The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Conjuring

It would be easy to dismiss The Conjuring. It's yet another horror movie that is “based on a true story,” which, in my book, equals a great big yeah, right. Many of the elements in it will also be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a horror movie, heard about a horror movie, or imagined what a horror movie might be like. Writing it off would be a huge mistake, though. In addition to being one of the most effective fright flicks in ages, The Conjuring is also a story of substance, as it deals with the idea of turning to faith when confronted with evil.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, two real-life ghost hunters. (The couple achieved fame in the 1970's for investigating the house that inspired The Amityville Horror.) The Warrens in this film are not kooks; they are very normal, devout Christians who believe warding off malevolent spirits represents their God-given purpose on Earth. Their help is requested by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), a couple who live with their five daughters in a country home where bizarre occurrences are taking place. The Perrons play a game called “Hide and Clap” that involves one person putting on a blindfold and trying to find the other players, based only on the intermittent clapping of hands; the problem is that they hear the claps even when no one's playing. Some of the antiques left by the home's previous owners, including a dusty old armoire, are also moving on their own. The Warrens ascertain that the Perrons have inadvertently granted entry to a demon, which they attempt to cast out. The entity is stronger than imagined, putting the family in grave danger.

The Conjuring's director, James Wan, began his career with a bunch of violent pictures I didn't care for: Saw, Dead Silence, and Death Sentence. While he clearly had a sense of visual style, I felt the films got bogged down in their own premises, to the point of becoming more monotonous than thrilling. Then, three years ago, Wan made Insidious, an eerily atmospheric ghost story that I loved. The Conjuring is even better. Wan has developed more confidence as a storyteller, and now his style accentuates the story rather than overwhelm it. Giving the movie a visual scheme reminiscent of 1970's horror cinema, he utilizes a number of devices to heighten the terror. One such device is placing the camera a bit further back from things when you expect it to be up close. This allows us to see not only what horrific event is happening but also how everyone in the room reacts to it. (It's grander – and scarier - this way.) Wan also demonstrates patience. Many times when watching a ghost story, I mentally count down to when something will pop out, and I'm usually right. With The Conjuring, the scares wait a few extra beats, so that you anticipate them, don't get them, anticipate them a second time, still don't get them, and then finally jump as they catch you off guard.

While there are plenty of “gotcha” moments, Wan keeps things very character-based. The emphasis is not so much on the demon, but on the people who face it. Roger and Carolyn Perron don't consider themselves believers in the supernatural. Discovering that it not only exists but also poses a threat to them requires an abrupt switch in their worldview. And if demons exist, the family, which Roger describes as “not really churchgoing,” must consider that a higher power must exist as well. The Warrens already believe in God, recognizing faith as a formidable tool in the fight against dark forces. They view themselves as holy warriors, doing God's work on earth. The Conjuring is ultimately about facing the things in life that cannot be explained, and being open to the possibility of elements beyond our comprehension which shape our world. The stakes are much higher than just whether the family can get rid of its otherworldly tormentor.

The stars bring additional layers of depth. Take a look at this cast. These actors aren't fooling around; they aren't going to stand around and scream like your garden variety horror movie victims. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring seriousness of purpose to the roles of Ed and Lorraine Warren. We sense their deep conviction in ridding the world of evil. Their groundedness makes the plot's paranormal activity seem more plausible than in most films of this type. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, meanwhile, give The Conjuring a sense of humanity as the frazzled parents trying to keep their daughters safe while also making sense of the shocking developments they are faced with. Taylor, in particular, does strong work. No spoilers here, but she has to play a moment near the end that very easily could have come off as cheesy. The actress gives a simple, effective look that thoroughly sells the very internal struggle taking place within Carolyn, providing the scene with surprising emotion.

The Conjuring really is something special. The suspense tightens continually throughout its nearly two-hour running time, and there are plenty of bits designed to give you a jolt. Best of all, this is a skillful, well-crafted movie that nicely melds the horror material with strong characterization and a deeper-than-expected story about the value of having faith when dealing with hardship. The Conjuring represents the horror genre at its best and most substantive.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

The Conjuring
Own it on Blu-ray™ Combo Pack and HD Digital Download 10/22

The Conjuring will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack on October 22. There are about 40 minutes of supplementary material included on the Blu-Ray. While that's not a ton of stuff, what's here is of high quality.

"The Conjuring: Face-to-Face with Terror" is an interview with the Perron family, who come together to talk about the situation that inspired the movie. All of them remain very committed to the belief that their encounters with an otherworldly demon were real. They describe moments of terror, while Carolyn Perron says she will likely never be able to watch the movie because it would hit too close to home.

"A Life in Demonology" focuses on Lorraine Warren, who appears on camera to talk about her life's work. Several colleagues discuss the influence she and her husband had on them. You also get a peek inside the room where Warren keeps all the possessed objects that she and Ed collected over the years. Oddly, the segment makes a big deal out of implying it will show you the haunted doll referenced so vividly in The Conjuring, only to digitally blur it and then cut away at what should be the moment of reveal.

Last up is "Scaring the @$*% Out of You," a roughly nine-minute piece in which director James Wan talks about his philosophies for making age-old horror tropes fresh again. This is the best feature on the disc, as Wan's filmmaking insights are extremely valuable. They help show why The Conjuring was so effective.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu are excellent. An UltraViolet copy of the movie is included as well.

The Conjuring is rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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