Horror films are already a pretty niche genre. They are open to what you find subjectively scary; supernatural horror is even more focused. Whether or not you’re frightened by supernatural horror films depends on whether or not you believe it is possible. And, to what degree. If you believe in the supernatural, it could scare you. If you don’t, then it’s not going to do anything. However, every once and awhile, a supernatural horror film comes out which manages to wow believers and skeptics both. The Exorcist from 1973 was one. With widespread critical acclaim, a slowly growing film series, The Conjuring seems to be another. The question now stands whether or not it’s worthy to stand beside some of the horror elites. It could just be a qualitative dump with the benefit of hindsight.
The Conjuring claims to be inspired by the “real life” events of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). These two are a husband/wife duo who claim to expert paranormal investigators and occultists. It becomes clear, however, that writers Chad/Carey Hayes merely use the account as inspiration and set up for their film. Being based in “reality” also adds an extra element of fear. The premise is fairly standard for a haunting movie. A supernatural being starts to torment the new family that moves into its house. The family calls the Warrens to find out what it is and get rid of the entity. From there, the tension and horror escalate into a final scene of madness and destruction.
As somebody who believes in the supernatural, the film adds an extra layer of fear for me that others may not experience. However, these films always annoy me because they seem to misunderstand completely how I believe the supernatural world works. So the experience is partial fear in that I think something like this could happen. Another partial frustration is that these people aren’t portraying it correctly.
However, that doesn’t mean the film is entirely ineffective. One thing James Wan has been very adept at with Insidious and now The Conjuring is taking cliché horror iconography and making it legitimately scary again. A chair rocking by itself or doors opening and closing on their own are pretty standard for a haunting movie. In the hands of a great director, they feel fresh and frightening again.
A lot of that has to do with the pacing and sound design. Wan will often draw out a scene, making a shot go on much longer without a cut. The pacing increases the viewer’s anxiety as they continuously deny the payoff the viewer knows is coming. They keep biting their nails for a scare that refuses to come. What makes the sound design truly successful, however, is the fact that silence surrounds it. The heavy silence and absence of score amps up every knock, scratch, and pop.
It’s just as well since when there is a score, it’s very generic and fades into the background, and the viewer rarely notices it. It is especially unfortunate for a horror film because an effective score could amplify already existing scares or add in new frights all on its own. The Shining’s composition is an excellent example of this.
The color correction, though useful, is also generic for a modern horror film. The entire movie is grey and brown. Not much variety in color. It’s a shame that many horror films today don’t make use of other colors that could be interesting. Recall how effectual the green/yellow bile of Regan was in The Exorcist. Remember how much the cold blues and whites added to the final scene of The Shining or how the red blood popped against the yellow of the Overlook Hotel’s hallways.
The cinematography in The Conjuring is decent, but an odd choice for a horror film. The filmmaker shoots a lot of it handheld rather than on a tripod. Even in scenes with just two people having a conversation, there’s a slight shake to the camera. They also shoot a lot of the film in close-up, which presumably works with the shaky cam to add intensity. It succeeds as a way to draw the audience into the situation and feel like they’re with the characters. However, there are ways a wide shot could be more frightening than a close-up, if in a less visceral way.
I hate to go back to this well, but The Shining is an excellent example of this. The wide angle shots give a sense that we’re looking at these people through a shield of glass. We want to help them, but we’re too far off and disconnected to do anything, giving the viewer a feeling of hopelessness.
However, this technique relies on having relatable characters we can latch on to and want them to succeed. This movie doesn’t have that. The actors don’t portray the characters awfully or poorly. They aren’t characters you’re going to remember or even really care if they survive. The actors, for their part, do their best and the child actors are surprisingly good, but there’s just a lot for them to work with. None of them have much personality or distinguishing features.
Filmmakers provide no attempt to tell the story or relationships between the characters through blocking. Unfortunately, it is an epidemic that afflicts many of today’s modern filmmakers. It’s a shame that Hollywood rarely uses one of the best methods of natural character building. David Fincher previously used blocking to significant effect in his films. From showing two friends now at odds by having them sit on opposite sides of a table (The Social Network) to a character is literally and figuratively surrounded (Zodiac). The physical position of one person to another is such an implicitly recognized aspect of human nature that a film can covey the relationship between two characters with a single shot. Unfortunately, however, directors rarely use it.
The Conjuring Final Thoughts:
The Conjuring is not the most profound horror film in the world. It has very little to say about spirituality, universal human psychology, or any other compelling ideas. It only exists as a well-made haunted house movie with a pleasant atmosphere and a few good scares. If that’s all you’re interested in, there are indeed worse wells to draw from in that regard.