Second Opinion: The Conjuring

There is a big difference between “scary movies” and “horror movies.”

“Horror movies” will keep you up at night, huddled under your sheets, jumping three feet in the air at the slightest sound. “Horror movies” make you question your beliefs that the world is a safe and decent place, whose rules you previously understood. “Horror movies” can change your life, and prevent you from showering, going back into the water or ignoring the slightest bump in the night until the day you finally die. But “scary movies” provoke only an immediate reaction, making you flinch nervously in the theater, or shout “Don’t go in there!” Even the best “scary movies” won’t make you lose much sleep. They get a rise out of you and then go about their business, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, they tend not to linger in the brain.

The Conjuring has the potential to be one of the great “scary movies,” but horrifying it is not.

LAFF Review: Fred Topel describes The Conjuring as “Paranormal Activity with real cameras.”

Directed by Saw and Insidious filmmaker James Wan, The Conjuring is a familiar spook story about a large family who moves into a haunted house but then can’t afford to move out. So they enlist the aid of two paranormal investigators to help exorcize the house and save their own sanity. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play the doting parents of a rather large clutch of young daughters, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the supernatural experts, whose experiences with the otherworldly have begun to play on their own nerves. It is not, strictly speaking, a complex narrative structure. For the most part, it’s a straightforward haunted house flick.

But James Wan has grown into a mature, sophisticated filmmaker who tells the story of The Conjuring using eerie, unnatural camera movements and evocative framing. He exhibits in The Conjuring a heretofore only hinting at mastery of scary movie pacing, suckering the audience in when necessary, and frightening the bejeezus out of them when the time comes to strike. It’s expert craftsmanship from top to bottom, in service of a script that could frankly have been fleshed out more.

Based on a supposedly true story, the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes introduces rich, likable characters and has a lot of fun with the conceit that the two paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, have been at this for a very long time. They have a locked room filled with cursed artifacts, each with an obvious story to tell, and that comes into play later at exactly the right time. They have a heartfelt, believable relationship based on mutual respect but also genuine, protective concern for each other’s wellbeing. The victims of The Conjuring’s spectral attack, Roger and Carolyn Perron, are similarly plausible human beings, loving but afflicted by real world woes. It’s the foundation for a great horror movie.

And yet The Conjuring never seems to make itself more than a scary situation, thanks to simplistic motivations for the demon itself, and a propensity to frighten audiences through straightforward bait-and-switchery, and the uncomplicated natural human tendency to fear for children’s safety, even if they’re not our own. As The Conjuring progresses, it becomes clear that the real theme of the movie is centered around maternal anxiety, and the fear for the safety of the heroines’ offspring. But the fears always come from without, not within. The living women of The Conjuring are all good parents without a selfish or violent bone in their body. Any danger coming to their children are the result of an external threat, and in no way relates to any real-life concerns the characters may have had before the occult becomes a part of their daily routine. And as such, The Conjuring never plays off of any fears that the audience, who are expected to relate to these heroines, are bringing in with them. The Conjuring only intends to frighten you in the theater, and leave you untarnished as the lights go out at home.

Again, that’s hardly terrible criticism, but with this much skill used to craft a scary movie, it seems like a shame that Wan & Co. couldn’t have also produced a great horror film as well. The pieces are in place, the themes could have been amplified by making the heroines question their ability to care for their own children (they both have good reason; Carolyn’s financial insecurity and Lorraine’s dangerous job), and if nothing else the “based on a true story” element could have been milked to elicit uncomfortable doubts from audiences who might otherwise disregard the tale as preposterous. Particularly from secular audiences, to whom proof of the existence of demonic forces, and by extension the existence of God, could potentially shake the foundations of their own sense of personal security, and of the very way that world works around them.

But it’s a rare movie that’s so remarkably well made that the only thing to complain about is that it’s not perfect. The Conjuring is a remarkably scary movie, beautifully photographed, thrillingly edited, and filled with memorably real performances. So it could be a better horror movie. Big deal. Scary movies don’t get much better than this.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.


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