It would be easy to deride The Conjuring as just another exorcism film. However, there’s a depth of craft and detail in the film that goes beyond baseline expectations. It’s a film where there’s clearly a dedication to the idea of horror and a genuine interest in exorcism in a more historical and academic sense instead of another means of frightening the audience.
The story is based on a case by two real paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). They’re traveling around lecturing on the subject, Ed not particularly interest in taking up a new case. But when the Perron family begins experiencing supernatural events, Lorraine convinces Ed that they need to investigate.
The setup is just as much about the characters as it is about the plot. Putting down the foundations for the Warren’s relationship as well as setting a bit of the backdrop for the Perron family gives them enough definition that there’s at least a bit of an emotional and personal arc to the story. It’s not the best written set of character arcs, but it’s a horror story that forces the characters to grow as well as survive.
And the film certainly has a lot of time for mood and scares. It’s easy to scare an audience. A soft soundtrack giving way to a loud noise, figures jumping out in the dark or a creepy figure popping up in the mirror are all overused techniques to make people jump. The Conjuring uses some of these techniques, but more often than not, it plays on decades old horror conventions of timing to unnerve the audience before it frightens them.
Of course, the cinematography is another effective tool used to frighten. However, the film first establishes these techniques by using long takes to establish the space of the house itself as well as depth of frame shots before using the same camera shots to more frightening ends. The art direction, lighting and composition are consistently strong throughout the film.
Another one of the more thoughtfully written elements of the film is its seriously treatment of the religious implications of exorcism. It’s proposed that the demons have more sway over the Perron children because they haven’t been baptized and the film also considers the institutional idea of having to submit evidence to the church in order to have an exorcism. In the end, the elements are more touchstones than themes, although the film decides to end with a strongly worded quote by the real Ed Warren.
In terms of straight horror craft, The Conjuring is a masterful bit of horror cinema. However, as it tries to build ideas and characters around the horror, it suffers because its ambitions are never quite reached. With a bit more careful writing and detail, The Conjuring could have been a magnificent horror film. as it It’s still an exemplary film but fails to reach its full potential.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing