The Conjuring

The Conjuring

You know a movie is incredibly fucking terrifying when everyone in the theatre is dead silent. Nobody is on their cell-phone. You can't even hear the munching of popcorn. Finally it reaches a point where several audience members begin to break out in awkward laughter--not because something in the film is cheesy, funny, or stupid, it is because they have realized that a movie has made them reach the point of complete terror and they are laughing to let their body release some of that tension. It's around this point that everyone in the theatre loses their minds in response to something amazing happening on screen--the audience has reached their breaking point.

The Conjuring is that movie, and there are a lot of scenes in the film that carry this anxiety-inducing weight over the audience. In fact, the movie is unrelenting in how many incredible sequences there are--it is a nonstop fright-fest. And do you know what the best part is? The Conjuring accomplishes this level of horror without using any jump-scares.

James Wan's film is all about tension and release. He builds up a scene using his mastery over cinematography and atmosphere, then he lets it all go by revealing an absolutely terrifying image (or sometimes nothing at all). You know just how well Wan does this when he is able to create tension by having a bathroom door slowly open--everyone in the theatre is on the edge of their seat--and then a toilet flushes and someone walks out. It is a scene of comic relief before the truly terrifying ride begins, but Wan lets the audience know in this moment that he has them under his complete control; if he wants you to get scared, you will get scared--really, really fucking scared.

The first thing that James Wan does right is setting the movie in the 60s, since that immediately allows the audience to suspend their disbelief (the main audience for the film wasn't even alive then, so they will accept a lot more of the horror elements than if it were set in modern times). For example, how can you have intense scenes such as when the father is on a weeklong trucking job and isn't in contact with his family on the night of the first big supernatural event if everyone has cell-phones? Cellular devices and the internet have completely ruined horror films, and like in Insidious Wan decides to make the film a period piece with lo-fi technology--isn't an 8mm camera or tape recorded far more terrifying than a laptop, with their spinning film and click click click?

The movie is a classic story, akin to The Exorcist, Poltergeist, or The Amityville Horror (it was no accident that the title font was so similar to the former), of a family that moves into a new house and begins to suffer at the hands of a spirit. The exorcism plot has been done a lot recently, but Wan provides enough unique imagery and sheer terror in his building of atmosphere that the possession scenario completely works. The big exorcism scene at the end is absolute mastery and is so full of tension that it is almost unbearable--the scene is unrelenting in how many different things are happening at once and how high the stakes are. I was full of both glee and terror watching the scene since I was in such a good mood; rarely does a modern horror film reach these heights of horror.

I can't talk about the film without mentioning the cinematography and sound design, which were absolutely perfect and created the atmosphere of the film. The music in the film is a great mix of mellow pop (played during an excellent montage) and a tremendously heavy (yet subtle) score that increases the tension of every scene its used in. However, the best part of the film's sound design is its usage of silence. The scariest scenes in the film are the ones without any score, as these scenes build up the tension organically, purely through what is on-screen, or more importantly, what is not on-screen. One of the best scenes of the film (and there are a lot of best scenes) has one of the young girls waking up in the middle of the night, only to be spooked by something moving the door. She stares at the negative space behind the door, completely petrified with fear--as the audience we cannot see past the absolute darkness on-screen, but we know that she sees something, and our anticipation of what lurks in that darkness is fucking intense. The film is great at this sort of thing, and a scene like this simply builds up to a door being slammed shut--nothing too grandiose, but a frightening payoff all the same. When the monster in the darkness finally does get revealed in a later scene, Wan plays with our expectations and delivers one of the best HOLY FUCKING SHIT moments I've seen in a long time.

The movie also utilizes zooms in the best way possible, constantly doing a long zoom down the road towards the house to transition between scenes and further build up the tension before the next big scare. The usage of handheld photography is also great, since it adds the illusion of personally being there in the film with the characters, which adds to the tension of the spookiest scenes. One of the best scenes involves a found-footage aesthetic where the paranormal investigators explore the cellar, and it builds up so much tension from the limited viewpoint of the 8mm camera that you can't help but wait until the style returns to normal and releases you from the worries of what's lurking beyond the frame. Wan is so fucking good at using negative space to create tension in the film, and the best parts of the movie involve what you don't see. As a matter of fact, Wan is more interested in showing you a creaky door than he is with presenting a crazy demon, so the majority of the film's scares rely on the simplest forms of horror.

For me, I knew that I was in love with the film after the first twenty minutes. In the opening scene, Wan begins on a slow zoom-out from the creepiest fucking doll I've ever seen. Wan definitely loves his dolls and puppets, as they are present in both Saw and Dead Silence, but in this film he delivers quite possibly the most terrifying movie prop of all time. The doll is used sparingly in the film, but everyone in my theatre was on the edge of their seat every time the movie went back to showing the room containing that doll. Holy shit, that opening scene was so fucking good and totally shows just how powerfully frightening this movie is going to be.

What's great about the opening though is that after the doll scenes the movie returns to a state of normalcy to let the audience re-adjust to a baseline before returning to the insanely intense terror. A spectacular two-minute steadicam shot through the family's new home as they move boxes is a shot that reveals everything we need to know about the family and creates a state of normalcy that can then be ruined by the interjection of the supernatural entity. Without the early scenes with the family living their normal lives we wouldn't have gotten so invested in their lives, and thus there would be no pathos and no tension. Wan does a great job at creating likeable characters that are archetypal for this kind of movie, while also set up with enough backstory for there to be great character pay-offs later in the film.

There is so much more to say about this film, but I have to stop myself before I spoil the whole thing. The scenes I've given away in this review isn't even a quarter of the memorable scenes in this film. The film can even be considered a little bit slow in a sense, but it keeps up such a high level of sustained tension that it would be impossible to get bored. Every element of the film is designed to deliver the perfect amount of terror and suspense, and it is rare that a modern horror film delivers such a wonderfully horrifying atmosphere. Wan has delivered a masterpiece of horror film making that doesn't provide cheap shocks or horrific violence in place of genuine horror--there is no gore. Instead there are creepy scenarios that build up as much tension as possible before finally allowing climactic release. The Conjuring might be the best horror film I've ever seen, and it has definitely topped my list as movie of the year so far. It is an absolutely incredible horror film, and I could not recommend it more highly.

The movie ends on a slow-pan-and-zoom on a mirror attached to a music box--this is the last shot of the film. The slow build becomes an eternity as the tension continues to build up and patrons of the theatre begin to shift in their seats as the suspense become too much for them to handle. The film has been so successful at leading the audience to exactly where Wan wants them that all he needs to do is zoom in on a mirror and it becomes frightening. Then, as the suspense reaches its most extreme and the audience come to their breaking point, the film cuts to credits--the cut itself is the shocking payoff to the film's conclusion--which is a reminder of how good this movie is at leading its audience. I can't think of any other film makers today that can make a cut-to-black frightening.

This is why James Wan is the modern master of the horror genre.

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