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.