Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Conjuring (2013) - A Review

“Based on the true case files of the Warrens”

James Wan is someone that I have struggled with (pretty much) since day one. Aside from Saw, I have seen very little warrant in his work as, in my opinion, it has been on a steady decline from quality to mindless factory-line horror drivel. It was due to these opinions that when word of The Conjuring began circulating one thought crossed my mind: “Great, another franchise opportunity for Wan.”

I have a general rule for horror films however. I will watch any film once, with an open mind, always in hopes that I will walk out of the experience with a smile on my face. There is nothing better to me than being proven wrong by a director or film. Eli Roth did it with Hostel (I hated the first viewing) as did Rob Zombie with The Devil’s Rejects. I was not looking forward to watching The Conjuring, but here I sit, typing this review and I have to say, it may have done exactly what I was hoping it would.

Title: The Conjuring
Director(s): James Wan
Writer(s): Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Producer(s): Tony DeRosa-Grund, Peter Safran, Rob Cowan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Studio: The Safran Company, Evergreen Media Group, New Line Cinema
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: July 19th, 2013

“In 1971, Carolyn and Roger Perron move their family into a dilapidated Rhode Island farm house and soon strange things start happening around it with escalating nightmarish terror. In desperation, Carolyn contacts the noted paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, to examine the house. What the Warrens discover is a whole area steeped in a satanic haunting that is now targeting the Perron family wherever they go. To stop this evil, the Warrens will have to call upon all their skills and spiritual strength to defeat this spectral menace at its source that threatens to destroy everyone involved.” – IMDB

One of the first things that I will say about The Conjuring is that it gave me pause… For a long, long time. I had no idea what the hell to feel about it. I did not go see it in theaters, I first sat down to watch it six some-odd months ago, and was left in an emotional and mental-conundrum after that initial viewing. I certainly didn’t hate it, and I knew that, but in terms of an opinion that’s about all I had. I hadn’t felt that way about a horror film in a long time and this one took me by complete surprise. The other night I saw that it was playing on one of the premium channels I pay for and never watch and realized that after a few months and a second viewing I wasn’t left as conflicted as I had been on my first watch.

One of the first things I noticed is how well this film is put together, surprisingly so, for such a major release. Aside from a few moments in the beginning, it seemed that everything had its place and for the most part, scares are used in moderation. As with any other sensation, you can experience sensory overload and become desensitized to the tension in a film if there’s a jump scare every three seconds. Wan did good to avoid this. In these instances, I feel as if Wan really hit his stride with this film. While he was getting his footing in the supernatural world with the clumsy Dead Silence and the clunkers that became the Insidious series, he clearly figured something out with The Conjuring, how to balance atmosphere with tension. He dropped useless and excessive jump scares and opted instead for a more traditional approach: good old fashioned suspense.

In terms of on-screen talent, the film boasts a rather impressive display of acting talent as well. While we have Farmiga and Wilson portraying the Warrens, you also have the Perron family. Ron Livingston was fine, as was Lili Taylor, but I have to say that the true stars of the Perron family were the children, in specific, Joey King (Christine). While she only has a few scenes in the film, her fear is so palpable that it leaves a lasting impact on the viewer. It is not what is lurking in the shadows that make these scenes so terrifying, it is Christine’s reaction to them that cause the jolt to the system. It’s extremely impressive to see a thirteen year old girl be able to command such a performance and completely steal the scenes that she happened to be in. I haven’t developed character attachment the way I did with her in a good long while, and that felt good.

The other (not so surprising) high point is Vera Farmiga. Farmiga has already made a name for herself as one of the new leading ladies of the horror/suspense genre. From The Orphan (meh) to Bates Motel, she’s become an instant fan favorite, and understandably so. She possesses a relatable quality; there’s something about her that you can’t help but love. Patrick Wilson, however, never seems to really impress me. To be quite honest, his performance in this film came off very one dimensional: he seemed like an asshole. While he was busy doting on his wife, he was quick to dismiss every concern that the Perrons seemed to have unless, of course, Lorraine was there to counteract this. This quality seemed to contradict the loving, caring and protective force the Warren’s were supposed to have over this family.

While this film was far from revolutionary, it learned well from its successors and presented something that felt fresh in today’s time. While, yes, in the grand scheme of things there is little fresh about this film, it stood out in today’s onslaught of supernatural films by setting itself in a distant time gone by. There were no camera phones or security cameras to catch the spooky ghosties. There was no modern anything. The movie played like The Amityville Horror meets Poltergeist, real people in an ancient house experiencing real terror. It felt like a warm horror hug, it felt familiar. There were still plenty of markers that this was still a Wan film, i.e. it’s not hard to tell when a scare is coming with this guy, yet none of them were too obnoxious and the film never seemed to jump the shark. As soon as the clapping game was presented, it was immediately obvious that this would later be employed to scare audiences, but it was used in a tactful way. Even though you knew it was coming, it still worked.

As mentioned earlier, I believe that Wan has finally figured out how to successfully marry suspense and jump scares to create an impactful viewing experience. This is made all the more evident when we see these ghosts and spirits that haunt the house; it’s not nearly as terrifying as what we originally had expected. There is something to be said about one’s imagination, sometime’s the biggest scares lie with the things you never see, only hear. The film is intelligent and provides a nice nod to the horror genre, but I do not think that this film will ever achieve classic status. It’s an homage to the classics if anything, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the filmmakers realize that’s what they’re doing. While I am yet to consider myself a fan of James Wan, I think that I can say that I am a fan of this film. There are quite a few things that I dislike about The Conjuring but overall I find it to be a solid flick.

I’ll come back for more viewings down the road and I will continue to recommend it to friends. I found it refreshing to find a supernatural film that I enjoy as much as this one, however long it took me to realize that. It may not be one that I will rave about but it is one that I will happily sit down to for a casual viewing with friends, probably many more times in the future. 


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