Director James Wan’s latest film The Conjuring is terrifying audiences across the pond. It has won both critical acclaim and box office, with many dubbing it the horror event of the year. Now it has opened in the UK, I’ve had a chance to see what all the fuss is about. On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed.
Regular readers will know I am a staunch defender of horror films as having tremendous potential for creative evangelism. I have stated this position numerous times to Christians who dismiss the entire genre as ungodly. The Conjuring provides yet more evidence in favour of my argument. It is a thrillingly scary haunted house pic with a full-on Christian worldview that all but states: There is a God. There is a Devil. Pick sides. In a way, it is the cinematic equivalent of a hellfire sermon.
The plot is apparently based on a true story, but as usual these things are best taken with a sack of salt. Real life Catholic paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, here portrayed by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, investigate one of their most notorious cases – a haunting in Rhode Island that was supposedly so disturbing that they’ve kept the story under lock and key until now. To say too much more will spoil the twists and turns of this armchair gripping, stomach-in-knots scare ride.
It is great to finally see Vera Farmiga in a well deserved lead role after her supporting parts in films like Source Code and Up in the Air. Both she and Wilson really come across well as the Warrens, and it’s wonderful to see such a sympathetic portrayal of what could easily have degenerated into parody. The supporting cast playing the terrorised family – including Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston – also contribute fine turns, but it is unquestionably Farmiga who dominates proceedings.
This is James Wan’s best film to date. His use of sound in particular is extremely clever, and whilst he does employ every cliché in the book – including behind-you moments and jumps – they are orchestrated with flair and are very effective. Wan understands that in a film of this nature extreme gore makes things less scary not more, so the restraint shown is admirable. Additionally there is no sex or excessive bad language to artificially spice things up, just a great deal of what the BFFC calls “strong horror”. In the US, it was strong enough to be given an R rating on scares alone.
Some Christian audiences will moan about the theology, which in fairness is all over the place. Personally I don’t think that matters one iota. For one thing, this is a story not a theological teaching. Furthermore, the purpose of a scary movie with an unapologetic Christian worldview is to get the audience to consider that if demonic activity is real then God is also real. As I left the cinema I overheard many conversations to that effect, with some even saying to their friends “I must ask so-and-so about that, he’s a Christian”. Bottom line: as a means of getting people to think about spiritual matters, the film succeeded.
The other reason some Christians will remain unconvinced is because of a sadly widespread belief that the entire horror genre is inherently evil. Yes, obviously in a film like this the power of evil is (rightly) exaggerated for dramatic effect. But the all-horror-films-are-bad mantra is a case of people making a theology out of personal preference. Some people Christian or otherwise simply don’t like to watch scary movies, which is completely fair enough. This film is not for them. But I see nothing wrong with enjoying the macabre mechanics of a well told scary story, especially one made from a Christian perspective that effectively treats the horror audience as a mission field rather than a subculture to be shunned.
Ultimately The Conjuring is a well above average entry in the genre. It draws favourable comparison with previous entries in cinema’s haunted house canon such as the original version of The Haunting, The Innocents, The Orphanage, The Woman in Black and The Others. However, unlike some of the afore-mentioned, the ghosts do not turn out to be frustrated but ultimately benevolent spirits of the departed. They are absolutely evil and can only be defeated by the power of God. That this message is at the core of The Conjuring is something to be celebrated.