No doubt you’ve heard a lot about The Conjuring. And let me tell you, I’ve not seen horror movie marketing this good since The Blair Witch Project (I would’ve said Paranormal Activity, but their marketing campaign was about as blunt as a butter knife. Also, that movie was boring). Do you know why the marketing for this movie was so good? Because it started slowly, and then it let its audience do the legwork.
Back in 2012, news arose that The Conjuring was unable to obtain a PG-13 rating. Now, that’s not that big of a deal because lots of horror movies can’t get a rating lower than R because of violence and frightening images. Nevertheless, the marketing team spun this news as “the movie was too scary to get a PG-13 rating.” See what they did there? Around the same time, we learned that James Wan (Saw, Insidious) was attached to the film as the director, which gave horror movie fans a raging boner. And then came the first trailer. It had no music and showed the clapping game scene with the creepy hands. I cannot stress to you the suspense of a “no music” trailer (How are you supposed to know when the scary part is coming, right?). Closer to its release, a more in-depth trailer showed us some of the plot, yet it still managed to keep secrets (I call this “the J.J. Abrams”). We also had interviews with Wan about bringing back the “old-school” horror style with this movie.
On the night of its release, two photos went around: one showing a sign in a theater warning about the movie’s disturbing imagery (while also offering an on-site priest), the other showing a man being wheeled out of the movie on a stretcher because he passed out. Both photos spread like crazy across the internet. The photo of the sign was obviously a PR ploy by The Conjuring‘s marketing team, and a good one at that because people couldn’t shut up about it. The man passing out, however, was legitimate, and that actually happens more often than you think in horror movies because people forget to breathe during tense moments. But the point is that the marketing team only had to give a little push, and everyone began talking about how The Conjuring is the scariest movie ever.
So…was it? And did this marketing method work? Well, let’s dive in, shall we?
If you read my reviews enough, you know that I’m not really fond of horror movies. Part of the reason is because I have a wild imagination, but it’s mostly because horror movies have become an unending slew of badly-written stories that rely heavily on shock-value gimmicks. And those movies always end up falling flat. The Conjuring is not one of those movies. It’s the horror film I’ve been waiting for. For one, it’s a nod to the old horror movies that I grew to love (after I was done pissing my pants), like The Exorcism, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, etc. Sure, you might be thinking, “But those movies weren’t even scary.” Yeah, maybe not to you because you grew up watching torture porn, you desensitized little bastard. But that’s what makes this movie so great. It doesn’t rely on rape, torture, or violent stabbings with gallons of fake blood. It’s just good, ole’ fashioned suspense.
Let’s start with the story. Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) Perron move their five daughters out to a farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island, which they purchased dirt-cheap at an auction. When they move in, their dog, Sadie, refuses to come in the house and unexpectedly dies the next day (Surviving a Horror Movie 101: ALWAYS TRUST THE ANIMAL). Each night, strange things happen. Every clock in the house stops at 3:07am. Carolyn keeps waking up with new bruises. One daughter starts to sleepwalk and bang her head against an old wardrobe. Another gets her foot pulled in her bed. Another sees a little boy that no one else can see. A rotten meat smell and cold drafts randomly appear. It all keeps getting worse until, one night, Carolyn gets trapped in the cellar while her eldest daughter gets attacked by the evil spirit of the witch who haunts their home.
Meanwhile, we meet Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, as they lecture on demonology and exorcism at various colleges, showing examples of their work, like the Annabelle Doll case (which is creepy as hell). We’re also shown some of their home life with their daughter, and Ed constantly mentions Lorraine almost losing her mind during their last case, hoping that they can take a break from demon hunting. Of course, that’s not possible because Carolyn comes asking for their help. The Warrens explore the Perrons’ house and learn that the witch haunting them has killed several tenants before. Worse, her spirit has attached to the family, so no matter where they go, they can’t escape her. Eventually, the witch possesses Carolyn and makes her try to kill two of her daughters. Since official approval from the Vatican hasn’t come through for an exorcism, Ed and Lorraine take matters into their own hands to exorcise the spirit from Carolyn. And, boy, does it get crazy…
This is one of the most developed horror movie stories I’ve seen in a while. While the movie doesn’t go into too much development with the five daughters (probably because there’s five, and that’s lots of backstories), it spends most of its time focusing on the main characters—Ed and Lorraine Warren. Yes, that’s right. They’re the main characters of this story. Not the Perrons. Hell, I’d even argue that this movie is actually the story of the Warrens’ relationship as a husband-wife team and less about the Harrisville case. And it works really well, too, because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play off of each other perfectly. Wilson’s Ed is very take-charge, rational, and religious; Farmiga’s Lorraine is pensive, troubled, and compassionate. In fact, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Farmiga whenever her character was in a scene. Oh, and did you know the real Lorraine Warren (Yes, she’s real) makes a cameo in the movie? Yep. She’s apparently one of the students in one of the lectures.
I’ll be honest with you though. While this movie is consistently creepy with some scares that will make you scream and jump (Goddamn, Annabelle), it’s not the scariest movie ever. Maybe I just think that because I had been told how scary it was for the entire weekend, so I went in on high alert, expecting to get scared. But it’s definitely not going to cause psychological trauma, unless you’ve actually been possessed before, and you end up reliving that terror while watching this movie.
Now, that’s not saying this movie isn’t scary. In fact, Wan builds tension very slowly in each scene in a way that keeps you nervous for a few minutes before the draw-out starts to make you drop your guard, and BAM! Something jumps out at you. He’s no newbie when it comes to scare tactics. He knows how to get you to that point, and he does so with major style. I also applaud him for not using a lot of CGI. It really enhances the fear of the movie when you aren’t busy thinking, “Oh, well, that’s totally fake.”
Where it totally fell flat for me was when we saw the witch’s face 20-30 minutes into the movie. I’m not saying we couldn’t be shown the witch; I just mean we shouldn’t have been shown her face until the movie’s climax during Carolyn’s exorcism. You see, the scariest movies are the ones where you don’t see the thing that scares you. There’s a scene in this movie that’s the perfect example. The one daughter whose foot keeps getting pulled eventually sees her bedroom door start moving and calls to her sister in the bed next to her, saying that she sees someone behind the door. There’s nothing there but darkness. Yet when the other sister goes to check it out, it still freaks you out because you can’t see what’s there.
The whole point is that whatever your mind can imagine to fill in the blank is much scarier than what they can show you. And it’s as true of this movie as it is of any other horror film. The witch’s face is scary, but no scarier than the girl from The Exorcism. And by seeing her so early, I wasn’t scared of her because I expected her around every corner, which is not what you want as a horror filmmaker.
Overall, The Conjuring is an awesome throwback to ’70s horror films, like The Exorcism, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist. Rather than relying on cheap violence to frighten his audience, director James Wan uses slow-building tension and a well-crafted script. This movie’s character development is refreshing among a genre plagued by useless bullshit, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga give great depth and sympathy to the Warrens, who I consider to be the main focus of this film.
As for whether or not this movie is the scariest film ever, that depends on your taste. Personally, I thought it was creepy, but it definitely wasn’t the scariest movie I’ve ever seen (which is probably why I liked it so much). The marketing strategy for this movie definitely paid off in terms of getting butts into the theater seats, but I also think it might have damaged the scare-factor with the hype. If I could change one thing about this movie, I wouldn’t reveal the physical presence of the evil spirit quite as early. Perhaps if Wan had held off on that just a little longer, this movie would be hanging out in the A/A- range.