Movie Review: “The Conjuring”

Grade A

As a child, my greatest hobby was horror movies. I was so consumed by freaky flicks that I had a scary movie marathon at one of my birthday parties. Some of my friends couldn’t come because their parents didn’t want them exposed to cinematic blood and gore.

Wimps.

The VHS tapes I rented for my marathon included cult classics like “Halloween” and “The Exorcist.” What did these have in common? They were 1970s horror hits.

The Conjuring” is the first movie in decades to belong in my prepubescent marathon line-up. Here’s why.

First of all, it doesn’t take Roger Ebert to recognize that this based-on-a-true-story film takes place in 1971. The timing lines it up with Laurie Strode’s escape from Michael Myers, that’s from “Halloween” in case you’ve lived in a box for 40 years. The old hairstyles, classic TV sets and old-school utterances of “Far out!” are a blast from the past.

A movie needs more than a similar setting to make my coveted birthday party list. “The Conjuring” doesn’t just take place in the 1970s; it’s shot like it was produced in the 1970s: slow-moving zooms, subtle pan revelations and – most integral to this film’s success – the understanding that terror is not what you can see, but what you can’t see.

Married paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) assist a family struggling with demonic wackiness in their home. Unabashed by a not-so-unique premise, it’s incredibly fascinating to watch the professionals help Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) save their family. Farmiga and Wilson seem like true ghost investigators, the cool professors you like more than you should. Lorraine Warren can see things the others can’t see, creating a freaky dynamic.

In a rare case, it’s pure fear – not sex, blood or language – that generated an R rating from the MPAA, according to producer Walter Hamada. The crew originally wanted PG-13 for a broader audience.

Filmmakers can appeal ratings, but those behind “The Conjuring” saw an opportunity for some positive press: would “a movie too scary for PG-13” keep a teenager out or bring a teenager in?

Fear breeds in creativity. For example, director James Wan’s use of a reflective jack-in-the-box is brilliant. Today, that brilliance is rare. Consider the bloodbath blockbuster “Evil Dead” wherein gratuitous bodily mutilations changed the tone from scary to funny. Ultimately, you’re dealing with a different gore-filled genre; something that’s diluted the horror franchise. “The Conjuring” fortunately stayed within its genre limits and it worked.

What Wan did is special. “The Conjuring” is a vessel for Wan to cleanse and simplify the most important element of a horror movie: pure and unabashed terror.