The strange thing about horror movies of the last 10 years is that they’ve rarely been scary. They’ve been grotesque – take, please, “Evil Dead” from earlier this year – but few of them have been legitimately frightening. “The Conjuring,” on the other hand, understands that violence is not horror, and delivers a truly disturbing viewing experience. It may use a little Hollywood pixie dust to make it to the finish line, but the pre-Hollywood psychodrama is positively chilling, and the use of old-school techniques only adds to the creep factor.
It’s the fall of 1971, and Roger and Carolyn Petton (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters, are moving into an old farm house in Rhode Island. From the very beginning, the place seems a little off (the dog won’t go in the house, the basement is boarded up), but the family puts up with all of the seemingly unrelated annoyances (cold, the occasional foul stench, youngest daughter April’s new imaginary friend) and attributes it to, well, something rational, something explainable. It is not long, though, before the “house” ramps up the offensive, and an exasperated Carolyn asks local paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to come to the house and evaluate their problem. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, gets bad vibes from the very beginning, and after doing a little research on the former homeowners, she is fearful for the lives of the entire Perron family, Carolyn in particular.
Screenwriting twins Chad and Carey Hayes wrote the script of their lives here – though to be fair, one look at their IMDb profile and you’ll see that that is a backhanded compliment – by framing the ‘A’ story (the Perrons) and the ‘B’ story (the Warrens) side by side until such time that the families can come together organically. It’s a shrewd move, because it gives the audience the occasional, much-needed break from the terror that the Perrons are suffering, while slowly allowing the audience to get to know the Warrens and the, um, ghosts of their past that they bring with them to this case. That, plus Wan’s refusal to resort to the cheap ‘boo’ scare, gets the audience emotionally invested early, and never lets them go.