The Conjuring, out today, isn't just a strong contender for scariest movie of the year — it's also a surprisingly sweet, even dorky story about a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators, and how their love saves them. It's a great antidote to your standard dehumanizing horror movie.
Director James Wan helped start the "torture porn" trend with Saw, and The Conjuring is clearly his attempt at bringing old-school scares and storytelling back to horror movies. The movie is set in the early 1970s, but it also harkens back to classic horror in all sorts of other ways. And as intense as the scares in the film become, Wan never loses the focus on the characters and their relationships.
In The Conjuring, the heroes are Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple who hunt ghosts and demons. Ed (Patrick Wilson) is a paranormal expert, while Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) is a psychic who can sense the presence of supernatural forces. They're based on a real-life couple, who investigated the Amityville Horror among other famous cases, and The Conjuring is based on a real case they investigated, too.
Wan spends a lot of time establishing the Warrens, both as compelling characters and in terms of their credibility. We see them teaching a paranormal class and explaining their methods. We see them being interviewed by a reporter. We get a brief snippet of them solving another, simpler case of demonic possession. And we even see them debunking a false alarm — someone whose house just has creaky boards for perfectly natural reasons.
The love between Ed and Lorraine Warren is placed front and center, and provides a lot of the tension in the movie. We learn, early on, that in a recent exorcism Lorraine saw... something... that nearly drove her out of her mind. And Ed is concerned that if she goes back to demon-hunting, she'll have another close encounter that she won't be able to handle this time. But Lorraine is determined to keep using her gifts to help people.
So the Warrens go off to investigate a Rhode Island farmhouse where a family with five young daughters has been encountering strange and revolting phenomena — weird smells, strange noises, an entity grabbing people in their sleep, a scary basement that has a habit of swallowing people up, and a whole lot of poltergeist-y shaking.
One of the things that's great about The Conjuring is, there's no "half hour of seeing something out of the corner of your eye or hearing scary noises by the swimming pool" shit. Check out the collection of clips we posted a while back — those are all from the first half of the movie, near as I remember. This movie doesn't make you wait for the insane scares — partly because shit has to get really bad, really fast to justify the Warrens showing up to investigate, and partly because there's more than enough insanity left over for the tail end of the movie. This movie hoards nothing, it just dumps scare after scare on you.
By the time things get really bad and you start to realize that the Warrens, the actual experts, are out of their depth and completely outclassed by whatever they're facing here, you're pretty invested in this poor family being okay. But more than that, you're rooting for the Warrens, because Wilson and Farmiga do such an incredible job of making what could be saccharine, one-note do-gooders into flesh-and-blood heroes who struggle with their mission and what it costs them.
One of the weird things about this movie is, not only is it very focused on the Warrens' relationship, but it also spends a lot of time on their religious faith. Their Christianity is a huge part of what motivates them to investigate the supernatural, and they believe Lorraine's powers come from God. There is an awful lot of talk about God in this movie — way more than in your standard horror movie, even a movie about exorcism. Usually horror movies go out of their way to avoid talking about religion, and even priests seem just like exterminators in funny robes. But here, because these main characters are such devout believers, religion becomes a huge part of the film — which could annoy people who dislike Bible-thumping, but feels organic to the actual story being told.
In any case, The Conjuring isn't just scary as fuck — it's also moving and kind of romantic and thrilling. It's as if nobody told these people that horror movies are supposed to be emotionally empty collections of jump-scares and splatter gore, in which you root for the despicable characters to die for your amusement. It's kind of refreshing to see a horror movie that has a bit of a heart.