If one puts aside skepticism about the paranormal and the somewhat dubious claims in the career of Ed and Lorraine Warren (the couple famous for the Amityville Horror case, among others), director James Wan (Insidious; Saw) has put together one of the best haunted house genre films to come around in a long time with The Conjuring. Inspired by the book House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story by Andrea Perron, in which Perron details her family’s supposed struggle against evil forces within their house, and the subsequent investigation into the case by the famous (or infamous) demonologist duo Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), Wan’s film is a masterclass in atmosphere, simplicity, and classic horror the likes of which is rare these days, even in his own previous films, which are the epitome of excess.
The film starts us off with Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating a scary doll that has wreaked havoc on a trio of roommates after they supposedly allowed a spirit to inhabit it. It’s an inhuman spirit looking for an anchor into this world, as Ed and Lorraine explain to the young ladies. The Warrens take the doll into their care and put it amongst the other artifacts in their personal museum in their home, a locked away room they have blessed by a priest once a week to ward off the evil spirits.
Three years later, the Perron family are moving into their dream home in Harrisville, RI. It’s a little bit of a fix-er-upper of an old farmhouse, but it’s large and has more than enough space for the entire family, which includes parents Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). Their idyllic life is off to a rocky start when an increasing series of unnerving events leaves them rattled. Carolyn begins discovering mysterious bruises on her body, their daughters are seeing strange things at night and swearing someone is grabbing them, and foul odors are coming from nowhere. Carolyn decides to turn to Ed and Lorraine Warren for help in her terror. The Warren’s investigation uncovers that a malevolent entity is clinging to the family, following them wherever they go, and that it has but one thing in mind, the death of the entire family.
Rather than inundate us with constant jump scares or an onslaught of gore, which would be very much on the nose and in keeping with Wan’s previous work, the director here stays back, out of the way, allowing the atmosphere and the story itself to bring the scares in an organic way. A shadow swelling down a hallway, an intense stare under a dark bed by a shivering young girl, the sound of a door squeaking in the distance – these things all help to wind up the tension that slowly builds to a fever pitch for the break out finale. In the meantime, we are never really sure if we are being taken down a true supernatural journey, or just one where people’s imaginations have run wild in a strange new house. For example, in one scene when one of the girls wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and crying, swearing that someone pulled her feet, her sister stands by the door, and she she says “no, they’re right behind you!”, but we can’t see a thing. It’s dark, creepy, nothing but shadows and light, and then the door slams shut. Is it the wind? That’s the kind of psychological terror that Wan stirs up in The Conjuring.
It would all be for naught, however, were it not for the flawless performances from Vera Farmiga and Lilli Taylor, especially. The two female leads make this film. In fact, even the younger female actors make this film, and leave the men as peripheral characters. The terror the young girls portray is palpable, truly. And Taylor slowly transforms from happy and confident to unhinged and psychotic with a seamless ease. Farmiga, meanwhile, is so confident yet also vulnerable, portraying a worried mother herself (this comes into play later on in the film), and is absolutely mesmerizing as the one of the two investigators who can supposedly “see” what’s really going on.
The Arri Alexa cinematographic high definition camera was used in the production of The Conjuring to capture what results in a rather filmic image that is brought to Blu-ray in a reference quality AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodement from Warner. It captures the nuance of the shadows, and all the minute details like the cobwebbed cellar and the notches on the possessed doll. It will have you lost in in its atmospheric world without any hints of digital intrusions.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack is masterful as well. Just as every good horror mix should be, it is atmospheric and drowns you in a soundscape of terrible sounds, from the lowest whispers, to the scariest creek of a floor panel, and when need be, it gets big, loud, and deep, with lows reaching way down to the lowest frequencies.
Not much here, but these do extend the theme a bit with discussions about the real demonologist duo and the case this was based on.
- The Conjuring: Face to Face with Terror (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:06:39)
- A Life in Demonology (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:15:39)
- Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:08:04)
The Definitive Word
Classic haunted house genre filmmaking at its best, The Conjuring is one film that is not to be watched alone, trust me. It will definitely make for a great inclusion on any Halloween movie marathon, especially on this top-notch Blu-ray release from Warner.
Additional Screen Captures