Review: 'The Conjuring' Remembers -- Then Forgets -- That Less Is More

The Conjuring

Pity the poor horror movie fan. Perhaps only the modern romantic comedy proves a more consistently fruitless investment of time -- a once-mighty genre sapped of its potential by lazy filmmakers willing to bank (often correctly) on the audience's willingness to forgive cynical hooey disguised as effective formula. It's gotten so bad that whenever a horror flick comes along that manages to do anything even halfway original, it's hailed as a new classic.

Enter James Wan's The Conjuring, a "fact-based" spookfest opening this weekend on an impressive tide of positive reviews. To read all the advance praise for the movie, you'd think Wan had done something fairly amazing here -- but as any smart horror fan learns sooner or later, it's always wise to temper one's expectations when entering a spooky old cinematic house, and so it is here: The deafening buzz around The Conjuring (which already has a sequel on the way) is definitely a case of a movie getting full credit for not messing things up as badly as its genre brethren.

Which is not to say that it doesn't get some important things right. Wan's past with the Saw franchise -- and his future with the Fast & Furious series -- suggests a weakness for nastiness, stupidity, and noise, but he pulls something of a 180 here; to the extent that The Conjuring deserves to be recommended at all, it's as a surprisingly well-crafted, gleefully malevolent delivery mechanism for old-fashioned creepy scares. This isn't a slasher flick and it isn't torture porn -- in fact, for much of its running time, Wan gets a lot of mileage out of toying with the audience's expectations using subtle feints followed by jump-in-your-seat jolts.

The Conjuring's old-school aesthetic makes sense, given that it takes place in the early '70s, when husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were called into a Rhode Island home where the family claimed to be tormented by supernatural beings. While Wan's attempts to recapture the era are occasionally ham-handed ("Time of the Season" on another soundtrack?), for the most part, he proves impressively adept at not only establishing a sense of time, but also -- and more importantly -- blanketing the entire movie in an oppressive sense of dread. Once you get past the movie's generally silly prologue (which exists mainly to introduce a character that serves no discernible purpose besides setting up a sequel), The Conjuring spends a substantial portion of its first two thirds parceling out perfectly portioned bits of quietly mounting terror that seem to be leading someplace truly scary.

Alas and alack. After all that impressive buildup, Wan turns out to have disappointingly little up his sleeve, and while he was probably hamstrung by the details of the actual case, he certainly could have done a more effective job of wrapping everything up in the final act. While the reasons for the haunting will be familiar to anyone who's watched more than a few horror movies, that didn't necessarily have to be a dealbreaker; if Wan had continued on the less-is-more path that makes The Conjuring's first 45 minutes goosebumpy fun, its climax would have been a lot scarier -- even subversive. Instead, it just gets louder and more hysterical, spewing out screaming and special effects in a vain effort to top the things it previously accomplished with delightful tension and artfully composed shots. It's a crucial misstep, and although it doesn't completely undermine the movie, it does come awfully close.

In the end, The Conjuring's greatest claim to fame is that by avoiding gore and/or explicit violence, it offers a compelling testament to time-tested scare tactics; it stands gruesome head and misshapen shoulders above most other horror films of recent memory. That isn't enough to make it a great movie, but if you're susceptible to things that go bump on the big screen, it's probably good enough.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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