A longstanding tradition in horror movies is to use things that go bump in the night to get the audience jumping. There’s plenty of that going on in this frightening based-on-fact item. But The Conjuring takes an extra few steps. Things here also go bump in the daytime, and indoors and outdoors.
This is demons, ghosts and witches territory. It follows the Perron family — mom, dad, five daughters, dog — who move to an isolated old house (one which, in the finest of red flag warnings, Daisy the dog won’t enter), are tickled when they discover a boarded-up cellar, then start witnessing and hearing the oddest of experiences.
There are distant (and close-up) knocking sounds; every clock in the place stops at the same time every night; mom starts finding mysterious bruises on her body; one of the girls, almost asleep, tells her sister over in the next bed to “stop grabbing my foot!” even though her sister and that bed are nowhere near her, even though we see her get grabbed by “something.”
Plenty of time is spent in this house, where things keep going badly for these nice people, and those same things make for very scary viewing. There’s an interesting juncture in the film where due to some perfectly placed shockeroos, set and lit in just the right places and ways, characters on the screen and people in the audience are screaming at the same time, at the same volume.
But in a terrific example of a script maintaining a certain balance, the film is just as much about a different family: the Warrens, a pair of demonologists called in by the frightened Perrons to help them deal with whatever supernatural business is going on.
Directed by James Wan, who has scared the bejeebers out of us before with the gory Saw and the suspenseful Insidious, this film goes a different route in delivering the shivers. It’s practically bloodless, and gets its scares instead from restless, constantly moving cameras as well as loud noises; quick, horrific visuals; and suggestions of rancid smells that, one of the Warrens explains, could be a sign of demonic activity.
Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is a clairvoyant. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) is a paranormal investigator with some religious training. Their teamwork brings them onto the lecture circuit and into homes where, as in this one, “a dark entity has latched on to the family, and the house needs an exorcism.”
The Perron story, we’re told, took place in Rhode Island in 1971. Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) was at wit’s end in trying to protect his family, but it was his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) who finally reached out to the Warrens — who did this kind of work often — and usually found rational explanations for their cases.
Not this time. They realize it as soon as they walk in the door. We realize it as soon as they start giving each other silent, knowing looks. Wan fills the film with neat moments: Little Cindy is sleepwalking (again), and the scene is accompanied by the great Santo & Johnny song “Sleep Walk.” Young April chats on and on with her new friend Rory, but there’s nobody in the room with her. Carolyn, playing a game with her kids, approaches a closet blindfolded (not a good idea).
Near the end, a lot of truly frightening things are going on all over the place, culminating in one hell of an intense exorcism. This is great fun to watch with an audience that enjoys this kind of thing. But anyone doing so will also probably stay out of dark rooms for a while.