“Based on a true story.”
Ah, that always reliable reminder that what we’re about to see, regardless of execution, ought to be taken seriously as a work of fact. If that description sounds bitter, it’s only because I have too much respect for the effort it takes to make an audience believe in what’s happening onscreen, regardless of its basis in historical fact. I can believe in a 17-year-old girl having sexual revelations pointing at a psychopath uncle (Stoker), but never for a second can I buy Jackie Robinson so humbly following the white man’s instructions on how to give black people a higher stake in society (42). It doesn’t matter whether or not it happened in “the real world”, a term that becomes less applicable to our world the more you realize the great variety of life that exists. Many a horror film has hilariously claimed to be based on a true story, but few have made me believe in their terror inducing events.
None of this is to suggest I buy that The Conjuring is actually based on a true story. The horror story is no less ridiculous than the usual, but also no more so. You won’t get revelations that this demon must be Satan or said devil taunting the host family with crude innuendo. What I’m saying is not that The Conjuring made me believe in demons, but more importantly that it made me believe in the turmoil the characters are put through. To give a basic plot synopsis to the few who can’t easily pick it up, the Perron family move into a new house and slowly discover they’re being haunted by some dark entity. Once they realize this, they bring in demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) to help them exorcize this spirit from their property.
Clearly director James Wan is not out to reinvent the genre, but that’s hardly the admirable point of this film. Its strongest attribute isn’t expanding the field of the strange supernatural, but to make that unknown known. From the film’s essentially creepy opening, we’re lulled quickly into a world where evil hauntings aren’t only possible, but something that occurs frequently enough to provide employment for the Warrens. There’s no illusion to us what’s happening to the Perron family, even if it takes them some time to catch on. The film’s early tension comes from knowing there’s something lurking just beyond view, but not throwing it crudely in our faces and breaking any factor of believability. It’s not until we see the freakish ghoul well into proceedings that the film takes on a different intimidating shape.
Ed and Lorraine pick no persnickety bones about whether or not there really is something in this house. Something evil is definitely haunting them, but removing it becomes more of a high-stakes chess game than they might have preferred. It’s no longer a matter of if this thing will hurt them, but when it will do it again. Fear of the unknown becomes a trivial paranoia, because something real is there for the Perrons, and perhaps the Warrens as well. A late game perversion into Ed and Lorraine’s family life hints momentarily at this personal family struggle potentially getting blown out of proportion into a mass haunting of biblical proportions. That it pulls back from doing that is not a failure to follow through, but a testament to the depths of paranoia this film pries open.
Wan’s timing and restraint is effective, but it’s useless if we don’t care about the well being of the characters. Sure, the Perrons and Warrens aren’t the most complex creatures on earth, but they have an authentic quality about them that denies hammy scene-stealing in favor of emotive ensemble orchestration. I can’t remember another instance where each of five daughters was distinct as their own human being. You may mix up the names of Andrea, Nancy, April, etc., but the individuals don’t blur together. It helps that the child actors are so capable, and I continue to be immensely drawn in particularly by Joey King. In a scene where our belief in something we cannot see rest purely on her expression, the full force of her absolute terror sinks in.
Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are closer to the forefront as Carolyn and Roger Perron, respectively, and while Livingston holds his ground with care and reasonable fear, Taylor does submit herself entirely to the chaos of her particularly tumultuous part. She may be a simple being, but it’s that simplicity which makes her later acts of possession so skin-crawling. Patrick Wilson fills a similar vein as Livingston, be it as one of the main protagonists. The central interest of the film lies in Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine, who shoulders a connection to the supernatural that threatens to peel away her sanity. For all the subtler manipulations of the film, though, it really is horror with brass knuckles when it gets to the finish. Objects and people start flying through the walls and windows, yet we remain rooted in fear for the characters.
Maybe the strongest asset at Wan’s disposal here is the craft. The Conjuring is horror quite literally by design, relying less on editing than on the production aspect of it. Everything on the screen, from the daintily tattered period costumes to the creepy memorabilia scattered about the Perron home, is built and placed to up the creepiness of the atmospherics. The opening shot of a decrepit doll’s shattered glass eye pulls us into proceedings with a mix of innocence tainted by extreme menace. Same goes for its The Shining recalling credits roll, complete with creepy as impish hell title font. The architecture of the Perron’s house, too, is like that of a board game, each room having a Clue-esq history about it. God only knows what Ms. Marples died in the kitchen with the candlestick.
And again, this isn’t reinventing the formula in any dramatic fashion, but it’s course-correcting what many similar horror wanks have done wrong recently. It’s bringing the genre back to a level of authentic filmmaking and delivers ballistically enjoyable scares in the same way any good comedy delivers laughs. The two genres are very much hand-in-hand with what they deliver their audiences. As for whether or not The Conjuring is rooted in historical fact, I’d argue it’s irrelevant. The film certainly wants us to believe it’s real, and that’s what makes all the difference after you return to your creaky abode. But to be frank, what kind of woman who went through all this terrifying ordeal would willfully opt to go on a press tour for a film that turns it into a full-stop haunted house ride?
Bottom Line: The Conjuring is horror literally by design, crafting a creepy house and genuine characters, then patiently smashing them against each other.