Which is not to say it’s a 100% effective horror movie. It’s just that The Conjuring has so much scary stuff jammed in it, it’s like it was made by the people who ran the scare factory in Cabin in the Woods. Creepy kid ghosts? Check. Possessed children’s toys? Check. Chairs that rock by themselves? Check. Fucking nightmarish doll straight from Satan’s playroom? Check. CLOWNS? Check. The only thing The Conjuring is missing is a ventriloquist’s dummy and that’s probably only because someone at the studio emerged from crying under their desk long enough to make the point that the goal is to scare an audience, not outright traumatize them.
The Conjuring tells the true story of the Perron family case from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren—he’s a certified demonologist and she’s an alleged medium—the same people who investigated the Amityville horror. True story means that Ed and Lorraine Warren are real people (Ed passed away in 2006 but Lorraine is still kicking and she sounds like a riot, for real) and the Perron family are real people, and the Warrens did investigate a series of odd events at the Perrons’ home in 1971 and conclude the house was possessed. Whether or not you actually believe that or think the Perrons were subject to some kind of delusion is up to you. The movie focuses on the Warrens with the attitude that they’re totally legit.
The story is pretty basic horror movie stuff—family moves to a ramshackle farm house to start over (we’re never told why they needed this fresh start) and immediately the creepy looking house proves to be creepy in fact. There are mysterious noises, smells, one of the family’s five daughters consistently feels someone tugging on her leg in her sleep, another makes an imaginary friend she can see in mirrors, the family dog dies mysteriously. Meanwhile the mother, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), is waking up each morning with horrifying bruises. Oh, and the whole thing kicks off with the famous Annabelle doll, which could have been an entire movie of its own (there’s going to be a sequel and it should be about Annabelle).
The Conjuring is an especially well-crafted horror movie made almost entirely from practical effects, which is increasingly refreshing to see. Like The Woman in Black, The Conjuring mines its scares from good old fashioned thumps in the night and slowly mounting tension. The literal “jump” scares aren’t actually that numerous, it’s more about the escalating violence against the Perrons and their helplessness in the face of night monsters, with a side trip into how dealing with these traumatized people and occult cases affects the Warrens, particularly Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, who seems made to be in horror movies).
The first half of The Conjuring is the most effective, especially the first act when the Perrons move into their hellhouse and being experiencing the weird shit. Once the Warrens show up, the wheels start to wobble a little. The exorcism plot in act three deflates the movie, as the scares shift from odd noises and night terrors (the piano playing itself at night creeped me the fuck out) into actually fighting a non-entity, which is going to look ridiculous no matter how well you stage it. By the time people were possessed and running around with scissors, it gets eye-rolly.
Also sucking the air out of the room is Joseph Bishara’s (Insidious) overly aggressive score, which doesn’t add to the atmosphere so much as hijack it and run it off the road. But the cast consistently sells you on their fear, and Farmiga, particularly, remains sympathetic and interesting throughout. The third act becomes less about the Perrons and their ghosts and more about rooting for Lorraine to make it through intact. Overall The Conjuring is a solid horror movie which, thanks to good actors and sympathetic characters, plays to a non-horror audience. Its practical effects and classic ghost story make for more chills than the recent spate of found footage horror movies or any of that Paranormal Activity drivel. Just, you know. Be prepared to lose a little sleep.