“THE HORROR RENAISSANCE”
Entering this new millennia, the horror genre has ironically always been lurking in the shadows of the film industry. Only a handful of horror hits have floated to the surface that is the mainstream’s conscious such as 28 Days Later (2002), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), and The Others (2001). This was all about to change when an Australian filmmaker by the name of James Wan blazed his way into Hollywood with Saw (2004). PCR has coined the phrase “The Horror Renaissance” as the era in which the genre has been pushed back to the forefront of pop culture. This “renaissance” was spearheaded by Wan, who made himself a household name with the modern horror masterpiece that is The Conjuring (2013), and it is our 30th pick for #PCRsHalloweenCountdown.
On the surface, the plot of The Conjuring certainly isn’t unique or game-changing. In fact, it’s been done countless times, and it is one of the more over-used plots in the genre. It’s only once the audience actually dives into the film that the uniqueness and special aspects are realized, making it a modern horror classic.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE: ANNABELLE
Wan wastes no time subjecting the audience to the terror. He opens the film with a close-up of the infamous Annabelle doll, as a woman talks about how “it” all started. As the camera zooms out to reveal the entirety of the horrifying Annabelle doll, it’s evident that its source is footage from an interview of Ed and Lorraine’s case studies. Wan sets in motion a series of flashbacks as the escalation of the supposed paranormal activity, with the fear factor ramping up considerably with every scene. What makes the flashbacks so effective is that the audience is eased into the paranormal by starting with scenes that are scary, but could also be easily explained and thus debunked. The effect of this method results in audiences subconsciously lowering their guards. But as the scenes become more intense, Wan reminds his audience that the threat is imminent and the horrors are only beginning.
In one particular scene, the women wake up to a loud knocking on their front door. One of the women bends down to pick up a piece of paper with the words “Miss me?” scribbled in a child-like handwriting. Following, there’s a loud bang on a door from within the apartment. The score crescendos which signals to the audience to raise their guard because the climax of the scene is about to arrive. The roommate opens the door, and Wan wisely chooses to keep the camera on the woman’s reaction as opposed to what she’s reacting to. However, a cut back to a shot of Annabelle in the interview room allows the audience to fill in the gaps as to what the woman was reacting to.
It’s these types of sequences for which PCR praises James Wan. His ability to perfect the structure and editing of a horror sequence to maximize terror and tension is second to none. The five minute opening sequence serves as a type of base format that’ll be used for the central plot, but on a much larger scale. On the surface, this seems like a “safe” and formulaic way to structure a horror film; however, it sets the tone for the rest of the film and reveals to audiences that Wan’s strategy is one worthy of recognition.
ACT I: THE PERRONS
The opening crawl lays the groundwork for the main plot of the film and also gives a brief history of two paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Wan’s opted use of the opening crawl feels like an ode to “classic” cinema, and it is his way of saying that this film is very much a classic horror story for modern times. The audience is introduced to the Warren’s next case, and as the opening crawl implies, their most horrific and malevolent one. The camera slowly moves towards the window and a car driving up towards the house is shown. In retrospect, this opening shot alone is spine-chilling as it could be interpreted as someone, or something, awakening and preparing for the arrival of its next victims.
A family of seven exit their car, and Wan uses a continuous tracking shot following one of the Perron children wandering through the house. Simultaneously, “hide and clap,” which is a fusion of hide-and-seek and marco polo, is introduced. The game leads to the discovery of a boarded-up cellar which immediately gives off a dark and eerie vibe. Just like the Annabelle case, the paranormal events start off small and relatively explainable- clocks stopping at 3:07 a.m., weird odors within the house, and bruises on the mother’s leg. This escalates quickly as the family dog, who completely refused to enter the house, is found dead outside. This is incredibly distressing and heartbreaking, though logically explainable, as the dog could’ve easily died from being out in the cold all night.
ACT I, CONT: THE WARRENS
One by one, the paranormal activity is showcased throughout the film, while the audience gains more insight into the life of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed is showing an investigator the infamous room filled to the brim with paranormal paraphernalia. The conversation between Ed and the investigator reveals that the Warrens had previously been involved in an exorcism that went “wrong” for Lorraine. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are great in this film, and their portrayal of the Warrens helps to elevate the film to another level. Throughout, Wan places emphasis on the fact that both the Warrens and the Perrons are a very loving and warm family. Thanks to the chemistry between the cast members, the acting is tremendous, and it has become a staple element within the main Conjuring films.
ACT II: ENTER THE UNKNOWN
The paranormal events begin to intensify in this second act and become much harder to logically explain. For instance, the mother witnessed all of the family photos on the wall dropping one after the other. There is constant sound of children’s laughter echoing through the hallways despite the Perron children being fast asleep. And while the mother is exploring the basement, the light bulbs burst, and the door locks her in. Each scene leads to scares that are incredibly innovative, and they take full advantage of audiences’ innate fear of the darkness and unknown. The hide and clap game takes center stage when the mother, Carolyn Perron, is locked down the basement, and the fact that the only light source coming from the scene is the matchstick certainly doesn’t help to alleviate any concerns. A period of silence when Carolyn is staring into the darkness is quickly followed by two hands reaching out and clapping next to her ears. This is James Wan at his peak, when he takes advantage of every aspect of film at his disposal to maximize the horror.
While Carolyn is being tormented by these unknown entities, upstairs the siblings are being taunted by something else. One of the siblings wakes up to see her younger sister sleep-walking and bumping into the wardrobe repeatedly. Upon inspection, she finds nothing in the wardrobe. However, as she turns around, she sees her little sister awake and staring in complete fear at something above the wardrobe. It is in this scene that the fear factor becomes an all-time high for audiences, and James capitalizes on that by making the entity finally reveal its corporeal form.
Having had enough of being helpless and unable to shelter her children from the paranormal, Carolyn Perron seeks out Ed and Lorraine’s help. Finally, Wan aligns all of the pieces on the board, leading to some great scenes in which Ed and Lorraine explore the Perron household. The presence of these renowned paranormal investigators instantly provide a sense of safety for both the Perron family, and also the viewers, as Wan sets up the Warrens as individuals who are extremely knowledgeable in this field.
Upon thorough investigation of the household coupled with Lorraine’s horrifying visions of past events that transpired within the farmhouse, the Warrens agree to help the Perrons. Vera Farmiga is the absolute standout in this film as she portrays Lorraine to be a complex and extremely gifted individual who’s at constant war with her haunting history. The Conjuring honestly wouldn’t be the film that it is if it wasn’t for the brilliant cast.
The Warrens find out that the household had previously belonged to an accused witch by the name of Bathsheba who was an alleged relative of one of the victims of the Salem Witch executions. Finally being introduced to the origins of the entity tormenting the Perrons gives the audience a sense of relief, as we’re now expecting the Warrens to handle the threat with ease. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as Lorraine is still mentally and spiritually exhausted from her previous investigations, and the Warren’s idea to perform an exorcism on the house must be authorized by the Catholic Church, which would require further credible proof. And thus, the Warrens set out to gather this evidence for the Church by setting up cameras and bells throughout the household, leading to some intensely spooky sequences.
Eventually, the Warrens discover that there’s a secret crawlspace hidden behind the wardrobe inside the bedroom where Bathsheba revealed herself to the two Perron children. This is arguably one of the most terrifying sequences out of the entire film when Lorraine falls through a hole in the crawlspace down into the cellar. Wan’s ability to prolong the climactic scenes and also keep the audience engaged is quite a sight to behold, as it feels like Lorraine is trapped for an eternity. After an indisputable physical paranormal encounter involving one of the Perron children, the family all pack up and move to a motel while the Warrens try to authorize an exorcism.
ACT III: BATHSHEBA UNVEILED
The third and final act of The Conjuring is one of the most satisfying third acts from any recent horror movie, as Wan pulls together all of the film’s strongest elements and amplifies them tenfold. Lorraine reveals that the bruises on Carolyn’s body are the result of the Witch feeding on her, making her weaker and susceptible to possession. Her goal is to possess the mothers of families and force them to kill their own children just as she did initially when she sacrificed her week-old child to the devil. What makes Bathsheba such a compelling antagonist is that she is the complete antithesis to both Lorraine and Carolyn’s presence in the film. As stated before, all throughout this film, Wan places emphasis on motherhood and the sacred bond between a mother and her children. To have Bathsheba represent this total thematic opposite and torment the Warren and Perron family through their children creates a new form of terror for our characters, especially considering that she can literally force the mothers to commit these heinous acts.
Once she possesses Carolyn and forces her to kidnap her own child to act as a human sacrifice, Ed decides that an exorcism is required – with or without the Church’s authorization. However, the problem remains that there isn’t an exorcist at hand to perform it. Ed then makes the risky decision to perform the exorcism himself as Carolyn/Bathsheba is tied and blindfolded to a chair. The tension in this sequence is palpable, as it is revealed that the last time the Warren’s attempted an exorcism, it had a lasting negative effect on Lorraine’s psyche. The Witch senses Ed’s uncertainty and amateurism in performing the exorcism and taunts everyone by defying the laws of physics and making the chair float upside down with Carolyn still trapped in it. The themes of motherhood take center stage in the climax of the film, as Lorraine realizes that the only way to force Bathsheba out of Carolyn’s body is to overwhelm Carolyn’s body with emotions and memories of her family. After an emotionally powerful flashback, Carolyn, Ed and Lorraine are able to totally remove Bathsheba from Carolyn’s body and also from existence.
Wan takes us back to the infamous paranormal artifacts room in the Warren household, as Ed returns to add another item to the room, the wind-up toy that was found in the Perron household. As he leaves the room, the final shot lingers on the wind-up toy, which mysteriously starts to wind itself up.
THE LASTING IMPACT OF THE CONJURING
James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) is an instant horror classic. By understanding what truly makes the horror genre so iconic, Wan employs every element at his disposal and crafts a film that will be talked about for decades to come. Its critical and commercial success has led to the birth of the first horror cinematic universe in fifty-three years. With the third Annabelle film currently shooting and the third Conjuring film slated to begin production soon, this universe is showing no signs of slowing down. As a huge fan of the Conjuring-verse, PCR hopes that the Conjuring films never run out of steam because deep down, it has reignited the general audience’s love for horror.