July 20, 2013



THE CONJURING:  Worth A Ticket – Retro Horror, In A Good Way

Watching The Exorcist recently, for the first time in probably a decade, the most striking thing about it was its insistence on a palpable, sometimes documentary-like reality.  Director William Friedkin moved the film at a measured, even slow pace, only gradually raising the stakes on the horror until the decision to seek a religious exorcism for a 12-year old child began to seem almost reasonable.  Also, since CG didn’t exist in 1973, all of the special effects were “real,” in a sense–actual objects being pulled by off-camera pulleys and wires, and human beings (sometimes with genuine injury) being smacked around the sets, all of them with a physical weight and density that CG often neglects to provide.

These lessons were well learned by James Wan, the director of the new THE CONJURING, which is the most effective scare machine to come along since–well, since Wan’s own Insidious.  (Wan is also the director of the original Saw, a movie that’s underrated and misunderstood because of its giant franchise success.)  Conjuring has more gravity and less humor than Insidious, and although it lacks the ambition and daring of The Exorcist and its great 1970s counterparts–ultimately it just wants to be a B-movie–it has their kind of emotional grounding.

The story, in fact, is set in the 1970s.  It concerns the couple involved in the actual Amityville Horror incident (the subject of the single throwaway meta-joke in Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes’s script), although the Conjuring events take place before those.  “Demonologist” Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, clairvoyant Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are presented as a very sober, spiritual pair who feel it’s their duty to use their abilities to free houses and their inhabitants from evil spirits (sometimes at the instigation of the Catholic church), and who take the evil around them very seriously.  (A room in their house is reserved for demonically possessed objects they’ve removed from the houses they’ve rescued, including a particularly disturbing doll named Annabelle–not so much as trophies as to protect others from their power.)

The Warrens are called in by the Perron family, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, who’ve recently moved into a Rhode Island house where disturbing occurrences are taking place.  The Conjuring has the usual “based on a true story” title at the front, but does a better job than most of making its horrors seem convincing.  They start out small–a rotten smell, one daughter’s feeling that her leg is being grabbed in the middle of the night.  Bruises that break out spontaneously on Carolyn’s body.  The youngest daughter’s discovery of an old mirrored music box, and her claims that when the music… slowly… stops… playing, she can see an imaginary playmate in its mirror.  When Lorraine and the girls play “hide and clap,” claps sound from from places where none of her daughters are hiding.  Gradually, things become more serious, as the furniture begins bouncing around and the Perrons feel that they’re in physical danger.

As in Insidious, Wan is fascinated by the technology of demon-hunting, and with the vintage 1970s setting, he goes to town with flash cameras, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and UV lights.  But the Warrens and their team are much more understated than the Insidious ghostbusters, and they fear the evil spirits they find (with good reason, as it turns out).  Wan has cast the movie very strongly, and the quartet of lead performers–especially Taylor and Farmiga–bring emotional believability to the supernatural nonsense around them.  One of Farmiga’s particular gifts as an actress is the ability to express internalized pain, and it’s always clear how much Lorraine’s heroism is taking out of her.

Wan’s camerawork is marvelously assured.  (The cinematographer is John R. Leonetti, who’s been working with Wan for years and also shot Insidious.)  There’s a real plan to the film’s visuals, which smoothly swirl and swoop around the house in the early going, then get progressively more jumbled and jumpier as the movie focuses on the person who turns out to be the real target of the demon.  The production design of the house by Julie Berghoff is beautifully realized, with particular care to the furniture that was in the house when the Perrons move in.  Joseph Bishara’s score has its share of suddenly crashing chords, but it plays fair, without the electronic shock-therapy attacks that so many modern horror movies use instead of real scares.  The sound design, by Joe Dzuban, is worthy of special note, making superb use of lengthy silences.

There could have been more to The Conjuring, which at its root concerns relationships between mothers and children.  It chooses not to delve into what could have been truly disturbing about that subject, and keeps its scares mostly on the surface.  (Mama, earlier this year, was more interested in the theme, although it fell apart by the time it reached its fable-like climax.)  On its own terms, though, the movie offers a marvelously ungimmicky fright show.  It’s the rare modern horror movie that doesn’t make you feel like you need a shower after it’s over.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."