Extended Cut: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring feels very old-fashioned. That’s not surprising, given the 1971 setting and accompanying huge sideburns, but (aside from some obvious J-horror influences) this is a film that could have been produced decades ago, with the personality and pacing of classic horror. Director James Wan has commendable patience, slowly developing an ominous atmosphere before breaking out the scares.

More significantly, he’s populated the film with a sympathetic, likeable cast. The Perron family, a husband and wife with five daughters, are the kind of family you don’t see any more in these sort of movies: when mysterious bruises appear on mother Carolyn’s arms, her husband is genuinely concerned and insists she see a doctor. Others comment about how happy they seem to be as a family; they genuinely care for one another, and its touching rather than quaint.

Of course, not everything is coming up roses for the Perrons. They’ve just moved to a new house in the country and it’s hardly welcoming, its stripped-backed weatherboards a scoured skeleton containing a boarded-up basement and a dark, forgotten history. A gnarled, grotesque tree bows deeply over a murky pond, lending their backyard a mournful aura. The house’s clocks always stop at 3:07 am, and there’s a rancid smell that seems to accompany bumps in the night.

The Conjuring does a lot with very little when it comes to frightening its audience. For a long time the film feints at a scary moment before pulling away, letting the viewer fill in the gaps. The camera lingers on the mirrors that fill the house, or piles of dusty furniture in the aforementioned basement for just long enough for your imagination to do the heavy lifting. When the scares begin, they’re rarely truly scary but they are cleverly constructed, mostly avoiding cheap jump scares in favour of creepy moments that linger in one’s memories; there’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but the execution is excellent. This is mostly thanks to some gorgeous, considered camerawork. From the first moment that the Perrons arrive at their new house and the camera sweeps through the corridors, introducing us to the architecture of the house and the family members, it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into how every shot of the film will look.

Many haunted house films fall over in their last half, with their scares losing effectiveness either through repetition or explanation – there’s no better way to deflate a scary moment than explaining it, after all. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes (twin brothers) are aware of this, and the film borrows the structure of Wan’s last film, Insidious. The first act is filled with unexplained scares, and then the film provides a matter-of-fact explanation of the ghosts/demons behaviour – provided here by the Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) – before heading in a different direction for the climax.

The Warrens are based on real-life “demonologists” – essentially paranormal investigators. They take their work very seriously, and there’s never a suggestion that their work is anything but kind-spirited (they seem more than happy to expend significant time and effort helping the Perrons extricate themselves from their unfortunate situation, despite the fact that the family has no money to spare). The film is equally serious in its approach to the subject matter, which is perhaps its biggest flaw – some comic relief à la Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannels in Insidious would have been very welcome.

Something other than repetition/explanation that tends to sink ghost movies in their last act is the “Why don’t they just move out of the damn house?” problem. The Conjuring has a neat solution: for the Perrons to be freed of their curse, they need a Vatican-approved exorcism. But the family isn’t particularly religious, so the Vatican needs hard proof to approve the exorcism. This gives the Warrens ample motivation to provoke the demons, which goes about as well as you’d expect.

The last act pulls out all the stops, replacing subtle scares with an exorcism extravaganza (which is clearly influenced by The Exorcist – no surprise there – but also The Birds). It’s genuinely thrilling, juggling multiple storylines but keeping the action easy to follow. With the rules clearly established by this stage, it’s a satisfactory culmination of the narrative rather than the cheap twists so often employed in this genre. The Conjuring is one of the few modern horror films to stick the landing – yet another way in which it feels like a film from an earlier era.

Rating: 143/200

17 thoughts on “Extended Cut: The Conjuring (2013)

  1. Can’t wait to see this one, I read about the real story a lot and I’m curious how they handled that on screen + I just love Vera Farmiga.

    • I was actually completely unaware that it was based on a real story going into the film – when the “This is based on a true story” came up I just figured it was a gag (like Fargo). I like Farmiga as well – she mostly just gets to alternate between scared/concerned while wearing terrible clothing here, but she makes the most of it! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Good review Dave. I liked this one more than I expected. I’m not a fan of the horror genre, but when it’s done right and in an exciting way, well, then I can’t help but have a little bit of fun.

    • Thanks! I’m a horror fan as of only a couple years ago, but there’s certainly a lot of dreck in the genre – The Conjuring is a great example of why I like horror so much.

  3. I found the cop to be pretty funny, but his comic moments were pretty brief. And on man, I checked out the Warren’s website when I got home from the movie last night and was immediately greeted by Gregorian monks singing “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. What?? Amazing.

    • I didn’t really find the cop particularly funny, though I agree that he was probably there to provide some lighter moments. The Warrens’ website is truly a thing to behold! Did you notice the page where the text is coloured to reflect the American flag? Crazy stuff.

      • Oh my gosh! Yes! You would think someone would have re-designed their website before the movie came out but I am SO glad they didn’t.

  4. Dave, excellent review here; the only thing i disagree with is I don’t think they should have had an overly humorous character(s) b/c it would not have fit in with the mood and atmosphere. There were a few jokes here-and-there, but b/c they kept it to a minimum it didn’t take you away from the situation. Too many times Hollywood films try to get too cute-and-funny in these types of movies, and it feels forced. I think Wan executed this flawlessly.

    And I did think it was hilarious when Patrick Wilson stated he and his wife always wanted a house in the country and Ron Livingston offered to sell them his home. lol. That’s a perfect execution of humor and doesn’t take away from the mood.

    I felt Leigh Wannell’s character in “Insidious” was a little too much; a few jokes here and there are fine, but when you’re rolling them off like a stand-up act takes away for a film like this; but nonetheless it wasn’t enough to damage “insidious” overall.

    But I agree with everything else you said here, and I wrote a review on my blog just now, and we share a lot of the same opinions. Give my review a gander when you have a minute. I will be reading other reviews for this movie and see if they reiterate a lot of the same things we wrote. 🙂

    • Thanks – I can totally see where you’re coming from, and I’d agree that poorly executed attempts at comic relief are far worse than no comic relief at all. There were certainly some bright moments in the film, like the one you mentioned or the little girl cheating and “Hide-and-Clap” early on, but some more (particularly in the transition to the final act) would’ve lifted the film a little in my opinion. I agree that Whannell and Sampson would have been a tad over the top for the tone here (Insidious was a much sillier film than this), but a more muted attempt at comic relief would have been appreciated.

      I think basically my issues come down to the Warrens more than anything. As someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, I find people who essentially have a living as ghostbusters either sinister (as shysters who feed on gullible people) or amusing (as people with an earnest belief in something frankly ridiculous). The Warrens are clearly the latter – just check out their website! – and certainly the film needs to take what they’re doing seriously for the most part. But I wish their earnest goofiness had been played up a little more. There’s a suggestion of that in early scenes (their first presentation at a college, the interview with the journalist) but I think portraying them as a little more fish-out-of-water, a couple who really care for one another and the work they do but are just a little …weird would have been nice, and would have accentuated the shift from “scary shit happening” to “crazy shit happening.”

      These are pretty minor issues, of course; from the sounds of things we both agree it was an excellent horror film. I’ll go check your review out 🙂

  5. I get the feeling I’ll be ultimately disappointed by this given that it reminds me of so many paranormal horror’s released both in recent times and over the last 30 or 40 years. Indeed, the director’s previous film Insidious seems to the modern day equivalent of this story. What usually gripes is the fascination (and enjoyment) I have with the first and second acts of these films – the unexplained mystery, then an explanation or investigation. These films usually fall down, as did Insidious, with very weak attempts to bring conclusion and closure, often underpinned by an over-reliance on special-effects and the abandonment of mystery in favour of the reveal.

    But, alas, I haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dan. From what you say, I think you’ll probably enjoy this more than similar films. I too have a problem with the last act of most horror films (even the good ones): there’s a lot of folks who can start a film well, with mysterious scares and building dread before it all falls into a heap at the end. Insidious was definitely a classic example of this problem: the first two acts are fine, but the third act is frankly ridiculous.

      Personally, I didn’t find The Conjuring to have the same problems. Yes, it’s not as scary in the last act, but it’s not really trying to be – it pulls off tension and thrills thanks to some expert editing and the emotional connection developed with the characters up to that point. Really, it’s the quality of this film’s last act that elevates it above most “decent, I guess” horror films released in the last decade. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a classic or anything – it’s still a pretty clichéd haunted house films, after all – but it avoids most of the problems these films typically face.

      • Without a doubt, I’m intrigued by the last act being so important to the film’s success. That certainly gives me some confidence because, as you say, Insidious lost most viewers with that silly ending. It is out on Friday here in the UK so I’ll soon find out.

  6. I can’t wait to see this – I loved Insidious despite its faults, and I get the sense that James Wan really knows the horror genre and how to put a solid scare together. Scenes like the face behind the cot, the demon dream etc were brilliant and I’d like to see more of that with the Conjuring. Old-fashioned horror sounds great to me. I’m not expecting the next Shining or anything like that, just a solid cinema experience and something to wash away the sour taste of Mama….good review 🙂

    • I don’t think the scare are quite as good as Insidious (which is probably the scariest modern horror – from the last 5 or so years – I’ve seen) but the whole film holds together much better than Insidious thankfully.

      It’s a little sad that horror fans like us get so excited when there’s a horror film that’s pretty great (rather than a slam-dunk classic), but hopefully we’ll be getting excited more often. Certainly a big step above Mama. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  7. Pingback: The Conjuring (2013), a nearly perfect, instant classic horror with amazing characters and direction | Movies, Films & Flix

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