The Conjuring (2013) - Years ago I had a career as a mental health counselor working with emotionally disturbed teenagers. It was challenging but also very fulfilling work. In the performance of my job I planned and executed many adventures, hiking, backpacking, river rafting and camping. During one camp trip in Bethlehem NH where my family has a camping trailer I created a story about the character Carrie from the Stephen King book of the same name. I had been wandering around in the small town's main street cemetery and had noticed a gravestone from the 1800s with the name "Carrie" on it and decided to build a story around it to give the kids a proper ghost story. So the first night at camp when we are all sitting around the fire I weave the tale of the real Carrie. Stephen King as a young man would visit family in Bethlehem and he was always interested in the small old graveyard on the rte 302. Next to a public golf course it always seemed so out of place to him. Every time they would drive down that street his eyes would be drawn to the cast iron fence with the old gray stones marking the final resting place of the former residence of the town. One morning when the sun had yet to heat up enough to dispel the mist that clung to the valley he and his uncle were heading in town to get the paper and coffee. As they past the cemetery King was sure he saw someone dressed in a gray dress standing in by a gravestone in the back part of the little plot. He strained his eyes trying to see through the mist but it was only a hint of a shape. When they stopped at the store young King left his uncle to his chatting neighbors and walked back up the street towards the cemetery. The mist was thick and he could only see clearly about fifteen feet in front of him, but he thought he saw the image of a woman ahead walking towards the same location he was making for. He picked up his pace trying to make up some distance to confirm his belief but try as he might he never seemed to make up the space between him and the spectral form.
Suddenly he realized he was at the gate of the old burial ground and looking in through the haze he could see a figure cloaked in mist at the back right corner of the plot. Shouting hello got no response and at this point he was wondering if he was just imagining the figure. At the age of 17 he steeled his courage and entered the grave yard making a line for the figure. No one was there. He was standing at a grave and started to bend to read its inscription when it fell forward toward him as if some invisible force had pushed it from behind. Heart racing and fearing someone would accuse him of vandalism he lifted the stone back into place and saw on it a name, Carrie. A sudden tingle up his spine like electricity was enough to get him moving out of that burial ground and back to his uncle. He always remembered that incident as one of the dark experiences that he would later use in his writing. Years later he would research that grave to learn of the mysterious death of young Carrie who lived just on the outskirts of Bethlehem. He would learn of the strange stories about her and how the locals thought she might be a witch. They say there is a being that still walks through that cemetery and is looking to latch onto a living soul. To fill that soul with darkness until it is devoured, King is filled with dark thoughts and ideas and his writing and publishing them keep him from loosing his mind. It is his curse from visiting that stone tablet on that misty morning, the locals weary of the curse had a fountain built on the main street and then had priest of every religion bless it so that a person who thinks they have been effected by the curse can go to the fountain and splash the blessed water on themselves to cleanse the negative effects of a visit to that graveyard.
I scared the kids well enough and then of course I took them not only to the little graveyard the next day. Too the Carrie gravestone that is actually there, but to the memorial fountain also so they can clean off the scare.Now lets suppose those kids tell that story to their nieces and nephews, and then those kids share it with their friends. One of those friends write a book about it, treating it as a true story to be investigated. Then an urban legend is formed and the locals have to start answering questions from visitors who read the book. It is an amazing wonder that humans have the ability to create and believe in things outside the realm of evidence. It has created an incredibly full world of Gods and Demons and angels and ghosts. Literature and film and legends and myths are all pert of that ability to abstractly think and create fiction. So is the basis of this film, The Conjuring It is the story of a legendary haunting investigated by a couple true life paranormal investigators in the early 1970s. There is also though a story behind the farm this family moved into and there is no shortage of people making money from the books written about the haunting.
The basis for the film is the story of the Perron family, and what has become the Harrisville haunting. Buying an old estate with a storied past the family reported many classic haunting incidents. You can read all about it on the internet. Then the Warrens got involved, in the late 1960s; they were paranormal investigators, husband and wife Ed and Lorraine Warren. Grifters, uh I mean ghost hunters and demonologists who made a living investigating believed haunting and writing and selling books about the cases they investigated for the family. This is where I have to really make an effort to let my disbelief go. Being a believer in realty and not the supernatural when I see the fantasy of the make believe being exploited for money in real life I get a bit pissed off. The Warrens in real life, exploited the people that they supposedly helped for material for books and the rights to make movies. They made money off the fantasies of others while those distressed people believed there really was a haunting. I acknowledge that this is my hangup about what I see as taking advantage of people so for this film I have to let that go. It will in no way change the fact that this is a well made horror film with some really good scares in it. It in this case as with the case also investigated by the Warrens, that became the Amittyville Horror investigation and movie, the family members involved also benefited financially through books sales about their haunting. The consumers of these books end up getting what they want entertainment and some reinforcement of their belief in the supernatural. My nonbeliever mind needs to let go of its notion that this is exploitative.
The film written by veteran writing team Chad and Carey Hayes and directed by James Wan is a really well put together film with solid acting and some wonderfully chilling moments. Wan an up and comer off his work in the Saw franchise and the two Insidious films does a very competent job at the helm. His use of reflection and jump scare, low angle shots, flashes of horror imagery and shadow are excellent in creating a mood that infiltrates this horror film.
The film starts out in a fantasy world where haunting is real and demons attach to and torment people because they exist. A smart way to start and we never leave this world. Never does anyone question whether any of this is imagined, it is a story of and about believers and because they never waver in this during presentation the film really works. There is never a doubt about whether the family is being exploited. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) believes what he is doing, Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is a clairvoyant and everything she sees is real within the scope of this story. The demon tormenting the Perron family is real and the experiences they have through the story are always true to the world of the film. So with disbelief properly suspended I really got to enjoy this world.
The slow build from has all the elements we need in a horror film. The dog refusing to enter the new house. Finding the hidden cellar behind a closet. April discovering the old toy down at the big old creepy tree. Bruises developing on Mother Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor). Finding the dog dead. The introduction of the clapping hide and seek game and then later a scary incident while playing it. The incidents and mood of the film grow as the film progresses making it scrarier and scarier. When we get to some of the strong scares we are fully engrossed.
The first is the wonderful leg pull to someone behind the door scene, it makes your hair stand on end. A sequence where the daughter Christine (Joey King) is awoken by something pulling her by the leg enough to wake her up. Then there is the looking over the edge of the bed to create tension, upping the ante a bit she looks under the bed to see if someone is hiding there. While doing so she notices the room door moving by itself. Is someone behind the door? She thinks she sees someone and wakes her older sister Nancy (Hayley Mcfarland) who gets up thinking her sister might be hallucinating and investigates. She is sure there is no one there even though no one is there. The jump scare to end the scene is great. It is never seen whether something is actually there or whether Christine is imagining it. She is comforted while we get the growing sense that something is not right.
With a film like this the occurrences must build on each other to the point where the family seeks help. This certainly happens here. Switching between the growing trauma in the house and the story of the Warrens Wan releases anxiety in the audience while adding background and depth to the characters. Not wanting to describe each of the escalating events the family experiences lets just say that this is a film you should experience and not read about. There are probably four separate occasions where I had physical reactions to the scares on the screen and this does not happen often to this veteran of horror. In fact the incident with the oldest daughter Andrea (Shanley Caswell) and her sleep walking sister still give me a chill each time I watch it and I have seen it five times.
In desperation Carolyn seeks out the Warrens who are immediately worried when they enter the house. Lorraine sees the spirits in the house and feels the evil, Ed is cautious acknowledging the toll his wife's spiritual acuity has on her. Still they recognized that this family needs them and put together an investigatory team to study the haunting. It all builds to some really great effects driven moments that are wonderfully exciting for the viewer. When the final act begins we feel like we have been on a horror express train to Scareville and even though the outcome is predictable the ride is what this is all about and it is a fun ride.
The weakness of the script has to be that so much was built around the Warrens that is really never fulfilled. There is this connection between the Perron investigation and the Warren's own daughter that is thrown in to create a personal stake for them that was probably unnecessary since while in the Perron house they were very much at risk.
Overall though the acting is solid enough with Lili Taylor a good fit for Carolyn. Her husband a lesser role, Roger (Ron Livingston) is good at showing the powerlessness of a father who can't protect his family from this supernatural force. The children had to either play or act scared and all did so adequately, from the above mentioned down to the other two, youngest April (Kyla Deaver), sleepwalker Cindy (Mackenzie Foy). Although Ed Warren played by Patrick Wilson came off a bit tight and stiff some of it was the writing. He provided most of the exposition about demons and how they are dealt with. He is the expert explaining to the audience so there is a certain authority he had to have to do so. They tried to soften his character in the scenes with his wife and daughter to counter this character need. The few added character helping the Warrens were developed just enough to have a stake in the film but don't expect too much there.
The third act of this film is really a great climax and one everyone reading this should experience. this is a well written and very well executed horror story that everyone should see. So get yourself together and see this film, it is very recommended by this blog. Now my little story in the begining of this entry may never go from story, to local oddity, to myth to investigated legend. It will probably never take root but a good story has power, power to excite, to scare, to create a life of its own. Many of the stories from the generation of the 1970s paranormal movement have rooted themselves in our pop culture who knows maybe someday Bethlehem NH will be a place where they take place for a new generation.