Nothing thrills quite like a good ghost story, which, when told properly, makes horror one of Hollywood’s most reliable genres. As viewers giggle with delight after jumping out of their seats in fright, they take comfort in the knowledge that the scares end when the credits roll. Director James Wan’s latest thriller, “The Conjuring,” plays right into this typical love/hate relationship with the paranormal, but creates genuine scares instead of simply relying on excessive gore or cheap jump scares like so many easily forgettable horror flicks.
This isn’t just another ghost story, though, because the events that inspired “The Conjuring” are real, and the movie doesn’t let you forget it.
In 1971, not long after Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters move into a farmhouse in Rhode Island, they begin to sense that something is dreadfully wrong. Doors open and close by themselves, bruises appear all over Carolyn’s body, and the girls are pulled by their feet across their beds. When these ghostly encounters turn violent, Carolyn calls Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson, who also starred in Wan’s last film, “Insidious”) and his wife Lorraine (an outstanding Vera Farmiga), the most prominent supernatural investigators of the 1960s. They discover the spirit of Bathsheba, a Satanic witch who sacrificed her child to the devil, hung herself, and has haunted the house ever since.
This alone would make for a decent enough ghost story, but Wan takes the scares to the next level. For the first half of the film, he builds the suspense by refusing to let the audience see what the Perrons do, paradoxically making their fear all the more real. Every bump in the night is a visceral experience, and Wan’s noticeable (but certainly welcome) avoidance of the cheap tricks so prevalent in the horror genre create a genuine sense of
The eerie cinematography, with its extended takes and obtuse angles, enhance the sparse special effects by giving them more of a chilling impact. The narrative does have its clichéd moments, like the discovery of a mysterious boarded-up room and the family dog refusing to set foot inside the house. But Bathsheba’s backstory is genuinely creepy, and her presence is enough to frighten even other spirits.
Chad and Carey Hayes’ script deserves special praise for devoting as much attention to the Warrens as the Perrons. The famous ghost hunters provide a viewpoint usually ignored in horror films – that of the havoc the investigations wreak on the investigators themselves.
From the written introduction that explains the film was based on actual events to its final frame - a quote from Ed Warren asserting that the “fairytales” of God, the devil, and exorcisms are real - “The Conjuring” conjures up scares that exist only in lesser horror films’ dreams (or nightmares).
The real-life Lorraine Warren called the Perron case the most terrifying she and her husband ever researched, and the dramatic interpretation of it stands as an excellent movie, not simply an excellent horror movie.
**** out of five