FEATURE: Shocktober - The Conjuring

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

If you've been following these reviews all month, you'll know that haunted houses are an easy way to scare me if a film does it well and if not, a quick way to turn me off if it's done badly. In order to provide you with a bit of context for what I have to say about The Conjuring, I have to admit I've not been as convinced by James Wan's output as some people. His two major horror contributions to date have been solid, if not particularly exemplary. Saw was an intriguing premise made a good deal better by a killer twist and undone in subsequent sequels whilst I'm one of those people who feels that Insidious' strong build-up was undone by a batshit crazy third act. Insidious 2? Well, that was more a horror mash-up than a movie within its own right. 

Now in contrast to these films, The Conjuring feels like a horror film-maker at the top of his game, spinning out and subverting cliches to produce something really quite remarkable. It's based on the true story (though how true you think it is probably depends on your levels of scepticism) of the Perron family who experienced a series of disturbances at their home and called in paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to help. They quickly discover the house has been the location for plenty of nasty occurrences over the years and the source appears to be a witch who sacrificed herself to the Devil.

Watching this film in close proximity to Dark Skies filled me marginally with dread as I approached this viewing. Hackneyed haunted house stories are just so dull and I wasn't sure I could put up with another one. However, The Conjuring proved me wrong at every turn. The film builds the suspense slowly and carefully, establishing the family and their dynamics as well as those of the Warrens before anything spooky starts to happen. It's simple stuff really, but this early groundwork pays off because when everything does start to go south, there's an emotional bond with these characters. You understand their decisions and why they sometimes make silly ones like investigating the dodgy boarded-up cellar. 

Across the Wan films mentioned here, family is a key theme. In Insidious, it's the near loss of a son that unites them against the dark spirit trying to steal him away whilst in Saw, returning to family is one character's primary motivation for doing something really horrific to himself to escape. It crops up again in The Conjuring and whilst I won't go into too many details, it's the destruction of family that is the supernatural force's biggest threat, particularly related to the actions of the parents, and it is in their homes that they find themselves under attack. The performances here are exceptionally good, especially the maternal strength of Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga in their roles and the connections they have with Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson portraying their respective husbands. It's these relationships that carry the emotional core of the film and everything is that bit scarier because these people are so lovely.

I've spoken before about the concept of places and how to make them seem threatening. The family home is usually seen as a place of safety, which is why haunted house or home invasion narratives are often so chilling. Wan is particularly inventive in this respect, utilising the camera to disorientate the viewer and make the house seem completely unknowable. You fly through doorways, hang upside down on ceilings and crash through walls. In some scenes, it even feels as if you're allied with the supernatural beings themselves, so obscure is your viewpoint on the proceedings. It also helps to throw you off the scent; there are moments when something is kept in focus and you are absolutely sure something's about to make you jump and then... it doesn't. Wan cuts away and continues to ramp up the tension and when that scare comes, the payoff feels that much bigger.

And it's only the second film this month to pass the 'pause and make a cup of tea' test. And if that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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