When The Conjuring was slapped with an “R” rating, the producers couldn’t have bought better publicity. Setting out to make a PG-13 film, the picture earned the more restrictive classification, not on account of blood, gore, swearing, or sex – but because it was simply TOO SCARY to get anything less. The decision to leave things as they were worked. It had the highest debut for an original R rated movie ever. Even taking inflation into account, it still ranks up there with record holders like The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath. I must profess the strategy worked on me. Anticipation levels were off the charts and I was primed and ready to be scared out of my wits. To be honest, I found PG-13 fare like The Ring and Insidious to be far scarier. Of course such an assertion is highly debatable as it rests entirely on personal tastes. That’s not to say The Conjuring isn’t satisfying. It’s a smartly told, well acted tale that earns its scares legitimately.
What pushes The Conjuring into watchable entertainment is the game cast that gives the proceedings an air of substance and respectability. The screenplay is taken from the true story of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Amityville Horror was based on their research. Their portrayals are sound. Vera Farmiga is genuinely good at eliciting our concern. Also superb are the Perron clan—Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters—victimized by demonic forces after moving into their new home. Naturally their domicile is dilapidated, old and really eerie. I mean the dog won’t enter the house. Lili Taylor reminds us of how underrated an actress she actually is. She undoubtedly gets the juiciest part, but she makes the most of it.
The Conjuring is set in the 70s and the milieu lends the environment an atmospheric elegance. We’re informed Ed Warren was the only American layman permitted by the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms. That’s a nice bit of information. This is intelligent terror that ironically creates tension with well worn clichés. There’s a music box, a creepy doll, birds behaving abnormally, kids in peril. There are at least a dozen conventional tropes from which this appropriates. Horror aficionados will have a distinct feeling of déjà vu. You can roll your eyes at all the movies this borrows from or just go with the flow. If you’re going to imitate you might as well copy from the best I suppose. There is a refined simplicity to the action that is rather effective. When Vera Farmiga is hanging laundry on a clothesline, a white sheet takes on a human form as it blows away from her grasp. I think it’s telling that the simple image elicited gasps from the audience. Director James Wan is continuing the sophisticated path he started with Insidious. His high regard for the classics of the genre continues as he seems to have abandoned the gross-out style he exploited with the first Saw. This isn’t really a step forward, but it definitely isn’t a step back either.