Original US release date: July 19, 2013
Production budget: $20,000,000
Worldwide gross: $318,000,141
Horror movies come and go at a brisk pace. They’re cheap enough to produce and popular enough as a genre that it’s harder to lose money on them than it is to make a profit. They typically don’t break box office records. They don’t finish in the top ten grossers of the year. They don’t win awards. But people like them. Oh, sure, during and after the movie, they pretend that they don’t. They pretend like they aren’t scared and they’re having a horrible time. And then there those people are, plunking down their money for the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
The Conjuring was a little different. Very few horror movies make over $150 million worldwide. This one broke out and scored over $300 million. Why? Two reasons: it was scary and it was a great film, independent of it being a great horror film.
For the unfamiliar, The Conjuring is based on one of the many true-life case files of renowned demonologists/paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. In this particular case, the Warrens are enlisted by Roger and Carolyn Perron to rid their family’s house of an increasingly aggressive supernatural presence. Along the way, the famed haunted doll Annabelle is dragged into the proceedings, but this is not Annabelle’s story; the Perrons and their infestation are at the heart of the matter in this tale.
Directed by James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) and written by Chad and Carey Hayes, The Conjuring instantly became a standout among modern horror films and a pop culture phenomenon. The film has so much going for it that it’s hard to even decide where to begin.
There are easy aspects to talk about, such as how genuinely frightening the film is. I don’t scare easily, but this film had me on the edge of my seat even after having seen it a number of times. Right from the opening Warner Brothers logo, Joseph Bishara’s haunting score – driven by heavy strings and disturbing minor keys – sets the tone and gets the proceedings off on the right foot. Wan has much horror movie experience and it shows. By the time he got around to The Conjuring, he was practically an established veteran of the horror genre and really had a strong grasp on what works and what doesn’t. His shot framing, timing, and choices regarding what to show and what not to show are all masterful. These components, alone, would be enough to make The Conjuring the best horror film since The Ring by a light year. But there’s so much more than the horror going for The Conjuring. There’s real meat to this film.
The biggest advantage that The Conjuring (and its sequel, the greatest horror sequel ever made) has over other films of its type is that it’s based on the real-life cases of the Warrens. But, by that, I don’t mean what you probably think I mean. Yes, being based in truth adds an extra spark to the narrative. It’s always fun after seeing a supposedly true horror film to hit the Internet and begin the research. What was changed? How much is documented and how much is exaggerated for the purpose of making an exciting movie? For what it’s worth, Lorraine Warren has stated that the film sticks pretty close to the actual proceedings. What one believes is up to them, but I’ve had my own supernatural experiences, once or twice, so I’m not about to pretend that I have the right or the ego to call her a liar (Ed has unfortunately passed away). But there have been quite a few horror films that have purportedly told true stories. That’s not what sets The Conjuring apart.
No, The Conjuring gets a boost specifically because of the source of the story – the files of the Warrens. Because the Warrens’ accounts are so instrumental in the making of the film, their perspective is the focal point. Typically, horror films are told exclusively through the eyes of the victims. Said victims then call in the professional help, who are sometimes useful and other times, not. Either way, the professionals are most often presented as one-dimensional figures who do nothing in life but bust ghosts.
The Conjuring spends as much time developing the Warrens as it does developing the Perrons. We see Ed and Lorraine as fully fleshed-out human beings. They joke. They flirt. They fix cars. They wash clothes. They love their daughter. And they happen to have the unique ability to help people with very niche problems. They don’t live for this. They do this because they have the ability to do it, whereas virtually no one else does. They have the power to help, therefore they assume the responsibility to do so.
In fact, I see the Warrens as a real-life pair of superheroes. They gain nothing from their services. They don’t charge a fee; there’s no financial benefit. They put themselves in harm’s way in pitched battles with other super-powered beings. They act selflessly – with great power comes great responsibility. The Warrens stand for everything that Spider-Man, Captain America, or Superman stands for. The only things they lack that traditional superheroes have are codenames.
Completing the package are Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Ed and Lorraine are the greatest roles of both of their distinguished, highly-regarded careers. Without Wilson and Farmiga, none of it clicks. They both bring heart, warmth, and charm to the picture, ensuring that the viewer is as concerned for them as for the Perrons – if not more so. They aren’t kooky investigators; they’re real people, consummate professionals, who are putting everything at stake in the service of others.
Lily Taylor deserves a mention, as well, for what she brings to the role of Carolyn Perron. She has a casual way about her, shining in the small, normal moments, and then exploding with nearly-concussive force when the climax arrives. The entire cast is at the top of their game, but Wilson, Farmiga, and Taylor carry the picture.
I keep saying this and I’m going to say it again in order to ensure that I’m driving my point home: The Conjuring is a great film that just so happens to also fall within the horror genre. Those who like to be scared get plenty of opportunity, but the movie is about family, friends, and caring for your neighbor. It’s about good versus evil. And it’s about facing one’s fears in order to overcome them. And the film holds up, viewing after viewing. I stand by my claim that it’s one of the three greatest horror films ever made, along with the aforementioned The Ring and The Conjuring‘s own sequel The Conjuring 2. If every movie focused on the foundations of filmmaking – the basic tenets – first and then the icing, second, what a world this would be. But, until then, we’ll always have The Conjuring.
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