Sometimes, even a well-made horror movie can be left in the theater. You can see it and then go home and head straight for bed, without averting your glance from your mirrors or imagining the film’s antagonist sliding through the dark of your room. Horror movie fans, especially, do not lose sleep over most horror movies, or find themselves haunted by them days later.
The Conjuring was not such a movie for me, and it may not be for you either.
The film centers on real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, and tells the story of an investigation from the 1970s that got so hairy the details are only now being released. The Warrens’ credibility is established right off: Lorraine is clairvoyant and Ed is the only non-clergy demonologist officially recognized by the Catholic Church. We briefly see them investigate one case (a suspected haunting which is actually a demonic visitation) that could have been the subject of its own terrifying movie. Ed is slightly gun-shy about new investigations, because Lorraine was recently highly traumatized by something she saw on a job. But they both agree that God brought them together for a purpose, and that is to help people.
It isn’t long before they get that opportunity. The Perrons, a happy, wholesome family of seven, move into an isolated Rhode Island farmhouse. In contrast with most fictional horror movies, that’s all they do to bring on what happens to them. There are no Ouija boards or dark rituals or secret child abuse on their part. The trouble starts almost immediately and escalates quickly. Carolyn Perron, the mother, goes to beg the Warrens for help, and Lorraine overcomes Ed’s hesitation to do so. She immediately determines that there is more than one spirit plaguing the Perrons, but the most poisonous is a witch who lived in the house long ago and committed suicide after sacrificing her child in an obscene rite.
It sounds cliché to say, but a lot of what makes The Conjuring so effective is what it doesn’t show. It sets the audience up time and time again, tightening the screws for a typical, cheap, horror-movie startle, like an extra silhouette in the mirror or a ghostly arm emerging from the wardrobe. It pulls those punches, however, relying instead on manifestations like doors slamming or locking by themselves, and the reaction of the children to things that the adults can’t see. The first actual glimpse of the spirit elicited a scream from everyone in the theater in the screening I attended. And the movie maintains a balance between such carefully crafted creepiness and the necessary momentum for the whole time.
The other major reason The Conjuring works is the characters. Rather than being intended to enjoy the Perrons’ suffering, the audience comes to empathize with them. Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are endearing and fully drawn as Elaine Warren and Carolyn Perron, respectively. They demonstrate strength without the use of weapons or martial arts. Patrick Wilson is also immensely likeable as Ed Warren, a man so generous and competent that he’ll fix your car while investigating your house. Matters of faith take center stage in a way that’s not heavy-handed or overly sectarian. We even get to see Lorraine pick up on someone else’s pleasant memories, a little touch that shows us that her gift isn’t a total burden, but also opens up the story to the power of such memories.
Eventually, the haunting of the Perrons reaches a crisis point, forcing the Warrens to take action without the reinforcements they’d been waiting for. At this point, the story makes such good use of the relationship between them that I teared up. About the time that the sharp and heavy objects start flying, I also worried that the story might not have a happy ending for everyone. At one moment during film’s climax, I found myself thinking that this was, after all, the Warrens’ account, and might be exaggerated. In the next moment, I found myself thinking that they were bone fide heroes if even half of this was true.
Ed Warren passed away in 2006, and Lorraine continues to work as a paranormal investigator. The Conjuring is a beautifully made tribute to both their work together and their marriage. If you’re anything like me, it’ll have you musing on like the nature of evil and the power of love and what you really believe about cosmology. It may also have you sleeping with the lights on. The Conjuring is definitely not for everyone but it’s easily one of the best movies of the year.