Wow, the summer movie season screeched to a quick halt. This weekend brings 2 Guns, a moderately-received action vehicle for Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. The Smurfs 2 has also arrived in theaters, though no one seems to have any idea why. Meanwhile, there’s nothing new to be found in the arthouses (here in Portland, anyway).

As such, this seemed like an ideal time to address a film that’s been lurking on my to-watch list for quite a while: The Conjuring. I admit that I kept putting this one off, but the film’s impressive word-of-mouth and box-office take were too much for me to ignore. I suppose it also helped that this was made by the crew of Insidious, one of those odd films that I remember liking even though I don’t remember anything else about it.

Then I watched the movie, and I was very quickly reminded why I respect James Wan as a filmmaker. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Conjuring is based on the real-life case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the world’s most famous paranormal investigators, portrayed here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. A few of the Warrens’ cases are mentioned (Amityville was excluded, can’t imagine why), but the main narrative is focused on an especially violent case that happened in 1971. This particular case focuses on Roger and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), who move with their five daughters (!) to a Rhode Island farmhouse. A whole bunch of freaky shit ensues.

The film claims to be based on a true story, and you’d be forgiven for scoffing at that. Even so, Lorraine Warren herself (her husband passed away in 2006) and the actual Perron sisters all visited the production to give varying degrees of input. I’ve read quite a few interviews with them, and they all agree that the film was an authentic portrayal of what actually happened.

On the other hand, they do confess that some dramatic liberties were taken. I assume that one of these liberties involved a woman who was killed during the Salem Witch Trials and was actually a witch. It also doesn’t help that this family moved out to some middle-of-nowhere house for no adequately explained reason, and that the characters make every single stupid decision you’d expect from standard horror movie victims.

I have no idea how much this movie is based on real events. Hell, when it comes to controversial figures and paranormal encounters, it can get borderline impossible to tell fact from fiction. Still, all of this is beside the central question: Whether or not this story really happened, is the movie scary?

Personally, I would answer with a “hell yeah.”

Much like Insidious, this movie proves that a film doesn’t need to be gory to be terrifying. Through the use of clever editing, varying color saturation, meticulous sound design, and a powerful score, Wan succeeds at creating powerful suspense through the whole film. Granted, these efforts can get rather blunt at times, but there’s no denying that the atmosphere is very effective nonetheless.

Perhaps more importantly, Wan shows deft skill at pacing his films. He’s the rare horror filmmaker who can get away with presenting one fake-out after another, because all of his false scares invariably build up to something. This means that we know there’s a jump scare coming, but there’s no telling when it will come. As such, when the scare finally comes, it’s made more effective by the build-up and the audience doesn’t feel cheated. Brilliant. Oh, and it also helps that when things finally start to go down, it’s worth the slow burn. A whole lotta freaky shit happens when the chips finally come down.

Of course, a great deal of credit is due to the characters and their actors as well. Ron Livingston does a serviceable job as the family patriarch, and Lily Taylor is really put through her paces as the epicenter of the haunting. Then, of course, we have their daughters. One of them is played by Joey King, here appearing in her fourth movie of 2013. Clearly, the girl is going places. Her eldest sister is played by Shanley Caswell, and goddamn is it good to see her again. I was starting to worry that she wouldn’t have a career after Detention, and I’m so glad to be proven wrong. Of course, neither of these young actresses had much of anything to do except scream, but at least they made some sympathetic characters out of what they were given.

While I’m on the subject, I suppose I should mention the other three daughters. Hayley McFarland has gotten this far primarily on TV work, Kyla Deaver makes her feature debut here after essentially nothing, and Mackenzie Foy… played the spawn of Bella and Edward in the last couple of Twilight films. I suppose that explains why she was so good at acting all creepy.

Of course, it’s hardly uncommon for horror films to focus on a family of victims. An obvious example is Poltergeist, which shares a suspicious amount of imagery with this movie (the creepy doll and the TV filled with static come to mind). However, this movie’s secret weapon is in its treatment of the paranormal experts.

The film takes great pains in establishing Ed and Lorraine Warren as fallible and flawed human beings. Perhaps more importantly, the two of them are established as a loving married couple and devoted parents to a daughter of their own. This establishes a neat parallel with the Perron family, especially when the Warrens start to show signs that they’re catching whatever the Perrons have. The film presents a very strong possibility that the Warrens may not be able to save themselves, much less the other family. As a result, the film offers us more characters to emotionally invest in and raises the stakes of the conflict, which makes the story more exciting and the scares more frightening.

The Conjuring offers some good performances and some great scares, but not much else. Then again, when it comes to horror movies, what else do you really need? It’s a fun yet ultimately forgettable way to spend 100 minutes, and I can recommend it for that much.

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