The Conjuring

The Conjuring ★★★½

Part 6 of the Modern Mainstream Horror Project

Not quite the modern day masterpiece I was expecting, but I'll take it!

The Conjuring tells your basic supernatural horror narrative. Family moves into house. Dog senses something weird. Something is weird. Unexplainable things start happening. Hidden passages are found. Paranormal presence becomes undeniable. Experts are called in. Investigation. More creepy stuff. It's a demon! Possession, confrontation, etc. etc.

When you're told at the beginning that the following is a true story and the case being portrayed is the most notorious one in the investigators' history, you tend to expect something you've never seen before. At least, that's what I expected. Really, though, The Conjuring doesn't break any new ground. Above all, it is a solid chiller. Plays it by the book for the most part, managing some great moments, but I never got the sense that what I was watching was some kind of instant classic.

At the same time, I realize that I'm downplaying its effectiveness to an extent. When the film is in the zone, (by which I mean people creeping around the halls and rooms with trepidation after being awoken by odd sounds) James Wan pretty much kills it. About 4 or 5 of the scares are spoiled in the trailers (dammit!), but that doesn't stop the overall scenes from being extremely unnerving in their construction. As with Insidious, Wan doesn't get off on having things jump out at you all the time. He withholds for the most part and lingers on ambiguously scary spaces for the right amount of time. Although not everything hit for me, there were probably about 3 or 4 scenes that had me really tense and I enjoyed experiencing the movie for those moments alone.

As for those "scary sequences" that failed to terrify...The film gets quite overwrought toward the end (again, a lot like Insidious did). It goes for that big, earth-shattering exorcism-type scene that these films like to do nowadays and includes several instances of people and things flying around. The material is adequately executed, but wasn't nearly as disturbing as what came before and even with its suddenly faster pace, I never felt a rise in adrenaline. I understand the need for a formal confrontation, but seeing big, loud, bombastic displays of CG and the like played straight drains the intrigue out of it.

But that was not my top issue with The Conjuring. The real problem is the handling of most of the material outside the purely scare-oriented scenes. Nearly any given general one-on-one conversation seeking to set up character points, establish an emotional motif or exposit information fell flat. It feels very movie-ish, very artificial. I could blame it on the performances, the writing or the direction equally, because whenever we were out of horror-mode, I was not at all riveted (or even convinced) by the blandly staged dialogue playing out. Foreshadowed elements are plainly telegraphed and those character moments (Lorraine's especially) don't resonate.

Films like this desperately need to maintain a sense of dread at all times (except for perhaps one or two necessary, but brief moments of relief) and that sentiment just failed to come across in the connective tissue segments. Add to that an obvious "how did you not see that coming" twist of sorts toward the end and the fear quickly turns to frustration.

The Conjuring's quietly unsettling sequences are too good to allow the film as a whole to dip into merely "decent" territory and they are the main reason why this comes in at a 3.5. However, the remaining aspects are far from perfect, leaving a final product that is pretty fun and pretty scary, but too generic to stand out.

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