In horror, an inherently limited genre that's already been done so many times it's nearly impossible to come up with something new, execution is key. Editing, sound, camera angles and more are essential in making us jump and scream. When these things are handled well, it doesn't matter if people have seen it before — a good jolt will get them every time. When not done well, audiences tune out and start to laugh.
Though sluggish at times, ultimately, The Conjuring is done quite well.
Based on the real-life exploits of paranormal investigators Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine, director James Wan's (Insidious) story follows a haunted house premise that leads to demonic possession and exorcism. In 1971 New England, the Perron family of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters, moves into an abandoned Massachusetts home purchased at auction. Soon, birds are flying into windows. Pictures fall from the wall. Carolyn wakes up with bruises. Doors close at random. The smell of rotting flesh is omnipresent. Feet are pulled during sleep.
"Get out of the house!" we think, only to learn later that doing so wouldn't solve this problem. For help, the Perrons call upon renowned demonologist Ed (Patrick Wilson) and clairvoyant Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), who kindly do not charge for their services. They do, however, inform the Perrons of how perilous their situation is, and rest assured it's a doozy.
The Conjuring runs for 112 minutes, and its first hour is slow, with the story trotting through familiar paces while not bringing much creativity. Worse, some characters make the mistake of doing things characters in a horror movie should never do.
For example, Roger ventures to the previously boarded-up and still very dark basement with only a match in his hand. We know he owns a flashlight because the next day he returns to the basement with it, so why he'd go down with only a lit match the first time is anyone's guess. And for the love of mercy, if you think you see a ghost, you don't follow it alone.
Anyway, it takes about an hour for the Perrons to ask the Warrens to come to their home, but once they do, writers (and twin brothers) Chad and Carey Hayes throw a few twists into the mix to keep things lively. More importantly, the pace quickens in terms of tempo and scares.
Although Wan is expert at keeping us in suspense before delivering the well-timed scares, everything in the film has an eerie ambiance. Even daytime scenes are a bit dark, and the cars, costumes and production design are '70s tacky but never flashy. Also note the "vertigo" effect used at times when we view the outside of the house, making it appear unnaturally bigger and allowing it to overwhelm the screen, almost as if the demons residing there are trying to look big and intimidating to spook newcomers away.
Even with an R rating, The Conjuring in no way is gory or hyper-violent. This is a story of ghosts and demons, and to Wan's credit, the slow start later feels necessary in order to fully appreciate the payoff. Anyone who enjoys a good scare will find it here.