I feel bad for The Conjuring, simply because it's arrived at what is hopefully the tail-end of the current "haunting" cycle that the horror genre has been wallowing in ever since the first two Paranormal Activity films did ungodly amounts of business. The over-saturation of these films can unfortunately detract you from all the ways The Conjuring does the genre extremely well. It doesn't help that director James Wan's previous effort, Insidious, shares enough story elements with The Conjuring that it's easy to call the film derivative. However, if the comparison must be made, Insidious is the dark fantasy version of the tale and The Conjuring is the more classical and "real" take on the material. That probably has a lot to do with the film's basis on a purportedly true event from the case files of notable paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. And while Insidious might be more fun in an "amusement park haunted house" sort of way, The Conjuring is definitely the creepier and more effective of the two, for the most part.
The story is as old hat as you can get: The Perron family (headed by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) move into a new house with their five daughters and spooky stuff starts happening pretty quickly. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) come investigate and begin to realize that what they are dealing with is one nasty entity, aided by some other spirits that are trapped in the house as well.
Lots of people will probably hate on the movie because of its lack of originality where the plot is concerned, but that's not an issue for me when it comes to the horror genre. It's all about how you take a classic concept and uniquely execute it, and as far as haunting flicks go, The Conjuring is a solid entry. With this film, James Wan has proven himself to be an expert craftsman when it comes to composition. The movie treats itself like an A-list effort in terms of visual execution, and that speaks volumes about the man at the helm. James Wan is definitely one or two movies away from manufacturing a true horror classic (sorry, but Saw doesn't count. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments!). The Conjuring gets so close to being that, until the very end (which I'll discuss later in as non-spoilery a fashion as I always do).
Still, that doesn't discredit the rest of the film, which is damn near perfect when it comes to evoking chills. While you get your necessary jump scares, that's not what the movie is predicated upon. The really effective stuff is all imagery and tension, and makes up the real substance behind the scares. There's a conscious effort to ground the terror in a plausible reality that lots of other recent forays into the haunting sub-genre just couldn't muster. A lot of that realism comes from the great cast, who all give a really naturalistic feel to their portrayals. I get the feeling that the actors involved really wanted to do justice to the actual people their characters were based on, and that gives the film sincerity and weight, something lacking in most horror films lately. While no one gives any kind of breakout performance, everyone feels committed and that's all you really need.
The star of the film though really is James Wan and his superb direction. This is one of the most refined horror films I've seen in a while, and a lot of that comes from Wan's awareness of the decade the film takes place in. I'd love to visit the alternate universe where The Conjuring was made and released shortly after the events allegedly occurred, because I'm sure there would be some similarities in the filmmaking style. Wan obviously went out of his way to capture visual elements of 1970's horror films (most notably The Exorcist) and give them a twenty-first century update. This aesthetic sensibility gives the film an aura of class that (excluding Rob Zombie's recent The Lords of Salem) has been sorely missing in mainstream horror releases of late. I sincerely hope the success of The Conjuring ushers in a wave of films that treat their horror stories with the same A-list sensibility seen here.
Another noteworthy aspect of the film is its pacing. Some may complain that the movie starts out slow, but it's exactly the right kind of slow. We get to spend time with the Perron's and get a real feel for how they interact as a family, and it does a good job of making us sympathize with their plight. There's also a very measured sense of escalation in regards to the scares and ghostly goings-on. You never feel like the best bit was earlier in the film. The creepiness is revealed at a very patient but practiced speed, which only makes the film feel even more refined.
Unfortunately, all of that doesn't absolve The Conjuring of its biggest flaw: the climax. Everything prior to the final showdown is eerie and unsettling and presented in a masterful fashion. The finale, however, wears its Exorcist influence on its sleeve, and the way things are resolved is not only anti-climactic but bizarrely cheesy for a movie that has treated its subject matter with such seriousness up until then. The last little chase scene also feels rushed and not as well-constructed as everything else in the film. To be fair, the effects that take place at the end are cool to see, but it's a variation on a theme that just can't separate itself into being something uniquely engaging. It certainly doesn't invalidate everything that came before it, but it does leave you wanting something less derivative and certainly scarier.
But, even with a slightly disappointing climax, The Conjuring manages to be extremely satisfying and well worth a night out at the theater. The majority of the film is absolutely top notch, not just as a horror movie, but as a film in general. It's filled with a dedicated cast, loads of atmosphere and superbly constructed spookiness. Whether the events on-screen are true or not, the authentic attitude the film exudes will make you a believer for its running time. If The Conjuring is any indication of the direction the horror genre is headed, I'm extremely hopeful for the future.
Note: This doesn't have much to do with the review, but there has been a lot of discussion about the R-rating this film has received, considering there is no nudity, on-screen sex, extreme cursing (I think the worst swear spoken is 'shit') or even gore (there is blood but it's incredibly minimal and definitely not something I'd consider graphic). I can see two sides to this: 1) It's yet another showcase of what an unfunny joke the MPAA rating system is. 2) Even though it may not "deserve" an R-rating, it might have been a marketing decision since PG-13 horror usually has a harder time attracting viewers, since people often view non-R horror releases as "tame." I think it's probably a combination of these two, and in the end, I don't think the rating should really matter. Watch the film and form your own opinions and moral guidelines.