On the first night that my family sleeps in our recently purchased home, I lay awake in our second floor bedroom, listening to every groan the house makes. It's a cottage-style brick home on a quiet street in southern Virginia, built in the 1940s.
Twice I take an investigative trip down the long flight of creaky hardwood stairs. The central air contracts our house's ventilation system, then shuts off and allows warmer air to pour through the duct work, causing it to expand and make a furnace-like popping sound that reverberates throughout the house. And I'm convinced that someone is on the verge of murdering all of us.
When I'm given over to this fear, that odd smell in our basement isn't a mustiness that needs aired out—it's a cancerous mold. That not-quite-normal looking mosquito bite protruding from my wife's leg is probably a poisonous spider bite, from a kind of spider that doesn't exist near our former home in central Pennsylvania. When the neighbor acts a touch reserved when we meet him, he must not like us—he probably hates us. He probably resents the fact that we haven't been able to set our trash out yet, and so it's piling up right beside the boundary line of our yards.
Maybe he's the one inside the air ducts.
In a new house, in a new city, every sound, space, and person is new in an alien way. We don't yet feel "at home." And in a newly inhabited older house, in particular, our acute awareness of every creak, groan, and smell—and the seemingly imminent threat presented by these strange impositions on our senses—doesn't get old until we get settled in to that particular locale. And when you've just purchased the house, you're anxious that something may go horribly wrong. What if it never feels like home?
I'd imagine that these sorts of fears are common to the human experience, and so are always fresh with each particular experience of them. That's why, though some say James Wan's recently released horror thriller The Conjuring (which boasts its own memorable haunted house) is too reliant on genre tropes, I'd offer this: the film's inventiveness is less about its content, and more about how it styles those conventions.
And, in answer to that question, The Conjuring is scary good.
Set in 1971, The Conjuring is about a young family, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. They buy and move into a decrepit farmhouse in Rhode Island. As you might guess, the house isn't so welcoming. Bruises begin appearing on legs, doors inexplicably squeak open and slam shut, and the dog has good reason for initially not wanting to come into the house.
These strange, paranormal happenings culminate in a terrifying night when Roger is away on business. Understandably spooked, Carolyn reaches out to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a young married couple well known for devoting their lives to paranormal investigative work. Sincere, eager to help, and devout believers in God, Ed and Lorraine are "demonologists," who in unique ways seek to shine a light on the darkness.
Ed is appropriately cautious and, armed with his gadgetry for detecting the paranormal, committed to his craft. Lorraine is a clairvoyant who employs her sixth sense with self-emptying compassion. When this duo arrives at the farmhouse, they provoke the sinister forces haunting the Perron family and the surrounding acreage in an all-hell-breaks-loose sort of way. They're like walking icons.
The Conjuring's prologue is a touch confusing and could use better-edited transitions, but the opening scenes still smartly frame the main story in a couple of ways. First, it establishes Ed and Lorraine Warren as the heart—the center—of the film. Before we're introduced to the Perrons, we know that investigative relief is in reserve.
Second, playing up its based-on-a-true-story self-awareness, the film's prologue ends by suggesting that one case in particular in "the Warren files" is so "malevolent" that they've been reticent to share the details about the case "until now." And the "until now" is made emphatic when the title screen subsequently appears in large, throwback type, a touch that induces 70's/80's horror nostalgia. Ironically, nostalgia lets the viewer feel at home—just as Wan transitions into the Perrons' moving into the most inhospitable farmhouse.
This "true story" realism that suggests "you're about to witness one of the ugliest recorded happenings"—coupled with the sense of respite that the Warrens provide—sets the tempo for the film's pace and tension.
Shortly after the Warrens arrive to help, and we've been spooked a few times, Carolyn Perron says, "I think the kids feel a lot safer with you around." And "the kids" includes this viewer, at least, because I could feel the calming effect of Warrens' presence before Mrs. Perron gave voice to it.
That's no small achievement: the Warrens are genuinely likable and trustworthy. Together, they offer a welcoming presence that's a functional resistance against the demonic presence haunting the house and land. This horror film isn't content to merely batter you into submission, but offers a genuinely scary thriller that's able to hit the right beats to be both appropriately horrifying and enjoyable. The Warrens form a hopeful through line from beginning to end.
Incorporating plenty of references to previous horror classics, Wan utilizes nearly every genre convention on offer—including demon possession, witchcraft, clairvoyance, paranormal investigation, creepy dolls, and more—but he gives all of these time-honored scares enough space to coherently frighten by setting the film in a place that can house all of these horrors.
He also treats this haunted house with a deft cinematic touch. How he uses the atmospherics of the house—how he so effectively employs sound and space—is best illustrated by a "hide and clap" game that the Perron family enjoys playing. Blindfolded, one of the girls begins walking through the house looking for her hidden siblings, asking for up to three claps to try to orient herself to their hiding places. Wan has many obvious-enough uses for this game later in the film, but the game is a playful version of what the Perrons experience in their house without a blindfold. They're forced to search out unfamiliar sounds in unfamiliar spaces.
Wan's careful camera placement has viewers along for the ride, switching from a first-person perspective that identifies us with the Perrons to fairly subtle shots that identify recurring danger spots in the house. In one memorable scene when Carolyn Perron is walking through the house alone, the demonic presence begins by mimicking the children's clapping, and then the functional "clap" is a ticking clock, a sudden explosion of framed family pictures falling to the ground, creaking doors, and finally some phantom piano-playing. Wan's haunted house works because he maintains a creepy otherness while also familiarizing the viewer with the layout of the house so as to bolster the uneasiness for return trips to several of its rooms.
Further, when the Warrens come, they bring analog equipment for their paranormal investigation: temperature-sensitive cameras, UV lights, reel-to-reel recorders, microphones, and shortsighted camera lights. This equipment augments the horrific sights and sounds, inviting us along to document the horrific—while also providing an added flare to the viewer's experience of the film's 1971 setting.
I mentioned earlier that the Warrens offer a hopeful, relieving presence to both the Perrons and viewers. The film's screenwriting brothers, Chad and Carey Hayes, recently commented, "We're never going to glorify evil. We want people to feel great after seeing it. To be scared and entertained, of course, but to walk out of the theater with a good feeling because good, God, is victorious."
But interestingly, they also referred to the Warrens as "missionaries of sorts." This description speaks to one of the film's most interesting dimensions: the Warrens are missionaries in the sense that they are in pursuit of reclamation—of both spaces and souls. And within this frame of reference, the film allows this missional work to include an essential crisis of belief. Part of the Perrons' trouble is that they aren't "the churchgoing types." And one involved policeman humorously plays the skeptic (though not for long). As such, essential to dissipating the darkness is the Warrens' "investigation" to drive away unbelief.
Most commonly, a "conjuring" involves the "[summoning] of a devil or spirit by magical or supernatural power." But when Carolyn recognizes the grave trouble that her family is up against, she conjures the Warrens because she recognizes their own "great power of influence."
And so this excellent summer horror flick becomes about which presence is more powerful and influential—the light or the darkness? Belief or unbelief? "God brought us together for a reason," Lorraine continually reminds her husband. That underlying belief is, in part, the means and power by which she dispels the darkness, fearlessly driving away fear and sacrificially rescuing those who are haunted or possessed by unbelief. The Warrens' holy-motivated commitment to extinguishing the darkness presents us with confrontations that shock us out of our comfy skepticism and unbelief—and then invites us to consider our allegiances afresh without the pretense of indifference or neutrality. Dispossessed of evil, we can enter into rest from the horrors which terrify our souls.
The Conjuring has a few profanities. It features several scenes of disturbing violence and terror, though few if any of its horrifying images are particularly graphic.