The Conjuring was something completely unexpected and refreshing for me this year. I first saw the trailer while watching the painful reboot of Evil Dead and automatically lumped it in that category, especially when I saw the noose hanging in the tree. I knew I had to see it, though, because the actresses Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga were involved. They’re actresses I really respect, and what I like best about them is that they always make interesting choices. I don’t feel like they’re out in order to make millions of dollars and become the biggest star of whatever year; they pick roles because they’re challenging and give them room to grow and stretch. Or maybe it’s because they’re so good at their craft that they transform these roles from something two-dimensional and shallow to people and characters that I really care about.
The Conjuring is a period piece from the 1970s featuring a large family that moves into a big, rambling house that they bought at an auction. Mother, father, and five daughters, ranging from about five years old to the upper teens, are excited to finally have a place that fits all of them and run about decorating on their first day in the home. Lili Taylor plays Carolyn Perron, a stay-at-home mom, and father Roger (Ron Livingston) supports the family as a truck driver (is that even possible anymore?). The first night, the family notices something wrong with the house when the kids play a variation of hide-and-seek and stumble upon a boarded-up cellar full of old furniture and castoffs that might be antiques.
In a parallel story are two parapsychologists, Lorraine and Ed Warren, who travel around the country, visiting college campuses to talk about the hauntings and exorcisms that they have studied or participated in. (The Warrens are based on a real-life couple, who are probably most famous for their investigation of the “haunting” that The Amityville Horror is based on.) The couple has one daughter and a roomful of haunted objects that evil entities have attached themselves to, including a cracked antique doll named Cindy, who’s locked in a cabinet after a scene reminiscent of the Talky Tina episode from The Twilight Zone.
Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine, the sensitive psychic wife, and is the real powerhouse of the couple, projecting a warmth and kindness that translates effortlessly from the big screen. After an exorcism gone wrong not long before the main story of The Conjuring takes place, her husband (Patrick Wilson) is fiercely protective of her and what cases the two take on.
While setting up house, Carolyn keeps discovering mysterious marks and bruises on her body, as if a baseball bat were taken to her at night, which her doctor blames on an iron deficiency. Meanwhile, the violence in her household escalates to a point where the family confines themselves to the ground-level rooms. The whole buildup of their house haunting is done old school scary, like the 1980 movie The Changeling. The suspense is ratcheted up degree by degree until it’s excruciating, and members of the audience were screaming when a door suddenly opened—whether a person was doing it or not. The wonderful thing is that you don’t know where the monsters or ghosts lie; it’s very much like Jaws in that the evil entities barely get any screen time. Instead, with a little atmosphere and good acting, the unbearable tension is built.
Because the film’s set in the 1970s, the terrorized Perrons don’t have easy access to the history of the house. Things aren’t as simple as an Internet search. Instead, Carolyn eventually makes contact with the Warrens when they make one of their campus visits. A few of these scenes are shown throughout the movie, with the couple on a creaky stage showing slides and then the scene is flip-flopped and there’s a pan of the audience members in all their seventies’ fashion glory, clasping mimeographed flyers. There’s a palpable sense of relief when that last flash of the audience shows Carolyn Perron in attendance. At last, you think, somebody’s going to do something about her problem.
She approaches the couple, and immediately they take on the case, mostly because of the invisible communication that goes on between mother to mother. When the Warrens arrive at the Perron house, they immediately sense that something’s off, but instead of just one little ghosty, they realize they’re dealing with multiples led by one nasty in particular, who seems intent on breaking through to the other side.
Next come scenes I recognize—the observation period, asking for help from the Church, the cleansing—but there’s something new and different that was brought to each of these, and while I was reminded of Poltergeist, The Haunting, and The Changeling, the scenes were still fun to watch. The ending is able to sustain the nerve-racking first part of the movie and it’s left wide-open for another installment, yet everything is tied up neatly—even the haunted doll that’s thrown out there as a gun, Anton Chekhov-style, in the first act.
For me, the real test of a scary movie is what happens after. The Conjuring is one of those that kept me up—on more than one night. And sometimes when my eyes are strained from editing too long and I see something weird in my peripheral vision, I flash to the scariest scene of the movie. And maybe pee a little.