By Javy Gwaltney | Contributor Published: 08/09/2013 10:58 am EST
The first time I left a screening of The Conjuring I was pretty impressed with the film, but I couldn’t figure out if that was because its reliance on old school horror felt fresh in a genre filled with asinine, splattery nonsense or if it was, on its own terms–removed from time as much as possible–a great movie.
After watching it again, I can say that it’s more of the latter, and I’m here to tell you why. Let’s talk about why The Conjuring works.
[Spoilers ahead, folks. All of them. So many spoilers.]
The whole film feels intimate. The haunted house is paradoxically large and cramped. We spend a lot of time in nearly every single room of the place (downstairs, the bedrooms upstairs, the basement); after my second watch I could have drawn a crude floorplan of the house.
We’re also, and this is probably more important, meant to be more attached to the characters than usual horror flick fodder. The dialogue in the script is serviceable, letting us know in a blunt way the troubles of this family and of Ed and Lorraine, the demonologists trying to cleanse the house of evil spirits. The Perrons are just another nuclear family with a hardworking father, a stay-at-home mother, and a brood of playful daughters. We don’t ever learn about their individual plights outside of Roger trying to make ends meet. In the script, the characterizations are simple. However, every single actor breathes life into these simple characters.
Could I see anyone else playing the no-nonsense, straight to business role of Ed Warren besides Patrick Wilson? Probably not. And man, oh man, what about that scene with Christine (Joey King) where she sees the demon in the dark? Her face goes deathly pale and then burning red as she breaks out into tears and shrieks for dear life. Most of us have probably been there as a child: imagined a bogeyman beneath the bed or bumping around in our closest. The difference is that Christine’s monster is real, and I believed every second of the terror on her face.
The script works, sure, but it’s the acting that made me care for these people.
Your childhood is awful and it wants to kill you
There’s a long celebrated (and often derided) tradition in horror of turning childhood artifacts and activities into occasions for terror. The film opens by introducing us to Anabelle, a creepy doll that’s been inhabited by a demonic spirit. Chucky 2.0, basically.
One of the absolutely brilliant parts of the script involves a variation on Hide and Seek called Hide and Clap. It follows the same rules as Hide and Seek except that the seeker is blindfolded and has the ability to demand three claps from those he/she is pursuing. We’re introduced to this game in a scene where the girls are playing it in order to put off helping their parents move in. Later on, Carolyn Perron is persuaded to play a game with her daughter Cindy. Eventually, two claps lead Carolyn to a bedroom. She asks for the final clap, and the doors to the spooky, antique wardrobe open. Two ghostly pale hands creep out and clap. Blindfolded Carolyn rummages through the closet, a grin on her face at finally finding her daughter. When she realizes no one is in there, she takes off her blindfold and stares into the empty wardrobe, dumbfounded. Her daughter pops in the room and scolds her mother for taking off the blindfold.
This set-up culminates in one of the best scares I’ve ever experienced. Later on, Carolyn is furiously searching for one of her daughters. A clap leads her to the basement staircase. She goes inside and when she can’t find the girls, she tries to leave, only to have the door shut on her. The impact knocks her down the steps. The bulb explodes as she scampers up the stairs in the darkness. We hear her trying to start a match and then, finally, there’s light. She peers down into the basement, desperately trying to see who’s in there with her. The first match goes out; she lights another. And then the voice:
“Wanna play hide and clap?”
Those two ghostly hands emerge from behind her and clap, drowning the screen in darkness. Carolyn (and every person in the theater!) screams.
Childhood is traditionally (emphasis on “traditionally” here) considered a time of safety. Effectively twisting artifacts and games associated with it immediately creates anxieties, which is something The Conjuring does well.
There is no such a thing as a safe space
One of the more subtle tricks that director James Wan and Co. have up their sleeves is simply changing location. Most of the action takes place within the Perron’s home. However, a good portion of the film also takes place at Ed and Lorraine’s home, where a caretaker looks after their daughter. In the beginning, these sequences serve as moments for the viewer to catch his/her breath. “We’re no longer in demon territory; nothing bad is going to happen.” As the movie goes on, we return to that safe space more often and then, in the last thirty minutes, there’s a twist that transforms this space into a claustrophobic hellhole. (The fact that this scene involves a little girl being terrorized by Annabelle also ties into the whole YOUR CHILDHOOD WILL KILL YOU thing.)
There’s a sense of violation there that mirrors the Perron’s haunting. It’s a clever trick that targets audience assumption and works on a subconscious level.
Tell then show…but only show a little bit.
We don’t see the physical manifestation of the demon haunting the Perrons until nearly halfway through the movie. Even better, we only catch glimpses of her (her feet as she sways from a hangman’s branch) after that. Rarely do we see the ghosts (victims of the house) too, and when we do see them, it’s often through some kind of distorted image, like the mirror attached to Rory’s music box.
Why is this a good thing? Well, to make a rather broad statement: movie monsters, from a design standpoint, aren’t scary anymore. You can only stack so many hooves and fangs and tails and horns on monsters and show those abominations before they’re not frightening anymore. It’s the Xenomorph effect in action. Alien is absolutely terrifying because we only see flashes of the creature as it stalks our heroes and feeds of them. James Cameron diminished the majority of the monster’s scare factor in Aliens by introducing viewers to a legion of the creatures, keeping them in full view quite a bit, and arming the characters with weapons.
It’s difficult to become desensitized to the demons in The Conjuring because we see them piece by piece and are probably imagining the bits we’re not seeing. Is there anything scarier than a person’s own powerful imagination visualizing all the grotesque possibilities?
When he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel, Javy devotes his time to writing about these video game things. He's a contributor and the former game editor at CultureMass. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter feed @JavyIV.