Riding a wave of critical success in the States, The Conjuring has outsold almost every big budget blockbuster of the summer with a meager budget of only $20m in comparison. Directed by James Wan, the man who kick-started the torture-porn sub-genre a decade previously, The Conjuring is a surprisingly blood-free horror that bears more in common with his last work Insidious than the one that made his name. This is even more surprising considering horror films tend to perform better between Halloween and the end of winter in February. But the big question on everyone's lips has to be, is it scary?
Based on a 'true story', The Conjuring follows a family that move into a big rundown house in Rhode Island. Parents Carolyn and Roger (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters begin to experience strange occurrences in the house like doors opening and closing and portraits falling off the wall. It isn't long before things take a turn for the sinister and they go to renowned paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) for help. They move into the house to in hopes of discovering the source of the disturbance and helping the Perrons before it's too late.
The setup is about as cliched as you can imagine and has been covered hundreds of times before in cinema. In fact initially the film it bears closest resemblance to is The Amityville Horror, itself another investigation from the casebooks of the Warrens. But The Conjuring doesn't waste time like other films questioning whether ghosts are real, it accepts they are, presents the audience with one early on and never doubts the talents of the Warrens, who in reality must have been disregarded as charlatans and fakes. It's a nice change of pace for a horror film and the acting performances from Farmiga and Wilson are so well handled that despite how you feel about the topic, you believe in them and their confidence. This becomes important during the middle portion where the thrills are replaced with a more investigative thriller that adds depth and gravitas to the characters.
Director James Wan then cuts loose in the final act. Criticised for his finale in Insidious, he makes sure that the final third of the film is the best part of the film. The jump-scares come thick and fast and after 15 minutes and the 6th consecutive scare your nerves are shredded. It is at the end of this assault that you realise that you actually care about the characters involved. Horror often overlooks character development in favour of cheap jumps. It presents cyphers that the audience can inhabit, which increases the tension, whereas The Conjuring has fully-formed characters on hand. Wan takes time in the company of these people and has a very definite story to present, which he does with aplomb
There's a scene early on when daughter Christine (Joey King) is awoken by a force pulling her out of bed and she investigates around the room. Wan's camera slowly leers over the edge of the bed before tilting upside down to follow the characters eye line. The result is one of the tensest moments of the film and it's simply shot and excellently executed. This feeling runs throughout the film and the lack of CG is a Godsend in a time when film-makers insist on showing everything through computer graphics. It helps to create a sense of realism, which considering the source material is impressive. The technical aspects like sound, cinematography and lighting are all superb too and seperate The Conjuring from the huge volume of horror films that are released each year.
The result is a horror film that is tense in parts, jumpy in others, but is not the sort of terror that you'll take home with you. Wan pays homage to every type of classic horror film you can imagine with possessed objects, people, houses, dolls, children and there's even exorcism, but it never quite takes the final leap into classically terrifying. It's an excellent shot, well acted film with intrigue and charisma to burn. But is it scary? Yes to an extent, as it does the job while it's on, but as soon as you leave, the fear leaves with you.