For a while now, cinematic horror seems to have been dominated by two strains: found footage and torture porn. Then, two years ago, James Wan came out with Insidious, which emphasized atmosphere and scares over gore, while at the same time having something actually happen, and investing enough in the production values that you can see it happening. Producer Jason Blum followed up in the same vein last year, enlisting Scott Derrickson to make Sinister. And now James Wan brings us The Conjuring: a film notorious for being shot with little blood or sex or violence with the intention of getting a PG-13, but was still slapped with an R by the MPAA on the basis that it was “too scary”.
And scary it is. I hardly espouse any actual belief in the supernatural, but the prologue tying the story to the real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) goes a long way towards making the events of the film feel realistic. And that realism, in turn, helps build the spooky atmosphere within which the scares can resonate.
The story itself is presented as an entry from the Warrens’ files about an entity so malevolent they’d kept the details secret until now. It starts in 1971 when the Perrons, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) move into an old house in Rhode Island with their five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver). The first evening they find an old, boarded-up cellar filled with abandoned furniture. That night the weird happenings start: the girls notice strange sounds and smells; bruises appear on Carolyn’s body; all the clocks stop at 3:07.
After the scary situation escalates for a while and the family is pretty well terrified, they seek out the Warrens. Right away Lorraine, a gifted clairvoyant, sees a dark presence and has ghostly visions. Some research turns up a particularly nasty history, and they’re convinced that this really is a supernatural occurrence and the Perrons need help fast.
The story may be a relatively straightforward infestation-exorcism tale, as Insidious was, but Wan is an expert in building the right atmosphere. He can show just enough to suggest the horror without actually showing it until the right moment. There is a bit of blood here and there, and some struggles with objects and people being thrown around, but nothing I’d really call gore or violence used to shock. And yet the film manages to be among the most effective chillers ever.
It’s also notable that despite the fact that his wife and daughters are in danger, Roger is not around to save them. Similarly, Ed and Lorraine make for a remarkably balanced team, which Wilson and Farmiga portray with a real personal warmth. In fact, Wilson’s performance here ranks right up with Insidious among my favorites of his. It may be the material or the director, but Wilson is really good at this stuff.
Producers like Blum and directors like Wan are proving that horror movies like Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring can be well-written, well-acted, well-produced, and well scary without resorting to cheap shocks of violence and gore. So scary, in fact, that the MPAA can’t even handle it. And yet a film like The Wolverine is somehow rendered less violent merely by leaving out the gouts of blood that should obviously be present? It was a joke when Mortal Kombat tried the same dodge two decades ago, and to see it working now is just more evidence of a hopelessly broken system in need of replacement.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: strong pass.