You could be forgiven for thinking that The Conjuring is just another in a long line of “found footage” Blair Witch knockoffs. Its’ trailer focuses on recreated video recordings of real-life, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren; best known for their involvement in the The Amityville Horror case. The preview was undoubtedly a crass marketing attempt designed to make the film appear to be something it most assuredly is not; new and trendy. However, the trailer ends up being an inadvertently brilliant head-fake. While the “found footage” aspect is present, it is mercifully brief. What we get in its place is a good old fashion haunted house movie. And the key word here is “good”.
I have little patience for horror movies that claim to be “true”. I’m a skeptic at heart, and while I can suspend my disbelief for “Wookies” and “Klingons” and “Iron Mans”, I’d have a much harder time doing so if the films were trying to convince me that those things were real. It’s much easier to accept a film’s ridiculously fictional world than it is a film’s mildly outlandish assertion of authenticity. However, The Warrens (as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are two of the more reasonable ghost hunters you’re likely to come across. They’re middle-aged parents and homeowners. She claims to be a clairvoyant, but not in a 1-900 sort of way. Scenes of them debunking supernatural claims go a long way toward making the film even scarier when they’re finally convinced of someone else’s.
Now, did the real life Warrens behave in such a manner? I have no clue. For our purposes, I honestly don’t really care. All I know is: what was up on that screen worked. The Warren’s ability (and, more importantly, willingness) to look for scientific explanations rather than supernatural ones, make the eventual discovery of ghostly activity all the scarier.
The film’s director, James Wan, is most famous for having directed Saw. Saw ushered in the era of “torture porn” and lifted splatter films out of the grindhouse and into the multiplex. Six sequels, nine years, and countless imitators later, The Conjuring plays almost like an apology. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the film eschews much of what passes for modern horror. Instead of blood and intestines, we get subtlety and nuance.
The film has patience and earns its scares. Using crafty camerawork and taking advantage of sound in ways typically ignored by the genre, the movie has a way of sneaking up on you. Wan is more concerned with creating tension than he is cheap scares; favoring long, slow-burns over typical scary movie cheats (“EEEEEEEKKKKK…oh, it was just the cat.”)
The cast, which also includes Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, bring a gravitas to material that is sometimes undeserving. They walk a fine line; managing to play conversations about “inhuman spirits” (read: demons) straight enough to be believable, but not so straight that they look like crackpots. Their commitment helps elevate the material. Ultimately there’s nothing new to see here. But that’s precisely the film’s charm.