Director James Wan made an impressive debut in 2004 with his breakout hit SAW, the film was a hit and it felt like every other horror wanted to be like it. While the film ended up being a franchise, Wan didn’t direct any of the other films, instead he focused on DEAD SILENCE and DEATH SENTENCE. They weren’t as well received, but were good films in their own right. Then came INSIDIOUS, a film that was genuinely intense and very atmospheric. It was a haunting type of film, but one that wasn’t the usual affair, the scares weren’t cheap and the performances were great. Now Wan is back with another haunting film, THE CONJURING, a throw back to the slow burn horror of the 70’s and it is his best film yet.
The film takes place in 1971, where a family the Perron’s move into a country house to start fresh. It isn’t long before weird events start to take place, and it seems evident they are being haunted. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) takes it upon herself to track down Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) a married couple who investigate the paranormal. Ed is hesitant to help due to Lorraine having a bad experience with a previous investigation, but they do agree to help. Once they arrive, they know something sinister is there and haunting the family.
THE CONJURING looks at these events from the perspective of the Warrens, and the film was based on the real life case that they investigated. We get introduced to the pair early on in the film, they feel like very genuine and caring people. They believe in the work they do, despite the experiences being traumatic they keep doing it, and give talks on what they do. We then meet the Perron family, made up of Carolyn the mother, Roger (Ron Livingston) the father and five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Kyla Deaver). They are a very likeable and loving family, and once the strange events begin to occur we can see that not only are they confused by it but extremely terrified.
What works so well here is the characters, they are well written and easy to engage with. The Perron’s are family that are really easy to like and be around, it’s actually disturbing for us the audience to see these events happen to them. The investment with them is right there, it’s a strong connection that many haunting films seem to lack. This takes the time to establish them, as it does with the Warrens, who are also easy to engage with. They get the audience behind them early on, and once they begin their investigation of the Perron case, we care about what happens to each person. It isn’t easy to sit through these bad things happening, and it’s hard to take when the evidence doesn’t seem to be there. However things will get bad for them all, and its white knuckle intense!
The influences for the film are obvious, this really does feel like a film from the 70’s, Wan has made it as authentic as possible. From the opening it brings you right into that era, with the title card screen being a perfect touch. There are shades of films like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (no coincidence as the real Warren’s investigated that case), THE EXORCIST and THE CHANGELING. It does not aim to be those films, it pays homage while definitely being its own thing. It isn’t easy to recall many recent haunting films that have this much atmosphere and genuine scares and thrills, it’s great to see a comeback of sorts for them. However Wan wants to focus on building up events, he does not want to have cheap scares for the sake of getting a rise out of the audience, if there is a scare it’s not cheap, no ridiculous jump scares here. This really brings the audience in, and it makes sure you are on your toes and breathing fast.
Performance wise this film hits all the right notes, the casting is quite perfect for each of the characters. Lili Taylor is excellent as Carolyn, she brings forth a likeable energy as well as an inner strength that makes it easy to engage. She goes through a lot in this film, it is all very convincing and hard hitting. Vera Farmiga is great as Lorraine, this is a role that felt made for her to play. Like Lili she also brings forth an inner strength, and a never going to give up attitude. We like her immediately, she’s caring and Vera makes a lot known to us through her eyes. The two female leads are written extremely well, they are very strong characters and the stand outs. That is not the say the males of the cast weren’t good, because they were. Patrick Wilson reteams with Wan here, and he makes for a very good and solid Ed Warren. He’s a good man, who wants what’s best for his family and what’s best for the Perrons. It is easy to connect with him, and he’s very convincing when things get really tough. Ron Livingston was fantastic as Roger, the father and husband who witnesses these horrible things happening to his family. He has to work but once things get really bad, he’s there with them despite being sceptical. His face spoke volumes here, one look and you could feel what he was feeling. The girls in the cast went through a lot and they were fantastic, was there a stand out amongst them? No they actually all really shone through and certainly bring forth a lot of intensity.
THE CONJURING is a great film, it shows that Wan is very capable of his craft and he is certainly one of the best horror directors working today. This is a film where the script was not written by his long time colaborator Leigh Whannel and instead we had Chad and Carey Hayes whose previous credits include THE REAPING and HOUSE OF WAX. Needless to say this is a huge step up from those films, they had a lot to work with the Warrens case files. This is based on a true story and yes liberties were taken, however it feels like the spirit of what apparently happened is very much there. The writers and director worked very well here, the team behind the film was a great fit. The film is an intense experience, and highly entertaining.