Scary, but not that scary
The Conjuring has a bit of built in hype thanks to the MPAA. While nothing in the film should warrant a rating above PG-13 they deemed it too scary not to be rated R. That's got to be some really scary stuff, right? I mean the MPAA doesn't go around doing that to every PG-13 horror film. This has got to be one of the scariest films ever.
It definitely has all the right parts. Director James Wan made Saw and Insidious, both of which are legitimately scary. It's "based on a true" story, which always lends a certain aspect of fear. It's set in a creepy old house and deals with possession, which are two things that everyone can agree are scary. Things are looking pretty good for this to be one hell of a scary movie.
The true story The Conjuring is based on is one of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren's. Supposedly they kept it untold for years because it was too terrifying. The Warrens are probably most famous for their part in the Amityville Horror, and in real life are most likely a bit on the sketchy side. However, this is a movie so we're introduced to a version of the Warrens that is honest and truthful. They're eventually called in to help the Perron family with a bit of a ghost problem they're having in their new farm home.
It really isn't the most original tale of haunting/possession. There's nothing new here that's really going to surprise you and instantly rank this film as one of your favorite horror films. The scares come from some pretty predictable places, though many of them still work relatively well. The overall tone and look of the film definitely leads to a scary atmosphere, but problems with repetition, stupid characters and cliche lead the scares to often be sub-par. We should all know Wan's playbook by now, and while it has plenty of good tricks they can start getting a bit stale.
The pacing does fall off a bit as well. Since the Warren's are such a focal point of the film were treated to a slower opening than we'd normally see with a horror film. Filling in their back story along with building the back story of the Perron family means that there's a lot of scenes that play out the same. The first third of the film has just a bit too much of people wandering around in a dark house looking for a noise they heard, and by the fourth time it happens the audience gets it already and the scares start to dissipate. Thankfully once the Warrens and Perrons meet up the film builds wonderfully, and even if it isn't the scariest thing all the time, it will still keep you on the edge of your seat.
When the film does work (mostly after the first third) it can work really well. Wan litters the film with references to other horror movies, whether it be through subtle camera work or all out homages. There's hints of Hitchcock, Poltergeist, Italian shock horror and even some slasher nods. His camera work is especially effective, leaving the audience disoriented and confused as the tension ramps up and we're treated to one of the better exorcisms in recent film. Wan knows how to keep horror interesting, that's for sure. Even when the pacing falls off his style and flare for building tension and scares pulls the film back up by the end.
The cast also lends a level of quality you don't get from many horror films. One thing Wan seems to understand is that you need good actors to pull of good horror. Wilson and Farmiga are good actors and it pays off. In a rarity for a horror film you care about the characters almost as much as you care about being scared. The relationship between the Wilsons makes the danger all the more dramatic. You won't be quaking in your boots, but you'll care, which is probably even better.
Fortunately, Wan delivers a stellar ending. Thanks to a pair of interesting characters in the Warrens the film gets through its initial doldrums and pulls off a something great. This isn't an instant classic, but it definitely reaffirms that Wan can do some interesting things within the horror genre. Hopefully next time those interesting things also feel a bit fresher.