“The Conjuring” deftly shows off old-school scares

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April 14, 2014

10:02 PM

When I first saw James Wan’s “The Conjuring” in July 2013, I was nearing the end of my two-month stay in Los Angeles, so I figured I would treat myself to a double feature, which also included “Pacific Rim.” I saw a midnight showing of Wan’s film and, thanks to an error by Google regarding Burbank’s taxi services, I walked alone back to my apartment for an hour and a half in the middle of the night. Needless to say, it was not the best movie to watch before walking alone in the dark, and it seemed AMP wanted to recreate that experience by holding the screening at the Matoaka Amphitheatre. Overall, what makes the film work is its creepy atmosphere and effective scares.

Wan is a veteran of the horror genre, having also directed “Dead Silence,” “Insidious,” “Insidious: Chapter 2,” and the first “Saw.” With “The Conjuring,” he shows the excellence that experience in a genre brings, and has a clear understanding of how to build suspense before leading up to the big scare. In fact, the first big scare in the film — which was given away in early advertising — does not come until nearly 40 minutes in. Before it happens, Wan successfully creates an overwhelming sense of dread that emanates from the screen.
Additionally, Wan’s previous films demonstrate that he is no stranger to the paranormal. Instead of relying on scares created by special effects like most supernatural films in modern cinema, the film employs an unapologetically old-school attitude of scares created by misdirection and other forms of cinematographic trickery. There are a few instances of terror aided by post-production magic that do not seem to fit, but overall the film is dominated by intensely horrific moments that crescendo nicely in the film’s final act. When the film was sent to the MPAA, they handed down a “R” rating just for being too scary. According to executive producer Walter Hamada, the MPAA said there were no specific scenes that could be excised from the final cut to obtain a PG-13 rating. After seeing the film, one understands why.

The film makes sure that it does not just dwell on the victims of the demonic haunting; instead, it devotes considerable time to its two paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. By giving the audience a glimpse of their personal lives and how the haunting affected them personally, they look less like righteous heroes and more like normal people with their own fears and weaknesses. They are just as much the victims as the Perrons, the family they help in this specific case. The film would have been a bore if the audience never had a chance to engage with these two characters. Furthermore, the film demonstrates that paranormal and religious subject matter are not mutually exclusive. Ed and Lorraine are the primary religious presence in the film, but their discussions on the exorcisms they have performed and their messages of warding off evil spirits never come across as heavy-handed in advocating a life of regularly practiced faith. They admit that, most of the time, there is a practical explanation to all of the experiences that cause people to believe something is haunting them. This allows the audience to focus on the numerous jolts the film produces and the tension leading up to each one. A preachy tone would turn off many secular filmgoers’ interest, so the film is successful in creating a broader appeal.

Because of the film’s box office success, New Line Cinema approved a sequel almost immediately. Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga — the actors who play Ed and Lorraine Warren — have both signed on to reprise their roles, and the movie is scheduled for an October 2015 release, but James Wan will not be directing. Unfortunately for horror fans, Wan bid farewell to the genre with this film and his sequel to “Insidious.” Additionally, a spinoff film that focuses on the film’s haunted Annabelle doll will be released later this year. Clearly, the people who saw “The Conjuring” when it was released took a liking to it, but I’m not certain sequels or spinoffs will work as well, assuming they stick to the same formula.

On a closing note, a tip of my hat goes to the Santa streaker at AMP’s screening. Way to lighten the mood.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4

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