For 40 long years every psychological horror movie produced, certainly any having to do with demonic possession, has been compared to one film: The Exorcist. Anyone who's experienced this film knows why. There's sincerely never been anything quite like William Friedkin's masterpiece released before or after it; it practically strangled you with terror, preying on not only the fears you knew you had but on those lodged deep within the darkest recesses of your mind. Its spare, unobtrusive direction, the kind of thing that would almost never fly today but which rose to gritty prominence in the 70s, made it seem all the more real and the sounds and pictures it left in the nation's collective unconscious are indelible and unsettling even to this day. They're now iconic. The image of the demon's face as a gruesome white death mask -- flashed on-screen only for a split-second and then brought back almost imperceptibly during the actual exorcism performed on Regan -- remains, to me, the single most frightening single shot ever shown on film. That thing still scares the hell out of me.
Unfortunately, no, The Conjuring isn't as scary as The Exorcist. Not by a long shot. But I will say this for it: It's one of the best scary movies I've seen in years, maybe even since the early 80s, when The Shining and Poltergeist gave me nightmares for months as a young boy. Director James Wan, who's been slowly making the transition from buckets-of-viscera torture porn -- Saw started that awful trend but should always be regarded as a very big and clever step above what came in its wake -- to good, old-fashioned ghost stories, is no auteur in the Friedkin or Kubrick vein. Still, he's a damn good technician as a filmmaker and his willingness to really let The Conjuring breathe and build tension to what's eventually a searingly chaotic climax deserves more than a little acclaim. Sure, you've seen a lot of the tropes in The Conjuring plenty of times and places before -- nothing new is really new anymore -- but rarely these days do you see them assembled this effectively. Wan tried to make a movie like this with Insidious and came oh-so-close to success; here, he just about hits the bullseye.
I wonder sometimes whether I'm capable of truly being scared by a movie anymore. Let's face it, you get older and real-life can deal you a hell of a lot of terrifying things on a daily basis -- I'm paid to pay attention to the ones that affect many people and I seem to be a magnet for ones that will affect only me -- so I can't say that I jumped out of my seat at any point during The Conjuring. I'm just not built that way anymore. But on several occasions I did find myself literally chilled. The simple scare tactics the movie employs -- from a doll that would've destroyed me as a kid in the same way the clown from Poltergeist did, to a simple pair of clapping hands that generates one of the best shocks in the movie -- really do work. What's more, the performances are believable, which means that you actually find yourself caring about the characters and their fate. Wan gives you an idea what they're all up against early in the film but reveals just how malevolent and powerful the entity is slowly and torturously until you really begin to feel like these mere mortals don't stand a chance against it, God on their side or not.
One of the reasons I haven't seen a scary movie in a theater in years -- gory yes, old-fashioned scary no -- is that I knew that nothing I saw would be very effective, especially once the unfortunate dawn of the PG-13 thriller set in. But to their credit, rather than fight the R-rating The Conjuring got from the MPAA, which had the potential to seriously hurt the film's box office take, the studio and producers ran with it and used it in the movie's promotion. Face it, there's no better way to sell a scary movie than to be able to say that it received a restricted rating despite almost no blood, no nudity, and no profanity -- that it got it for sheer terror alone. The question is, does the movie deserve that R-rating? Is there something about it that separates it from all the other supposed fright-fests that came before it recently? Actually, yeah, I think it does. The Conjuring has some truly disturbing sequences and its overall theme of a demon that tears a family apart through the threat of filicide definitely isn't for kids. Yes, kids will of course find a way to see it, but it's still an adult movie.
And that might be the best thing about it.
When I was a kid, it was the very adult horror films -- like The Exorcist -- that scared me half to death and that stay with me to this day. Maybe The Conjuring will be that for this generation's kids.