Review by Micah Unice

The Conjuring – or Satan Leases Another Farmhouse with Shag

At the core of almost every great horror device is some kind of sadness. Fear is easily tapped into when a character we’re sweet on gets an existential spanking–and not just from an indian burial ground or an Asian hairball in a nightgown. Anguish is the broadest gateway to terror, because it exploits the fragility of our own aplomb. Just ask The Exorcist’s mother-grieving priest, Jaws’ naval torpedo survivor, or the noodley blue Tilda Swinton fetus in the finale of Courage the Cowardly Dog.

The newest entry in the catalog of movies about houses who hate photogenic Caucasian families, James Wan’s The Conjuring, digs deep for its sadness. It mines it from the all-American parents who buy a foreclosed farmhouse because they’re unbearably poor, as indicated by their excess of flannel. Then it coaxes more out of the married demonologists recovering from an unknown trauma (presumably of the Mephistophelian variety). There’s also the house’s history, which might read like a parenting manual had Dr. Spock ever tried to channel Vlad the Impaler. In fact the movie is chock full of depressive ruses, down to an adorable pet who gets targeted by demonic hazing. And, unexpectedly, virtually all of them work.

Credit for that goes half to its two nuanced scream queens and half to Wan’s collaboration with cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Lilli Taylor, who’s come a long way since she flared her nostrils through 1999’s The Haunting, is both sympathetic and aerobic as the matriarch who gets pulverized by wife-beating spectres. Vera Farmiga wrenches as Lorraine Warren, the world’s most well-known psychic and collar ruffle enthusiast, to whose Catholic zen-ness we cleave during the most excruciating scenes. Both actress’ un-self-conscious performances are complemented by Leonetti’s photography, which accentuates their fluidity. Crane and dolly shots swoop into hand-held surveys. The audience’s eye somersaults between floors and plunges toward the women’s faces. There is rarely any sense of choreography, which makes us feel like we are participants in their terror.

Wan has definitely learned how to better twist the tension screw since Saw. Every supernatural sequence is drawn out relentlessly, often without music. Viewers are strapped to a proverbial dentist’s chair of dread and forced to watch spinning drills inch toward their faces. No amount of polyester or 70’s synth ballads can ease the torture of watching Taylor play hide n’ clap with minions of hell.

The Conjuring is by no means a perfect haunted house movie. None of the plot points or exposition are particularly novel, and there are one or two gimmicks (late night spectral indian leg wrestling?), that momentarily reduce the menace to cloven-footed tickle monsters. But this film is aimed squarely at the segment of the population who goes to see all such horror films (people like me, who consider The Others a perfectly acceptable subject for Christmas party drinking games). In that sense, it surpasses its intentions. And it manages to do it without any scenes on sped-up security tape or demons that look like Margaret Hamilton in Darth Maul makeup.

All in all, it’s a pretty freaky existential spanking.

The Conjuring – or Satan Leases Another Farmhouse with Shag

At the core of almost every great horror device is some kind of sadness. Fear is easily tapped into when a character we’re sweet on gets an existential spanking–and not just from an indian burial ground or an Asian hairball in a nightgown. Anguish is the broadest gateway to terror, because it exploits the fragility of our own aplomb. Just ask The Exorcist’s mother-grieving priest, Jaws’ naval torpedo survivor, or the noodley blue Tilda Swinton fetus in the finale of Courage the Cowardly Dog.

The newest entry in the catalog of movies about houses who hate photogenic Caucasian families, James Wan’s The Conjuring, digs deep for its sadness. It mines it from the all-American parents who buy a foreclosed farmhouse because they’re unbearably poor, as indicated by their excess of flannel. Then it coaxes more out of the married demonologists recovering from an unknown trauma (presumably of the Mephistophelian variety). There’s also the house’s history, which might read like a parenting manual had Dr. Spock ever tried to channel Vlad the Impaler. In fact the movie is chock full of depressive ruses, down to an adorable pet who gets targeted by demonic hazing. And, unexpectedly, virtually all of them work.

Credit for that goes half to its two nuanced scream queens and half to Wan’s collaboration with cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Lilli Taylor, who’s come a long way since she flared her nostrils through 1999’s The Haunting, is both sympathetic and aerobic as the matriarch who gets pulverized by wife-beating spectres. Vera Farmiga wrenches as Lorraine Warren, the world’s most well-known psychic and collar ruffle enthusiast, to whose Catholic zen-ness we cleave during the most excruciating scenes. Both actress’ un-self-conscious performances are complemented by Leonetti’s photography, which accentuates their fluidity. Crane and dolly shots swoop into hand-held surveys. The audience’s eye somersaults between floors and plunges toward the women’s faces. There is rarely any sense of choreography, which makes us feel like we are participants in their terror.

Wan has definitely learned how to better twist the tension screw since Saw. Every supernatural sequence is drawn out relentlessly, often without music. Viewers are strapped to a proverbial dentist’s chair of dread and forced to watch spinning drills inch toward their faces. No amount of polyester or 70’s synth ballads can ease the torture of watching Taylor play hide n’ clap with minions of hell.

The Conjuring is by no means a perfect haunted house movie. None of the plot points or exposition are particularly novel, and there are one or two gimmicks (late night spectral indian leg wrestling?), that momentarily reduce the menace to cloven-footed tickle monsters. But this film is aimed squarely at the segment of the population who goes to see all such horror films (people like me, who consider The Others a perfectly acceptable subject for Christmas party drinking games). In that sense, it surpasses its intentions. And it manages to do it without any scenes on sped-up security tape or demons that look like Margaret Hamilton in Darth Maul makeup.

All in all, it’s a pretty freaky existential spanking.

Like this? Let's judge more movies...

Leave a Tip

If you liked this article, you can leave a tip for the writer.

Tips are limited to 25 cents, 50 cents, 75 cents, or a dollar.

(Goes through PayPal).


Select tip amount here:
You can write in this box: