What can we learn from “The Conjuring”?

THE CONJURING (2013)

Director James Wan, Writers Chad and Carey Hayes

Stars Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lily Taylor

 

NOTE: I’VE TRIED NOT TO INCLUDE ANY SPOILERS, BUT READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE.

The biggest hit of 2013 so far must be “The Conjuring”. Delivered on a budget of just $20 million, it has raked in over $120 million so far and is still in theatres.  It charts ahead of much bigger movies such as “Olympus Has Fallen”, “The Hangover Part 2”, “The Wolverine” and of course the infamous “Lone Ranger” movie. So why is it such a smash hit?

I went to see it, expecting it to be over-hyped, and was very pleasantly surprised. Not only is “The Conjuring” a well-made and well-acted movie, it is extremeley scary. This is no exaggeration. “The Conjuring” is definitely the best movie of 2013 so far.

The movie comes on the heels of Director James Wan’s 2010 opus “Insidious”, although you could be forgiven for thinking that 2012’s lookalike “Sinister” was related.

Looking back at “Insidious”, we had another strong performance from character actor/lead man Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl in “Watchmen”). But what was interesting about “Insidious” was the way the movie tried to push the envelope with the horror genre. There were a couple of standout eerie moments. However the picture lapsed into an action/fantasy movie toward the third act, which lessened the effect of the scares.

The plot is simple enough: two psychic detectives (Wilson and Farmiga) take on a haunting in an old house where Taylor and her family (her working joe husband and five young daughters) have just moved in and are experiencing some frightening ghostly goings-on. The uncover a sinister force driving the hauntings, which continue to grow in violence and, what’s worse, seem to react to the couple’s presence in the house.

To an extent, “The Conjuring” is a refinement of Wan’s previous movie. However  this movie opens with a bang (literally) instead of a slow burn. In fact, the movie delivers almost everything up front. From the creepy titles (an oft-ignored aspect of filmmaking) we are plunged into terror. The opening sequence which features a demonic doll is one of the scariest I’ve ever seen. Who knew that dolls could become creepy again after the debacle of “Child’s Play”?

As if that wasn’t enough, Wan and his creative team go on to deliver an expertly crafted series of scares. Each one just as terrifying as the last. The roller-coaster ride (or should that be ghost train?)  is helped by excellent performances, not just from Wilson, but from horror veteran Lilly Taylor, who really outdoes herself in this movie, as well as the ever-off-kilter Vera Farmiga as the other half of the ghostbusting duo.

But what really impresses about “The Conjuring” is the quality of the scares. Each one goes shows us something that has never been seen before. Yes, the ideas themselves have been copied from other stories (the evil doll, the ghostly bangings, demonic possession). There are also notable nods of the head to older classics, such as when Taylor’s husband wakes up to find the TV showing only static, an obvious reference to “Poltergeist”.

But “The Conjuring” goes further. this is not just an evil doll. This is a mightily pissed-off evil doll that sounds like a 300lb giant hammering on the door. The “ghost”, when it does appear, is exceptional. Especially in two memorable scenes, one involving a sleepwalker and a wardrobe, the other involving something as mundane as hanging up washing on a clothesline.

To say that “The Conjuring” copies other movies is like saying “Forbidden Planet” is ajust a copy of “The Tempest”. This is a bravura piece of horror filmmaking that is sure to establish Wan for years to come as a horror great.

The lesson? Go farther.

A good example of another ghost story which pushes the envelope is 2001’s Japanese movie “Pulse” (forget the remake) which goes from eerie hauntings involving the Internet to an apocalyptic third act.

It is true that the movie runs out of steam to an extent in the third act, where it changes pace and tone becoming more of an action movie spliced in with a demonic possession movie. As a result, the scares diminish. The character development is pretty sketchy also, but is just enough to add some depth to a very plot-driven movie. “The Conjuring” is definitely at its best for the other two thirds. But what a two thirds they are!

Audiences love to be surprised, and I was. The scares are not your everyday jump-out-and-scream variety. nor is there the reprehensible “torture-porn” of recent “hits”. Instead, “The Conjuring” is a creepy and frightening horror movie.

Go see it!

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