A few weeks back, my girl and I had gone to see World War Z because we were in the mood for something that didn’t expect too much of us. What we got was exactly that; a decent zombie flick that showed you a good time, and didn’t think it was smarter than you. Before the feature however, there was a trailer for a movie that looked alarmingly determined, yet weirdly spare: You see Lili Taylor in a large old country house wearing a blindfold and housecoat, playing hide-and-clap with one of her daughters. She thinks she’s found the source of the clapping in an armoire upstairs, but she takes off the blindfold and her daughter emerges behind her, informing us that she’d been downstairs the whole time.
Cut to Lili now in bed and wakened by clapping noises, this time a little put out that her kids are up and gilly-hooping well past their bedtime. As she investigates however, she finds all the kids safely sacked out, and realizes the clapping is coming from somewhere else. We follow her, eventually down to the landing at the top of the musty old cellar, the shaft lit by a single matchstick she helplessly dangles over the top step. “Hello?”, she finally asks the darkness. Then it happens: two hands appear and clap twice behind her left shoulder.
At this point, the WWZ audience pissed themselves with both fright and exhilaration, because they couldn’t wait to see what was surely going to be a righteous horror flick. But my enthusiasm slowly waned as I sat through the next count em’ 6 trailers, (followed by 3 ads for the theater chain, a forceful request to purchase concessions, and a warning about cell phone usage), because I was positive that whatever true chutzpah the movie had was going to be torn asunder by those MPAA charlatans who lay waste to everything they touch. I was getting mad, because I just knew, I KNEW, that the final release cut of The Conjuring was gonna get the PG-13 treatment, and have no balls to speak of.
But here it is about a month later, and I can admit that I was loudly wrong. Not only was James Wan’s film allowed to run with a horror-must R rating, but it was still marketed as a movie you truly had to see no matter what your age, because you’d leave crapping in your jorts. While my jorts remained relatively clean, I still found myself genuinely alarmed about 5 different times by the first American movie with real scares I’ve seen since 1999.
The story is pretty simple: Based on real events which took place in 1971, Taylor and Ron Livingston play Carolyn and Roger Perron, who have purchased a large Rhode Island farmhouse and have 5 daughters. After the house terrifies the whole brood one time too many, Carolyn, Roger, and the kids all move downstairs to the living room in order to stay safe. Carolyn then hears about the work of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), and enlists their expertise to help her family.
The plot is secondary to the methods with which Wan and his crew dole out the actual horror. You’re going to be told by many viewers and critics that “you see nothing but you’re still scared”, which isn’t entirely true. Using familiar horror tropes like people stupidly wandering into cellars to investigate trouble, Wan then surprises you, making you feel reasonably secure before he only momentarily shows you things you’ll end up taking with you into your formerly comfortable yawning bed. Better still is the fact that when the Warrens visit, they immediately are convinced of the house’s condition, so you don’t get a bunch of time-wasting while no one in town believes Carolyn’s story. I don’t wanna oversell this, like the movie is full of unprecedented technique, because to resolve the plot, Wan must revert back to territory we’re more or less familiar with. But thanks to a superb cast, even these moments keep your eyes on the screen, feeling truly invested with every moment.
Wilson and Farmiga as the ghost-hunting Warrens give very little away, yet are always interesting. Fully committed in what had to feel like a genre role, the two actors convincingly portray the intriguing real-life couple who spent their lives both helping tormented souls, while also expertly de-bunking false demon infestation. Believers in the God of Abraham thanks to intimacy with stuff most of us have been fortunate enough never to have to deal with, the Warrens found themselves living as accidental, logic-based fundamentalists. If you’ve seen the Devil’s minions, then God himself must exist, no?
But they are both matched and in the last sequence even bested by the great Lili Taylor, whose performance, especially in the film’s climax, will put you in mind of the isometric accomplishments of Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Almost feral, it takes 4 people to corral her as 300 year-old ghosts have wrought a tribulation on her once happy family. Its astonishing work, and by the end of it, she’ll be one of your favorite actors.
So yeah, the movie is frightening, the acting is great, and there’s a dynamite credits sequence featuring old photos of everyone that’s accompanied by really unsettling music. I’d also encourage you to look deeper into the case that inspired it. I don’t think I’d want Ed Warren as a father, but I’d give up a month’s pay to be invited to his house for dinner and a chat.