It's a pretty common marketing tactic for horror movies to claim they're the scariest movie of the year, but rarely can they deliver on that promise. The Conjuring, however, is actually the scariest movie I've seen in a long time. The Conjuring is based on the case files of famed demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and the experiences they had with the Perron family as they deal with a host of ghosts and a particularly dark presence in their historic farmhouse. When Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into the big old house, they imagine it will mean an idyllic childhood for their five daughters, Andrea (Shanley Casewell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). Almost immediately, however, clocks stop in the middle of the night, objects move on their own, April makes an "imaginary" friend, and Carolyn starts to find large bruises all over her body. After a particularly terrifying night, Carolyn begs the Warrens to come to her house. As a gifted clairvoyant, Lorraine immediately sees not only the love in the family's home, but the evil spirit tormenting them. She and Ed deduce that the haunting stems from a witch who once lived on the property and cursed the land, leading to a laundry list of suspicious or violent deaths over the years. With their assistant, Drew (Shannon Kook), and a local cop (John Brotherton), they set about freeing the Perrons.
The Conjuring pretty much has all the hallmarks of a good horror movie—a possessed doll, a haunted house, imaginary friends, witches, an exorcism. Obviously, it's not the most original story, but part of what makes scary movies frightening is the sense of the familiar. This film took my expectations and played them like a fiddle. For example, the old house is full of mirrors, so I kept waiting for something scary to pop up in a mirror. Yet, The Conjuring relies more on what you don't see, leaving the audience in breathless suspense, building toward actually terrifying scenes. In this way, it doesn't overplay its cards, littering the movie with too many startling moments, but the suspense pays off in a big way. The pieces may not have been innovative, but when they're used this well it doesn't really matter.
What I found fresh about The Conjuring, was how much I genuinely cared for the characters. Vera Farmiga's portrayal of Lorraine Warren gives the film such a compassionate tone, emphasizing the role of mothering in the story in a way that gives the haunting really high stakes. Further, Lily Taylor and the five girls create such a charismatic family that I really felt for them. The Conjuring scared me so much that I wanted to leave a couple of times. The wonderful performances by the ensemble cast, however, made the payoff for sticking through the terror worth it. It didn't feel hackneyed or corny; instead the resolution was a big relief.
The one aspect of The Conjuring that really bothered me was the family dog. When the family moves into their house, their dog won't come inside and the next morning they find her dead (sorry, spoiler). Throughout the movie, birds fly into the house, killing themselves, and the Perrons tell the Warrens this, but they never mention that the house got their dog too. Did they not put two and two together?! It seems petty, but the only real problems I had with this film are little bits of info that seem to have gotten lost in the editing process. Along with the dog, the jump from ghost to demon the witch made wasn't hard to figure out—she sells her soul to the devil—but given the Warren's explanation that ghosts can't possess objects or people at the beginning of the film, it probably bore restating.
For scaring the living daylights out of me without it ever feeling cheap or manipulative and for the wonderful human connection created by the cast, I rate The Conjuring 4.5/5 stars
The Conjuring was written by Chad and Carey Hayes and directed by James Wan. It runs 112 minutes and is rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror. The MPAA allegedly couldn't point to any specifics, but just thought it was too scary for PG-13.