Like Marvel Studios, Blumhouse Productions seems almost incapable of making a box office bomb. Between the Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Purge franchises and stand-alone films like Sinister, Oculus and The Conjuring, the company has consistently shown why they are the only real name in horror these days. They’ve even managed to turn Annabelle – a Chucky rip-off introduced in The Conjuring – into the most anticipated horror movie of the fall. Even though the trailer looks terrible, the director’s most notable accomplishment was helming the Mortal Kombat sequel and the writer’s nascent career has been devoted to dreck like Blood Monkey, its narrative connection to The Conjuring is at least enough to warrant watching it with an open mind.
Although a bit of a fixer-upper, the Perron family couldn’t be happier with their new country home. But when a malevolent supernatural entity begins terrorizing them each night, they turn to renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Now it is up to the Warrens to cleanse the spirits tormenting the Perrons before it claims not just their lives, but their very souls as well.
The reason why The Conjuring is as frightening as it is has nothing to do with its ability to actually scare us. We don’t love the film because of Bathsheba’s midnight antics nor because of her victims’ phantasmal warnings, but because of the film’s human characters. Understanding that a greater investment in the Perrons’ lives causes us to assume a greater stake in their ultimate fate, The Conjuring slowly introduce the family through pizza dinners and games of hide-and-clap. Only after a quarter of the movie is over do the Perrons experience their first definitively supernatural event and only after half of its runtime has elapsed do the Warrens even begin their investigation. By then, we are not just sympathetic observers to the troubles of strangers, but coconspirators in their survival.
The presence of a child actor in a major role is often the death knell of an otherwise good film. From The Phantom Menace’s Jake Lloyd to Temple of Doom’s Jonathon Ke Quan, everybody has their least favorite child actor. Common sense dictates that it’s simply best to avoid them whenever possible. Despite this, The Conjuring uses six of them in pivotal roles throughout the film, often without being paired with a more-experienced adult to carry the weight of the scene for them. What’s even more astounding is that all of them are varying levels of decent, serviceably progressing the narrative in a manner befitting an allegedly true story.
Like other Blumhouse releases, The Conjuring’s primary mode of terror is though carefully structured suspense. The camera stalks the girls in their sleep, as if forcing the audience to look at them through Bathsheba’s eyes. Deep wells of shadows frame the night, closing off the otherwise expansive farmhouse into a claustrophobic space. When one of the girls looks underneath her bed, the camera flips around so that we see things from her perspective. By the time that Bathsheba herself actually appears, it’s to relieve the tension, rather than develop it.
Despite crafting tense, drawn-out scenes over the course of the film, director James Wan overly relies on simple jump scares to punctuate them. Although presumably intended to frighten, Bathsheba’s first physical appearance on top of Andrea’s wardrobe – with its quick zoom-in and dissonant instrumental sting – is so hopelessly schlocky that it’s amazing that the film ever recovered from it. And although functional as an introduction to the Warrens, Annabelle’s use to spice up the third act by attacking their daughter was tangential to the plot that actually mattered: a possessed Carolyn attempting to murder her two youngest daughters.
Despite a few let-downs in its narrative and a cumbersomely large cast of mostly child actors, The Conjuring has earned its reputation as one of the most well-crafted horror films of the twenty-first century. It is unerringly tense, intelligent and, most importantly, frightening. Overall, I give it an 8 out of 10 and look forward to seeing whether or not Annabelle is worthy successor to it.