The Conjuring is being advertised as this year’s “scariest movie ever made!” The MPAA Ratings Board gave it a boost by giving it an R rating, even though there isn’t an extreme amount of violence or gore, no nudity, and hardly any foul language. The MPAA said there couldn’t be any cuts made to the movie that would give it the less prohibitive PG-13; the tone of the entire movie was just so scary and unsettling they felt it was unsuitable for anyone under the age of 17 without parental consent. Wow.
The problem is, the movie isn’t all that scary. Yes, director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) does a good job of establishing atmosphere and in setting up and paying off the jump-from-your-seat moments (The Conjuring does what every Paranormal Activity movie has failed to do, which is actually delivering what it sets up, as opposed to the Paranormal Activity movies that just tease and tease and TEASE for eighty-five minutes and then go all gonzo in the final five.)
Wan is clever in the way sets us up: when the Perron family (Lili Taylor as Carolyn, the mom; Ron Livingston as Roger, the dad; Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver as the children) first move into the house, we don’t see the house from the family’s point-of-view, but from inside of the house, as if something is looking back at them. The only one who immediately wants nothing to do with the house is the family dog.
Maybe it’s just a symptom of me being old and having seen too many of these types of movies, but nothing that happens is much of a surprise. The Conjuring feels like an obvious patchwork of other horror movies; it starts with the “creepy doll”, then turns into a haunted house movie (Wan includes a moment where the camera holds on a shot of a TV full of static… nice touch) and ends up being a Poltergeist/Exorcist hybrid during the climax.
Wan does a marvelous job in presenting all of this (and he’s ably assisted with a score by Joseph Bishara that’s all strings and brass playing Penderecki-inspired discordant melodies), but it feels like hearing a good cover band playing songs you’ve heard over and over again; yeah, it’s kind of fun at first, but after a while it feels like everyone is just going through the motions.
And yet, despite of all of that, The Conjuring is worth seeing because of the quality of the performances, a rarity in this genre. EVERYBODY in the movie does such a wonderful job of grounding their work with a level of realism and empathy. And the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes actually gives us characters who react with good sense under these extreme conditions; Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, one half of the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, even comes right out and asks the Perrones why they haven’t just moved out, and their answer makes sense.
While Wilson and Livingston are spot on as the husbands, it’s the leading ladies who really shine. Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine Warren, who’s clairvoyant, which is a definite advantage when investigating the paranormal, but it also takes a grueling emotional and physical toll on her. The Warren’s are coming off of an exorcism that was particularly painful for Lorraine, and Ed is fearful about letting her take on this case concerning the Perrones, which seems particularly dangerous. But Lorraine knows she’s the more gifted investigator, and won’t let Ed go it alone. Wilson and Farmiga are fantastic playing this couple not as cooks, but as open-minded people with enough healthy skepticism to not automatically assume that every case they take on is some sort of haunting.
Let me fawn over Lili Taylor for a moment. Why this woman doesn’t work more often is beyond me! Going all the way back to 1988’s Mystic Pizza, Taylor has never given a performance that wasn’t completely heartfelt and fully formed; why she wasn’t Oscar-nominated for Dogfight or Household Saints is outside my comprehension. The Conjuring gives Taylor her largest role in years, and she runs with it. As the mother of five children who may be the focus of an unseen demonic force, Taylor is put through, and puts us through, quite the ringer. She is gracious and protective and frightened and frightening and overwhelmed and overwhelming, and never over-the-top, which would be an easy trap to fall into with this type of character. If there is any justice, we’ll be seeing a whole lot more from Taylor.
The Conjuring is really about the legacy of mothers; mothers both present and long gone who do everything they can to protect their children, and those, influenced by forces many of us will never understand, who are compelled to do harm to them. Perhaps this is why, along with the fine performances, the movie works as well as it does despite the feeling of over-familiarity with its genre tropes. The climax of the movie, despite all of the enveloping chaos, is surprisingly moving.
The Conjuring is drawing a lot of comparisons with Poltergeist, and though it does lay on the special effects in the third act like that movie, it actually has more in common with The Sixth Sense. Granted, The Sixth Sense doesn’t try to pound you with shocks like The Conjuring and relies more on atmosphere in creating tension, but what makes both movies work are the quiet intensity of the performances. And maybe that’s what will make The Conjuring a horror movie that’ll be talked about for a while; it’s not what scares us that makes something really memorable, but what moves us.