Directed by James Wan, 2013's The Conjuring did pretty serious business at the box office and was actually given an R-rating despite the absence of any real gore or adult language and a complete absence of sex. Wan might be best known for Saw but as his filmmaking style has evolved over the years, he's started showing a knack for more atmospheric work and with this film, well, he nails it. The Conjuring is pretty scary stuff.
The story is set in the early seventies and it follows the Perron family, led by father Roger (Ron Livingston) and mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor). Together they have five daughters: Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) and April (Kyla Deaver) and the whole crew have just moved into an old farm house in rural Rhode Island. Things are fine at first but not long after moving in, Carolyn starts to wonder if they're not alone. Things seem off in the house and there definitely seems to be some sort of presence that is less than thrilled with their having taken ownership of the place. Carolyn is hearing voices of children around the house, their dog winds up dead and something seems to be targeting Nancy specifically.
Carolyn is, understandably, quite freaked out. To try and figure out just what exactly is happening to her family she enlists the aid of Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), two demonologists. It doesn't take them long to confirm that, yes, there are spirits here and they tie into the house's violent past which stems all the way back to the death of an accused witch who hanged herself on the grounds over a century ago. As Ed and Lorraine try to do the right thing by the Perron family, their lives begin to merge as they attempt to uncover the truth behind the hauntings and hopefully find a way to put an end to the activity.
Based on a true story documented by the Warrens (who were a real life paranormal investigator duo long before shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures were on the air), The Conjuring may not necessarily offer anything that seasoned horror fans haven't seen before, but it does a damn fine job of ramping up the tension and the scares that it's deceptively simply haunted house story can offer. At times it feels a little bit like The Haunting with maybe a bit of The Amityville Horror (another real life case which the Warrens were involved in) and The Exorcist thrown in, but even if it is a bit on the derivative side Wan does such a great job sucking us into the story that most won't mind if things are a little familiar now and then. The principal way in which Wan is able to accomplish this is by crafting some likeable characters.
Lili Taylor is great as the concerned mother. She's believable in the role not only in her worries about the safety and sanity of her children but also in how she expresses terror once she begins to experience these things herself. Her interaction with Ron Livingston as her husband is a bit underplayed but they make a good duo. Additionally, the five young actresses who play the Perron girls are also quite good. The real stars of the show, however, are Wilson and Farmiga as the Warrens. They successfully bring a nobility and conviction to their characters that make them not only fascinating to watch but completely bankable even if their beliefs are obviously going to seem questionable to skeptics. There's a scene in the movie where Ed is concerned about the effects that all of this is having on his wife and she insists they continue regardless because according to their faith and belief system, it's the right thing to do. Here we have the right mix of the genuine love and affection that should be evident between a married couple and a commitment to cause, the kind that makes stories like this succeed in the first place. Wilson and Farmiga shine here, you never once get the impression that they feel this material is beneath them and they fully invest themselves in doing their part to craft a really successful horror movie. The genre sometimes gets a bad rap and can be written off as a playground for check cashers and ‘has been' types but these two are into it and the movie is all the better for it. The acting in this movie is excellent across the board.
Adding to all of this is some excellent photography and a perfect location. The Perron house seems warm enough at first but as the activity within takes on a decidedly darker tone, it quickly evolves into a web of shadows and proves to be a wickedly appropriate playground for the forces that plague the family. Excellent use is made of shadow and light and while, yes, we do get a few quick reveal type jump scares we just as often get that beautiful slow burn, that increasing sense of impending dread in that you know something is coming, you know it's going to freak you out and yet you cannot look away. There's no overdose of CGI here, no heavy gore, just great filmmaking and very strong performances put together with a clever eye for composition and flow. The Conjuring is a great movie by any standard. Believe the hype.
The Conjuring arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.40.1 widescreen and all in all it looks excellent. The movie is obviously intended to have taken place in the seventies and the color palette and shooting style used while making this film replicate that effect quite nicely. Shot on digital video there are no problems with print damage whatsoever, while detail tends to be fantastic throughout. The close-up shots show very accurate looking skin tones, no waxiness at all, and you can note individual pores or strands of stubble. Texture is great, you can pick out spots in a coating of dust on a piece of furniture where something brushed up against it and left a trail and you can note the fibers in articles of clothing too. With much of this movie taking place indoors and in low light, it's refreshing to see shadow detail look as good as it does here, there weren't any noticeable instances of obvious compression artifacts and only some really minor rush to note. This is, by any standard, an excellent transfer.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc is reference quality stuff. Bass response is strong and tight and used very well here, the low end of the mix springing to life when called for but never overpowering anything. Directional effects are frequent, even when they're sometimes subtle, and this helps a lot to really build some great atmosphere and tension. Dialogue remains crystal clear, even when a character whispers you'll have no trouble understanding things, and the various actors' voices have good weight and presence to them. This is great stuff, it's aggressive when it needs to be but just as often the rears are used for ambient and background effects to help put you in the house with the characters. Clever use of directional effects helps to make the film even more frightening than it would have been otherwise. Optional Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks are provided in French, Spanish and Portuguese and removable subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
For a movie that did as well as it did at the box office, The Conjuring feels a little light in the extras department, but there are a few bits here worth seeing, the best of which is the sixteen minute featurette A Life In Demonology. Here we learn about the real life cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren and are privy to some great archival photographs. Director James Wan shows up to offer his thoughts on their work but the real treat is to hear things firsthand from Lorraine Warren herself. She's quite open about the work that she and her husband did and isn't camera shy in the least as she talks about the museum of occult and possessed items that is still maintained and which was culled from their experiences. It's interesting stuff and could easily have been much, much longer than it is.
Also found on the disc is a seven minute piece called The Conjuring: Face To Face With Terror which is an interview with the Perron's (Roger, Carolyn, Nancy, Andrea, April, Cindy and Christine to be precise) who talks about what they went through when they all lived in the farmhouse where these experiences took place. Lorraine Warren also chimes in here and shares some details of their investigation. Again, this is very interesting and could have been much longer. Last but not least is the eight minute Scaring The '@$*%' Out Of You featurette which is a quick rundown of how to best get a reaction from an audience watching a horror movie and how James Wan is able to very effectively exploit many of the traits that can so often make for a good horror picture.
As this is a combo pack release, inside the Blu-ray case you'll also find a DVD copy of the movie with the same extras and a download code for a digital copy. The case comes housed in a neat lenticular slipcase cover that, when you wiggle it the right way, recreates the clap/candle scene. A nice touch.
The Conjuring is every bit as good as its reputation would have you believe, it's a really well made picture with loads of atmosphere, some fantastic scares and some consistently good performances. The extras on the disc could and should have been more extensive but that's really the only complaint that can levied at Warner's efforts here. The picture quality is excellent and the audio pretty much flawless. Combine that with the strengths of the movie and this release easily comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.