LAFF 2013: The Conjuring (****)

the conjuring film

James Wan, the maestro of 21st century horror, terrifies audiences once again with the freakishly well-made The Conjuring. After his 2004 indie smash Saw catapulted him to fame and fortune at a young age, Wan’s directorial career had a few minor bumps until 2011′s Insidious brought him back into the limelight. Filmed on a micro-budget of $1.5 million, Insidious managed to scare up nearly $100 million in its entire run, a colossal number for such a small project. As a die-hard fan of James Wan and his films Saw and Insidious (both of which appeared in my Top 10 list during their respective years), I was thrilled when I heard that a major studio like Warner Bros. was taking a huge leap of faith with Wan’s newest motion picture, The Conjuring. Although somewhat of a stylistic departure for Wan, the horror auteur delivers what is potentially his first fully recognized masterpiece. The Conjuring is essentially a tribute to the horror films of movie past. It serves as a throwback to a time when the genre was held with esteem, not frowned upon with contempt like today. Attuned to the past while adhering to the demands of a contemporary horror audience, James Wan creates one of the creepiest, most terrifying films in ages. Even more shocking is the fact that The Conjuring is one of the best films of 2013 so far.

The less you know about The Conjuring, the more horrified you’ll be as the demonic events unfold around you mercilessly. Therefore, I’ll do my best to tread lightly in my brief synopsis. Inspired by the personal accounts of the Warrens, real-life paranormal investigators whose Amityville murder case was adapted into the classic film The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring is a fictitious retelling of their most gruesome case on file. Set in the 1970s, we enter the lives of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a married couple that assists those who’ve been haunted in some capacity. When a determination can be made that there is indeed a supernatural presence at work with intent to harm, The Warrens get permission from the Vatican to exorcise the possessed victim (or their home) with the help of a priest.

Ed, an ordained demonologist, and Lorraine, a clairvoyant who can see the troubled spirits, keep special objects they recover from each case — conduits demons use to get close to their victims — as a reminder of their work. Following one of their university lectures, the Warrens are approached by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), a married mother with five girls whose house in Rhode Island is currently under satanical attack. Despite some hesitation, the Warrens agree to investigate. The evils the Warrens discover not only challenge their proficiency as paranormal investigators, but soon seep into their own personal lives, rupturing a safe haven they thought was impenetrable.

What’s so fantastic about the script penned by Chad and Carey Hayes is that it always keeps the narrative unpredictable. James Wan’s horror sensibilities vibe off the screenplay with aplomb; he and his talented crew (editor Kirk M. Morri, cinematographer John R. Leonetti, and composer Joseph Bishara) rev up the scares the more out of control the chaos becomes onscreen. The Conjuring is one of the few horror movies of late that gets increasingly scarier the further you rappel down its bottomless pit of hellishness. The pacing of the film lulls you into believing The Conjuring is just this old-school, bump-in-the-night ghost story with decent popcorn value. The narrative takes its time to build to crescendo, unraveling at a turtle’s pace but enmeshing its audience into the lives of both the Warrens and Perrons. We get a strong sense of each character, and thus build a fondness for them so that when danger finally does strike, every single one of their lives matters to us wholeheartedly. Around the 40-minute mark is when the film snaps its fingers (or, more appropriately, claps both hands), and turns into a different creature entirely. It’s a roller coaster ride of pure terror from then on, one that keeps the hairs on your arms raised until the credits finally roll.

the conjuring 2

Wan and crew throttle our emotions with practical effects, only implementing CGI into the proceedings when absolutely necessary. The amplification of diegetic sound is key to the film’s fear factor. The creaking of a floorboard, the sonic booms of a door slamming shut, and the rickety squeak of a rocking chair all heighten our fear within the already-creepy milieu Wan has established for us. Speaking of which, the production design in The Conjuring is simply astounding. Right up to the funky-looking wallpaper, Wan injects The Conjuring with an aesthetic that is honest to its decade. Even the wardrobe, hair styling (hello, Ron Livingston!), and domestic layouts are faithful to the period without seeming cheesy. The Conjuring’s cultural accuracy seamlessly transports viewers back to the 1970s without them ever feeling trapped inside a time capsule. Wan’s throwback universe is as alert and alive as any present-day horror film.

As for the all-star cast, what more can I say other than each participant dedicates every droplet of their being to The Conjuring (fans of rising star Joey King are going to be even more amazed by her talent). Vera Farmiga’s weary gaze makes it seem as though Lorraine Warren has suffered a lifetime of hardships. Though don’t let her dour expression fool you. As Lorraine, Vera emanates strength and intellect; fortitude like hers is rarely seen in horror films. Most of the time, women in horror movies are written as unintelligent sex kittens, who either die off quickly or cause the death of others by their own idiocy. None of the female characters in The Conjuring film exhibit such traits; instead they fuel much of the action that occurs in the movie. I’m noticing a great pattern this year in films with large ensembles: each actor is given their own major scene to shine in (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, etc.). Balancing out the contributions each performer makes enhances their character’s significance to the narrative. It also permeates the film with a palpable sense of camaraderie. The Conjuring’s cast is so remarkable because they work in unison, creating a beautiful metaphor for humankind coming together to battle the evils that infest this world.

Patrick Wilson, now a frequent collaborator with James Wan, plays Ed Warren with appropriate passion and straightforwardness. Ed is committed to the task at hand but doesn’t let his own religious training prevent him from embracing new tactics used to combat evil. Wilson and Vera have a natural chemistry, as if they’ve been this married couple for many adventures and films. What I love about the pair is that they view each other as equals. There’s no submissive/dominant interplay at work, like you’d see in many scripts involving a husband and wife. Although I’m the furthest thing from religious — and, I imagine, so is the filmmaker — I didn’t squirm uncomfortably when Farmiga’s Warren tells Ed that God brought them together for a reason. I thoroughly believed her in the framework of the story, as the pair’s tangible yin-yang dynamic — so effective when battling demons — does seem preordained by fate. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, who play the heads of the Perron household, dive into Wan’s world without hesitation. Taylor, in particular, flows through the subtle and symphonic beats of The Conjuring with remarkable ease. With large roles in Hemlock Grove and now The Conjuring, Taylor has proven to be one of the genre’s most reliable thespians.

I refuse to discuss The Conjuring any more lest I spoil something integral to the experience. All I will say is that whatever you think The Conjuring has up its sleeves, it doesn’t. It will shock you, twist you, and bend you to its creepy will. It’s undeniably the most satisfying moviegoing experience of the year, one I implore you to see in a theater setting. James Wan’s exceptionally crafted The Conjuring delivers nostalgic bliss by horrifying us to an unfathomable degree. And that pocket mirror you were thinking of buying? You might want to reconsider that purchase after watching The Conjuring. Just saying…

Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema’s The Conjuring will scare audiences nationwide on July 19th, 2013.