Inevitably, "the first movie ever rated R just because it's so damn scary" creates expectations that cannot be met, not by The Conjuring, probably not by anything. In fact - allowing that "scary" is the only thing even more personal and subjective than "funny" - I don't even suppose that The Conjuring is the scariest movie about demonic possession directed by James Wan; I was certainly freaked out more by his PG-13 Insidious, anyway. So now that part of the review is out of the way.

But just because The Conjuring isn't, perhaps, the scariest horror movie made in the last decade (though it undoubtedly deserves a spot in the conversation), that doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't have a good claim on an even better title: it's one of the best horror movies of the last decade, mechanically, structurally, and even in the story it tells, which ends up being a surprisingly intelligent exploration of interpersonal behavior for a film whose aims are so unfussy and low-brow. This wants to be nothing but a ghost story: to give you the shivers and creep you out, maybe to make you jump a couple of times. Wan and his screenwriters, twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, are not even a little bit interested in fixing things that aren't broken, and it is notable about The Conjuring that it follows, exactly, every little detail of haunted house movies as they have become ossified in the post J-horror age, ones as shitty and bland and disinteresing as The Messengers all the way up to ones as... actually, they've almost all been shitty, bland, and disinteresting lately. Which is what makes it profoundly cool that The Conjuring, using all of the exact same tools as The Unborn or Sinister or whatever (and that's not to say that the okay-not-special Sinister and the savagely bad Unborn are on the same plane of cinematic existence), is able to be so much more than any of them are, up to and including a third act that, for no apparent reason, is good.

By which I mean, as any horror follower knows - certainly, anybody who saw and loved the first deliciously spooky first hour of Insidious knows with particular intensity - paranormal movies have a much harder time than almost any other breed of horror at sticking the landing. The reason why is easy enough to understand: they thrive on the inexplicable and the unpredictable, the sense of genuinely, fearfully not knowing what's making those noises in the damp basement. The second that the wizened old spiritualist drops in and sees visions of the dead girl, or the crusty old townie reminisces about that creepy old lady who used to sing to her dead son in the woods out back, the threat becomes known, and contained, and domesticated - domestication murders horror. Horror is, by its nature, the violation of domestication. One of the reasons that all of the very scariest horror movies, which for me would include such things as The Haunting, The Shining, and Paranormal Activity, end up working is that they keep piling up the inexplicable until they end, or not even then - what is up with the Overlook Hotel anyway (in the movie, at least)? Resolution and explanation don't happen until the last few minutes, or not at all, and the experience remains uncheapened.

What makes The Conjuring amazing and wonderful and worthy of some kind of overwrought hype, if maybe not the exact hype it has received, is that it maintains its tension and mood and atmosphere and everything, without having to pull a Haunting. Which, to be very clear, is a movie it apes skillfully and rewardingly, in its balls-out use of sound effects to drive most of that atmosphere, rather than a nonstop string of jump scares (there are, indeed only a handful of real honest-to-God jump scares in the film, and one of them, dear reader, got me so good that I yelped. Right there in the movie theater, I yelped). In fact, The Conjuring plays its "hey, we've identified the angry poltergeist" card right where every other movie with the same structure does: long after the little girl is speaking to the imaginary friend that seems unusually specific, shortly after the mother has an experience that she cannot begin to explain that terrified the shit out of her, and a little bit before the noisy-ass scene where a character is thrown around the room as lightbulbs explode. It's that formulaic: you could set your watch by it.

And yet, the explanation is made, the ghost is identified, and The Conjuring doesn't drop even an inch in being as scary and creepy as it was before - which, to be fair, might mean that it goes from "not at all scary" to "still not at all scary": fear is subjective. I can't name another movie, definitely not another movie made in the 21st Century, that navigates that turn so smoothly and effectively and satisfyingly, and I frankly don't know how it works. I guess James Wan is just that good at controlling mood and making it clear that just because the threat has been identified, that doesn't mean it's no longer threatening. Such a magnificent evolution that man has made in the nine years since his feature debut, Saw! The best film of its franchise, sure, but still a grubby, unappealing piece of aimless nastiness. Better yet, his second feature, Dead Silence, for which The Conjuring frankly feels like an apology at times, as though he understood why each element of DS went wrong, and knew how to fix it, and did so.

Anyway, I haven't said a word about the plot, and we're almost a thousand words in. Based on a previously undisclosed file from the case histories of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the famous paranormal investigators whose fame and reputation resides largely on their validation of the story behind The Amityville Horror - one of the most thoroughly discredited "true haunting" stories of the 20th Century, which tells you all you need to know about Ed and Lorraine's skill - The Conjuring tells of the events that befell a Rhode Island family in 1971: Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) and husband Roger (Ron Livingston) have just sunk the last of their money into an old house, moving their five daughters in and hoping against hope they can make this all work somehow. It very quickly becomes obvious that they cannot, when littlest child April (Kyla Deaver) starts to talk about her new little friend, when second-littlest child Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) starts up with particularly creepy sleepwalking, and everybody is noticing inexplicable things going wrong. So Carolyn finds the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) giving a lecture in Massachusetts, and begs them to help her out. What the find unnerves them badly, particularly with the psychic Lorraine still weakened from a particularly nasty haunting a few months earlier. Badly enough that they want nothing to do with the Perrons; badly enough that they must help the family, or else tragedy is surely a matter of "when" not "if" and "when" is almost certainly "fucking soon".

The Conjuring is not an Ibsen play, and its characters are not the richest, deepest, most intriguing you could hope for. But Wilson, Farmiga, and Taylor, at least, is a lot of talent for one junky horror movie: you can imagine one of them in shlock, sure, but all three together promise something a bit more nuanced than just another damn haunted house and raging dead witch-ghost. And then there's Joey King, who has officially become my favorite under-16 actress in America, as the middle Perron child, and we've got here a cast of legitimate characters played by legitimate actors, and if its theme of the fragility of motherhood isn't quite as vigorously, impressively explored as in the thematically adjacent The Descent, the mere fact that we've got a movie about a meanspirited demon in which there's even a whisper of that kind of psychological shading is far more than I'd expected or hoped for out of a movie whose big calling card was "clapping hands emerging from darkness is hella scary".

Which they are, and it turns out the film's best scene was spoiled in that exquisite trailer, though its second- and third- and fourth- best scenes are nearly as good. Which is all to say: the film might not be as scary as promised, but it is scary, and even when it is not scary, it's telling a richly creepy, beautifully filmed (John R. Leonetti's shadow-tinged cinematography is exemplary, creating a totally unrealistic but effective mood), astonoundingly competent story of the old "sitting around the campfire, trying to scare the shit out of your little sister" mode. I have no little sister, but if I had, I would be proud to force her to watch The Conjuring, which really couldn't be a more perfect version of the thing that it is; it does not push boundaries but does excellent work within the boundaries that others have established, and it's honestly hard for me to imagine what more you could expect or want from a ghost story: it creeps, it crawls, it sneaks up on you and goes "boo!", all without missing a beat or running out of steam, and it does all of this in the most delightful way ever.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)
Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman, 2019)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Chaves, 2021)