The Conjuring (2013)

Horror Rated R

Sometimes a good horror film won’t make you scream or guffaw or loudly suck in air. Sometimes a good horror film makes you chuckle.

I chuckled quite a bit during The Conjuring, an immensely effective chiller about a family under siege in a demonically haunted house. To be clear, these were all chuckles of appreciation: verbal acknowledgements that even though I recognized what the movie was trying to do – and could see how the movie was going to do it – I was scared anyway. That’s true craftsmanship.

Directed by James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence), The Conjuring is impeccably crafted in its all-important fright scenes. And the movie is packed with them. Wan’s confidence is so strong he seems to seek out clichés – a terrified pet dog, banging doors, an eerie music box, creepy nightgowns – just to prove he can teach an old haunted house new tricks.

Sometimes a good horror film makes you chuckle.

Set in 1971, The Conjuring concerns Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who have moved to a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Rhode Island with their five daughters. It’s fitting that the picture has a lo-fi setting, for Wan’s techniques all could have been employed in the pre-CGI era. He deftly slips from elegant Steadicam to jarring handheld camera depending on the needs of a scene and only gets showy when the moment calls for it. (Turning the camera upside down at one point helps reinvigorate the age-old “what’s under the bed?” shot.) Elsewhere, sound is a crucial element. The Conjuring relies less on a gotcha score (there’s very little music) than on judiciously placed audio effects: the venomous hiss of a bus’ brakes; the thunk of a piano in the cellar; the smacking of hands when the girls play “hide and clap.”

The movie also benefits from the grim presence of Vera Farmiga. She plays Lorraine Warren, one half of the husband-wife demonologist team that comes to the aid of the Perrons (Patrick Wilson plays the husband). Exhausted after a previous exorcism that didn’t end well, unsure of her career choice now that she has her own daughter, Lorraine wanders into the farmhouse looking less like the cavalry than one of the haunters. Her exhaustion gives the movie just enough of an emotional anchor.

The fact that Lorraine and Carolyn are both mothers also gives The Conjuring some thematic gristle to chew, especially when the house is revealed to have a history of infanticide. If the sibling screenwriting team of Chad and Carey Hayes don’t quite tie these threads together in a completely satisfying way, the movie does nevertheless pose an unsettling question: how can you protect your children if you (or your career) might be the biggest threat to their safety?