By Will Ashton
True horror is not about shock, it’s about suspense.
To quote Alfred Hitchcock, “There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’…. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”
There’s a reason why movies like Psycho live on, while people forget movies like The Nightmare on Elm Street remake. It’s because anybody can make people jump. It’s an easy trick. Just throw in a loud sound when people are least expecting it. There, you surprised them. But people don’t remember being surprised. They do, however, remember being scared.
At heart, being scared is not knowing what to expect. That’s what creates suspense. Any hack director can get people to jump. Only talented ones can make them feel suspense, especially these days.
This is why The Conjuring is one of the best horror movies Hollywood has released in a good while. With this film, director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) has made what could very well be his finest film to date. That’s because The Conjuring is easily his smartest and most well crafted movie thus far.
The movie focuses on Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, a real-life couple of paranormal investigators who, for years, have been tracking down paranormal activity and stopping it at the source. Think of them as the original Ghost Hunters. Their line of work gets them in the path of the Perron family, a normal well-to-do family who move into a new house, only to find paranormal activity haunting them throughout the night. Through their expertise, they do what they can to stop those who haunt them. But, perhaps, this case is one bigger than they could have imagined.
Wan has come a long way from films like Dead Silence. While he has already proven himself talented in creating suspense-driven and atmospheric horror films before, The Conjuring is easily his most intense and chilling film to date.
Based on the film’s early ‘70s setting, the film pays a lot of homage to horror movies of the past, including films like The Exorcist and Halloween. While the movie is certainly inspired by these features, it never copies their formula directly. The Conjuring is very much its own breed. It takes the elements that worked into those films, but also gives itself a fresh, modern feeling through some inventive camera work and (slightly) tighter pace.
Unlike a lot of horror movies today, The Conjuring takes its time to develop its characters. While this does lead to a mildly lackluster first act, the movie definitely makes up for it in its second and third. Not only is the family developed, but so are Ed and Lorraine. Most horror movies these days would feel it’s enough just to develop one side of the story. Thankfully, this movie develops both.
Because of this, we care about all the main characters. As a result, the suspense is more genuine because, not only do we know them, but now we care about them too. While some scenes of dialogue between Ed and Lorraine are, quite frankly, pretty corny, the actors’ natural chemistry together and their solid performances elevate the film to become the better-than-average horror movie it is.
Sometimes, in its attempt to pay homage to horror movies of the past, the film will rely too heavily on some horror tropes we’ve seen so many times before. As a result, some scenes of horror here don’t get their full effect, and makes the film drag at times as well. For the most part, however, a majority of these type of homages are dropped before the halfway point of the movie, and its third act is so much fun that it makes up for this familiarity and lag earlier in the movie. What I like the most about these homages, however, is that they are not as cutesy or winking as some other movies are these days. I’m looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness.
I would be surprised to find that many people who walk out of The Conjuring feeling unsatisfied. It gives its audience everything they should want and then some, and it may even be on its way to become a new horror classic. There is already talk of a sequel being in the works. I’m not sure if it’ll work or not, but all I can hope is that this doesn’t turn into another Saw series for Wan. Because The Conjuring is easily one of the best made and genuinely creepy horror movies I have seen in some time.
Also, this movie wins the award for creepiest use of a music box ever.