Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2013

The Conjuring

The power of suggestion

James Wan's perfectly calibrated minimalism elevates a standard-issue tale of paranormal activity

The Conjuring
New Line Cinema
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell and Shannon Kook
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
July 19, 2013
(out of four)

Most of the conversations I've had about The Conjuring - primarily from those who've yet to see it - have been about whether or not it's "scary." I confess this is a hard question for me to answer because I don't really get "scared," per se. (At the movies, that is. In real life? Like when the newspaper gets thrown loudly against my door at 4 a.m. and I assume it's a murderer - or, worse yet, a swarm of bees - trying to break in? Absolutely.)

But good horror - or, for that matter, a good suspense thriller - can go well beyond fear, creating a persistent, ongoing state of tension, the feeling that something is not right. Or is about to not be. The pervading sense of unavoidable dread that builds in Rosemary's Baby. The unraveling paranoia in two other Polanski thrillers, Chinatown and The Ghost Writer. The quiet, primal terror of Alien. Jake Gyllenhaal's developing panic in the basement scene in Zodiac.

The ominous atmosphere in The Conjuring is, like those other examples, the product of meticulously conceived visual cues and sound design. Director James Wan has mastered the ability to generate anxiety with his compositions alone, playing with shapes and shadows to subtly suggest the presence of figures that may or may not be there. That was one of the most impressive things about his sleeper hit Insidious, and this one - in addition to being a vaguely similar story - does a lot of the same things. Sometimes innocuous household items, silhouetted by the moonlight through a window, seem to lean ominously over an entire room, like figures of doom waiting to pounce.

Like Insidious, this one takes place largely inside a house that's being haunted by a malevolent spirit of some kind. It's the early 1970s and - as is always the case - a family has just moved into a new home in the New England countryside. After a series of eerie occurrences experienced by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters, they solicit the help of a renowned pair of paranormal investigators, the husband-and-wife duo Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

While the film opens with an introduction to the Warrens in a prologue detailing one of their earlier cases, most of the focus is on the Perron family - in particular Carolyn, who experiences much of it firsthand while her husband's away on business. She is, from an emotional standpoint at least, the most crucial character, and Taylor - a reliable character actress for so long (in particular High Fidelity, Say Anything. . ., Factotum and a terrific season 5 episode of The X-Files) - imbues Carolyn with a fierce sense of maternal desperation. By contrast, the script undercooks the development of the Warrens, even though Lorraine emerges as the preeminent figure, and the protection of her own family becomes a key point of contention late in the film.

Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes keep plotting at a minimum, offering only bare details about the history of the house and the spirit within, and refusing to bog the characters down with unnecessary backstory. The absence of superfluous information allows Wan to build the terror with as much patience as is required. (That's one of the most interesting things about the development of Wan's career. After breaking onto the scene with something as elaborate and over-the-top as Saw, he's become more and more low-key with each outing, culminating in The Conjuring's old-fashioned naturalism.)

Over and over, the film circles back - as horror so often does - to the idea of corruption of innocence. Consider the prologue, which involves the seemingly demonic possession of a child's doll; later on, an innocuous game of "hide and clap" - a favorite among the Perron daughters, played with carefree, childlike enthusiasm - turns into a sinister supernatural tease.

The Conjuring may not have many ideas that haven't been explored to death in a number of other haunted-house and/or possession movies, but it's a triumph of minimalistic horror. Throughout the family's endeavor, we see very little - but we sense a whole lot. What Wan accomplishes is getting us in such a frame of mind that we feel the presence of hidden terrors, both real and imagined. Like every other good horror filmmaker, he has found a way to burrow under our skin.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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