Every year there seems to be a horror movie that gets released to moderate to high acclaim in the middle of the Halloween season, and try as I might to see it, I end up being too busy to do so before Halloween is over. Then, even if it comes out on video before the end of the year, I’m in no mood for horror.
I know I’m the weird one here. I know most people – if they can stomach horror movies at all – can watch them at pretty much any time of year. But as you may well realize, Halloween is sacred to me, and horror movies are such a large component I am compelled to keep them in a Summer-Autumn box. February is normally way out of season for horror in my life, but I needed to see The Conjuring. Too many people have told me as much.
So I shifted my brain into that gear, with some difficulty, to sit down and take in a ghost story. Or should I say, a demon story? Simple ghosts don’t cut it in the twenty-tens. They’re nothing but lingering spirits of people. They’re normally restricted to one dwelling, and they may not even be malevolent. But demons – look out. They haunt people. They latch on and won’t quit until they’ve taken someone. And moving to a new home won’t help, as this and most other modern ghost stories are all too keen to point out.
It should be noted that The Conjuring shares DNA with several recent films about ghosts or demons. There are notable similarities with Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister. If you’ve seen those movies, you will find all the beats familiar. You have a couple of white people. You have an uncommonly large, old, rural home. Children who are totally unfazed by carrying conversations with invisible people. Paranormal “experts” in way over their heads. And of course, a demonic presence.
What’s good about The Conjuring isn’t that it does anything new or innovative, but that it takes special care to avoid most of the common pitfalls of modern horror movies. There is a difference between tropes and clichés, and where The Conjuring is loaded with tropes, it mostly steers clear of cliché. For example, there are lots of doors opening and closing by themselves, but at no point does any character verrrrrrry sloowwwwwwwly reach out to open one while the music swells. There is a scene where a child nervously looks under the bed only to find nothing there, but doesn’t come back up to find the monster RIGHT BEHIND HER. And – I’m exceptionally grateful for this – there is no fourth wall-breaking final jump scare right before the credits. That The Conjuring somehow managed to avoid putting in that ubiquitous cliché might be the smartest thing about it.
The movie competently escalates the terror. It’s not as gradual as something like Paranormal Activity, but it’s paced well enough. There are jump scares, because of course there are, but they’re earned. They don’t assault you with musical stings just to get your heart racing. Certain reveals come completely out of nowhere and are more aggressive than you expect. And it’s always nice to see that Poltergeist routine in a movie like this – when people accept the presence of supernatural forces and take necessary and logical steps to document and combat the threat, rather than seeking no outside help, wandering around in the middle of the night alone, and otherwise behaving in a way that does half the ghosts’ job for them.
The absolute toughest part of any horror movie to get right – and the part most likely to spoil the entire movie – is the ending. I won’t give anything away here, but I’ll say that the ending doesn’t ruin the film, even if it is a bit anti-climactic. The movie tees you up with a lot of character details and doesn’t resolve all of them. It does a great job of moving all the chess pieces into place, but then kind of takes the King in a single move. It left me wanting a bit more, but I was very grateful that the biggest horror pitfall of them all was avoided – showing too much of the monster. They reveal just enough without ever lingering. Mama could have benefited severely from that mindset.
I give it a recommend. It won’t change your world, but if you’ve got a soft spot for haunted house movies as I do, this one is thoroughly competent and occasionally very unsettling.