror Buff's friends would have thicker-skin. Alas, that's not the case.
The Conjuring was the first of these movies (the second was Insidious: Chapter 2 so I mean I can't complain about my choices). Now of course your opinion of any film is going to be influenced by the environment in which you see it. Unfortunately for me, instead of going to see this movie, say, late at night, or at a private showing, or even with friends, I saw it by myself at 7:30 on a Saturday evening in a completely full movie theater which had several children and one baby in the audience. Yes, a baby was carried in after the film already started, at which point the family had to sit in the FIRST ROW. That instance of bad parenting was probably scarier than the movie itself. Aside from the general situation, this was a talkative audience (the baby, it should be noted, never made a peep). I however sat behind this couple that loved discussing every happening in the movie - this included the girlfriend trying to constantly guess what was going to happen next (she was never right. Not once), and when her boyfriend wouldn't respond she'd just try making out with him. Otherwise the audience laughed too loudly at all the funny moments in the movie, but they'd also laugh at things that weren't funny, which certainly made it less scary. At scary (or not scary) parts, this talkative audience would also react with screams or jumps, which makes a movie-going experience more positive. As several months have passed, though, I'm just re-watching the movie now alone in my apartment to get a better feel for the terror. PS it's working.
My first reaction when I started seeing trailers for this movie last spring was "I need to see this." My second reaction, however, was that it all seemed a little too over-the-top. Here we had James Wan and half his cast from Insidious (which I blogged about a year ago today; where does the time go?) thrown together into trailers which looked like somebody went into a horror movie props room in Hollywood and took everything they could carry. Like seriously, in a 2 minute trailer alone we saw scary dolls (aka the girlfriend of Billy the Puppet), scary witches, pasty dismembered hands, people covered in sheets, a swarm of crows circling the house, women hanged from trees- the list goes on. That being said, I went into this movie expecting it to be cliche and misguided.
As per usual, let's start at the very beginning. "Base on a true story." You know how I feel about these words. You know that they turn me into a skeptic and put an almost automatic frown onto my face. While I still really enjoyed this film, I naturally did lots of research on the Warrens immediately following the movie as I stayed to see if anything funky happened in the credits (nothing did), and the whole Perron case is pretty changed here. According to real accounts from the Perrons, their house was filled with both friendly and malicious spirits, some of which would play with the children and tuck them in at night. I guess we missed out on those friendly ghouls as the film opted to stick to the pure terror.
Next up: Annabelle. The allegedly creepy doll. I want to know if James Wan designed this little lady like he did Billy, the doll on the bike in the Saw movies, who to be fair I think is a creepy looking dude. Annabelle isn't looking too well herself, but these two definitely have traits in common which makes me wonder. The prologue to the movie felt random to me, like a B-feature way to scare people/ set the tone for a totally different plot. Hours later when Annabelle comes back into the storyline I think I let out an audible, unamused "Ha" to welcome her back. Needless to say, I hate loud pounding, and the prologue was therefore pretty discomforting as far as the physics-defying doll's display, which then led us into a comfy classroom setting to introduce us to this movie's equivalent to Insidious's Elise, the loving and easy-to-love Warren duo. Then cue the spectacular title sequence - the font, the script, the yellow on black, the whole look of the title sequence was really fantastic and took us back to the '70s. It reminded me a bit of the look of The Amityville Horror, which this movie pays homage to due to the involvement of the Warrens in both cases.
I like the scene where we first meet the Perron family because the cameras are already inside the house, making the viewer one with the spirits who eagerly wait inside for their new prey. Still, we have some pretty slow-moving rising action and introduction to the peculiarities of the house such as a cellar filled with haunted I mean beautiful antiques (omg surprise basement! Plus square footage on our next refinancing!), a totally ominous tree outback with an old abandoned toy, and clocks that stop in the early hours of the morning. It isn't until about half an hour into the film that we actually start to get scared by the "clap hands" game between Carolyn and youngest daughter April (Kyla Deaver). Quick side note- who in their right mind lets their children walk around a completely unfamiliar home blindfolded when it is still covered in unpacked furniture and boxes? Hello safety hazard. Immediately following that scare is the invisible but pretty convincingly scary night haunting sequence starring middle daughters Christine (future major celeb Joey King) and Nancy (Hayley McFarland). Immediately following that scare is Caroyln's big intro into the true terrors of her house - including the scene that we were all perhaps most looking forward to from the trailers. And then, as if we hadn't been scared enough, remaining daughters Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) and Andrea (Shanley Caswell) are witnesses to a malicious demon. Like enough already! This haunting is truly a family affair (minus daddy who is away being a trucker). After that, the movie slows down again to build up the plot behind the terror and draw us into a false sense of safety as we are readied for the oncoming barrage of horror.
I remember the first time I saw this movie I was caught up by the many transitions between normal life and the hauntings that sometimes distract us from the fluidity of the plot, which I guess it pretty typical of haunting movies with the contrast between night and day. This time around, though, everything felt much more normal. The way this film is set up, we get a nice balance of crowd-pleasing scares and plot, both of which keep us content. The scares in this movie are really great and really scary. There is an older feeling about them, just your classic scares that you know are coming up, yet they still manage to make you jump. As far as special effects, this film doesn't depend on them like a lot of modern horror does, but what is does do it does well. I was constantly surprised by the excellent transitions at the end of the film when Carolyn is possessed- her changing face was so disgusting, and then in a second it would be back to normal. Cool stuff.
Even though this movie relies on old school scares, and even though it might easily remind us of flicks like Insidious, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist (that brief scene with TV static was not for naught), it really is its own film entirely, and through a strange mixture that's heavy on some cliches, it manages to create an entirely new element. Mind you, Wan really goes for broke on the whole "sometimes it's not just a house that's haunted" when the Warrens oh so matter-of-factly explain that these dark entities have latched themselves onto the Perrons themselves. This seems to be a new trend developing in horror, but hey, I'm happy with it. The ghosts are equally disgusting and frightening (with impeccable timing and makeup), and we have to give a shout out to our main girl Bathsheba who is played by none other than composer Joseph Bishara - who you could tell from the get go with the strings in the opening piece is also the composer of either Insidious film. Who knew he would make a ghost equally as terrifying as his music? One concept I ended up liking about this film was the very thing I went in doubting - the seemingly over-the-top use of scary items and motifs. By the end of the movie, I had come to really appreciate the room in the Warrens' house filled with possessed or otherwise dangerous items. Not only was Rory's toy a good idea for possible marketing (like either previously mentioned doll), but it was so darn creepy. Right up until the last second of the film, we were all expecting that music box to show us something horrible.
The acting in this movie is alright. I didn't really like Lili Taylor in The Haunting, and she's virtually unchanged here. Her portrayal of a mother possessed is much more convincing than her happy-go-lucky wife and mother. I like Ron Livingston as a pretty believable American dad, but I liked him better as Lt. Nixon. You can't win 'em all. To me, the biggest disappointment was Patrick Wilson who I genuinely liked in the Insidious films. When it comes to his portrayal of Ed Warren, is he even really acting that well? I get that these people are intelligent, well-versed, and experienced, but he delivers all of his lines so curtly and coldly as if the things he revealed about demons and paranormal activity were things we should have learned in kindergarten. On the other hand, I did really enjoy Farmiga's (older sis of Taissa who's our new star in American Horror Story: Coven!) performance as the sincere, kind, and clairvoyant Lorraine. It's tough when you have a kind of all-powerful character like this, who again is so similar to Insidious' Elise, because they're very easy to like. Aside from her personality, I thought that Farmiga brought us a very powerful delivery- convincingly showing us her roles as wife, lover, mother, and helper. As for the 5 daughters, I wasn't convinced that they were actually sisters or a family, but in their various moments in the spotlight they each did a good job. If you haven't seen the comedy-horror Detention starring Caswell in a role equal in teen angst to that of Andrea, you're in for an impeccably-written treat. I really didn't like King in the various nighttime sequences when she unconvincingly tried convincing us that she thought her sister was pulling her leg (literally) and passing wind (euphemistically), but by the end when she seemed truly terrified in car she won me back. To tell you the truth, I thought that Cindy was the one who was going to be possessed because I mean, just watch her throughout the movie- girl is so freaky. The various scenes of here looking legitimately evil had to be done on purpose as a red herring. Kyla Deaver as April was simply too young, and while she was a total cutie, her lines sounded, well, like memorized lines. As for Nancy... uh, E for effort? #middlechild
Final critique: Ultimately, this movie amounts to scare after scare thrown at us until we can't handle any more. Naturally, I love that. To the film's credit, the plot itself is neat, and while I went into this fearing it would be all over the place, everything sort of manages to tie itself together. After seeing it during its opening weekend this past July, this film immediately shot its way high up on my list of horror favorites, and I would easily recommend it to anybody. Well- if you scare easily, if you have nightmares after horror movies, or if you have a weak heart, stay away. This is a truly scary movie for general audiences; it's also well thought out, delivers on its promises, and has heart to boot.