The Conjuring (2013)
I admire Ed and Lorraine Warren. Not for their work at their day job, mind you; there is significant evidence that they made up a lot of the details of their most famous case, and a number of others, in order to make them scarier and the books more marketable, which I believe leaves a black mark on the rest of their shared career as "paranormal investigators". Rather, I admire them as storytellers. That famous case was the one that inspired The Amityville Horror, a film that, no matter what one thinks about the alleged "true story" behind it, remains a certified classic that went on to spawn more sequels and remakes than I have fingers. The Warrens would've been great carnival operators back in the day, but nowadays, they've done just as well turning tall tales of the supernatural into seriously scary stories. As a result, I was expecting The Conjuring to be an above-average haunted house movie, something I was looking forward to but not necessarily waiting for with bated breath. The moment this film really came onto my radar, however, was when the MPAA slapped it with an R rating, telling the producers that it was just too scary from top to bottom and that there were no scenes that could be taken out to trim down the rating. When an impartial observer like the MPAA is literally saying that a film is so scary that there's no way that children should be allowed to see it without parental supervision, you can bet that it just shot to the top of the list of films that every horror fan and their dog is dying to see.
Did The Conjuring live up to the hype of "scariest movie in years"? Well, no, not really. It would've been difficult to live up to such claims no matter how good the movie was. However, this is still a rock-solid ghost story that is filled with tension and terror, with a great cast and director, only let down by its "true story" pretensions that serve to undermine the actual plot on more than one occasion.
This film purports to be an account of a case that the Warrens found to be so disturbing that they wouldn't tell anybody about it until now. It's pretty much every ghost story in the last few decades rolled into one: strange things go bump in the night, mayhem is caused, and eventually someone gets possessed and tries to kill their family. Originality ain't this film's strong suit, but hey, did GoodFellas invent the gangster movie? What hurts this film more than its derivative plot, however, is its claims about the real-life incident that this film was based on. I'm going to go into minor spoiler territory here, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen this yet. As mentioned, the intro to this film claims that the Warrens were so unnerved by what happened with the Perron family that they sealed the case file away for four decades and refused to talk about it. However, this film has an all-around happy ending. The demon is banished, nobody dies, the family stays in their house, and everybody lives happily ever after. I normally don't have a problem with happy endings, but when the entire film is based on the pretension that this is not only a true story, but a spectacularly screwed-up one, you'd expect it to compare not only to The Amityville Horror, which saw the family driven from their home in fear, but also to another grisly case that is referenced in this film as part of the Warrens' backstory, where a guy died and Lorraine went catatonic for over a week from what she saw. In both cases, this film's story fails to live up to this pretension.
On other fronts, however, this film shines. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the Warrens very well, as does the largely unknown cast playing the Perrons. The way this film operates in the second act is more like a police procedural than a horror movie, with the Warrens as detectives investigating the haunting so that they can gather enough evidence to bring in a Vatican exorcist and bust the ghost/demon, before it finally goes all out in the third act. That's not to say that this film isn't scary, far from it. While there's no way it could've lived up to the hype, it still had me finding myself getting lighter on more than one occasion as I jumped out of my seat. Director James Wan knows how to build tension with every shot; while there are few "boo" scares in this movie, each one comes with enough buildup that, when it finally strikes, you will feel it in your bones. Even in the non-scary moments, this film looks simply beautiful, echoing classic '70s horror movies with its long takes and old-fashioned special effects. The script likewise takes time to build up its characters, thankfully averting the haunted house movie stereotype of the "horror dad" who refuses to believe that anything supernatural is happening until it's too late. Both the Perrons and the Warrens are built up and grow as characters, getting us to believe in them and get invested when bad stuff starts happening to them. While much of this character development will be familiar to anyone who's seen a movie of this kind before, it's still done quite well here. I especially liked the twist of the evil spirit going after the Warrens' family, in what is one of the film's scariest scenes.
Score: 4 out of 5
As long as you go in ignoring its lack of originality and the baggage that the "true story" brings to the table, you will have a lot of great frights with this movie.