The Conjuring is something of an anomaly in the horror movie world. There’s no gore nor any scantily clad damsels in distress. When the first bit of blood finally gets spilled in the film — which happens almost towards the end of its running time — the effect is actually shocking. With these decisions, director James Wan and his twin brother screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes provide a loving tribute to the supernatural thrillers of the late ’70s. Like its forebears, The Conjuring relies solely on creating an almost overwhelming sense of dread that hangs over its every scene like a cloud.
However, that sane throwback feeling is also the film’s undoing. For all its insistence on telling a “true story,” Wan and the Hayes brothers seem more bent on referencing their influences. Nods to The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and the original Amityville Horror abound. In any other horror film, the effect might be charming. Here, it’s pure distraction. The Amityville nods are especially weird considering the source material of this film comes from the same case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the demonologists and paranormal investigators involved in both that haunting and the one depicted here. Horror fans are already aware of the connection without having their backs patted for catching the references.
In Wan’s defense, the parallels between the Amityville case and the one depicted in this film are right there on the surface. In both instances, the haunting focuses on a family that, after moving into a new home, start to be taunted and tortured with increasing amounts of intensity. For the Perron family, it starts with bumps in the night and builds into pictures getting knocked off the walls and the children seeing specters. By the time the Warrens (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) get involved, things have reached their near breaking point. That’s when the frights start coming in quick succession, building toward its dramatic conclusion.
Therein lies another failing of The Conjuring, but again one that might be unavoidable. The scares in the film are telescoped from a mile off. When the camera lingers on the body of a sleeping child, you know that something bad is forthcoming. Same as when the wind kicks up and the dark clouds come rolling in as Lorraine Warren takes laundry down outside. If it still gives you the willies and makes you jump in your seat, again, that’s a testament to the mood that Wan provides throughout. Aided by cinematographer John Leonetti, the whole film is shot in muted colors, the better to provide that perfect skin-crawling feeling. And when the action moves to the dark, dust-covered basement, the smallest shadow become downright terrifying.