Based on the exploits of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, James Wan’s The Conjuring reaffirmed our collective cultural obsession with supernatural horror in the modern age.
The film follows the haunting and subsequent investigation of the Perron family home, with Ed and Lorraine Warren serving as the film’s paranormal white knights, riding in to the rescue of the haunted family.
In terms of supernatural horror, it’s an excellent film. Its set design and cinematography make for a creepy and unsettling atmosphere, and The Conjuring‘s effects are convincing and mostly practical. Through its early-’70s aesthetic and its minimal digital effects, The Conjuring is able to deliver some genuine timeless scares, with the tension expertly built throughout by Wan’s clever direction.
The Conjuring is an enjoyably unsettling watch, expertly put together in order to maximize the effectiveness of its jump scares. While the genre’s reliance on jump scares has long grown tiresome, The Conjuring uses them sparingly in favor of building atmosphere and developing characters.
However, The Conjuring isn’t without its weaker aspects. The film’s inspiration – the real Perron family’s supposed haunting – has had its authenticity called into question, and The Conjuring does nothing at all to address this, instead simply labeling the doubtful as “skeptics” and moving on with its supernatural story. While this is generally a necessary evil for a story like The Conjuring‘s, it feels like a failed opportunity, with the film content to rest on the assumption that its audience will accept its supposed true story without question.
Similarly, the film features heavy religious overtones, with the existence (and intervention) of the power of God implied or alluded to throughout. It was perhaps unavoidable, given that the film features more than one exorcism, but it presents a few deeper issues that can’t be ignored. The Conjuring‘s haunting is caused by the spirit of a witch (the cousin of a woman killed in the Salem witch trials) who sacrificed her own child to the Devil and has spent the centuries since possessing mothers in order to have them kill their children. This paints a very simplistic and problematic picture of a singularly horrific historical event – effectively claiming through its narrative that the innocents killed in the trials were actual witches and that the witch trials were a justified hunt for real evil.
All of that narrative subtext certainly lends a less favorable air to proceedings, but even under that sort of scrutiny, The Conjuring remains an enjoyable experience. Its relentless tension and excellent use of practical effects makes for some genuinely haunting scares, and even after several viewings, its jump scares hold up as both relevant to the plot and consistently scary – there’s a reliance on the inherent shock, but there’s genuine terror behind them, and that’s what sets The Conjuring apart from other supernatural horror.
It’s not the most innovative film, but it takes tired tropes and polishes them up before presenting them in all their glory, and it’s almost impossible not to feel both thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
Summary: What it lacks in story, it makes up for in atmosphere. The Conjuring is supernatural horror as it should be – creepy and unrelenting.
Highlights: The film’s use of darkness and the occasional appearance of a pair of hands or feet serve as its best bone-chilling moments.