“There’s usually always some rational explanation”
After watching the cinematic account of the Perron family’s plight in 1971 during James Wan‘s The Conjuring—alongside a brief view at Annabelle, the creepiest little possessed doll ever—it’s hard to believe paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren’s most infamous case of demonic insanity was Amityville. Described as the story that couldn’t be told until now via an opening text-based screen crawl reminiscent of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the events that occurred in Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn’s (Lili Taylor) Rhode Island home are nothing short of intense. Whether a believer or skeptic, I’m not sure anyone could deny the palpable tension and psychological horror at play and if Wan hadn’t already shook the torture porn stigma Saw placed upon him, he should hopefully be known as a talent to respect now.
The project began over two decades ago when the real Ed Warren took his case file to producer Tony DeRosa-Grund who in turn wrote a treatment that was passed around to no avail. Chad and Carey Hayes were eventually hired to craft a complete script worthy of a bidding war, but even then the property languished in turnaround before settling in at New Line. Such a long gestation is surprising considering the horror genre’s penchant for exorcisms and Warren-centric cases—The Amityville Horror, The Haunted, and The Haunting in Connecticut are based on their work—especially with elements so perfectly suited for the big-screen. With its current box office success and welcome focus on the Warrens instead of solely the victims, we should be seeing a lot more of this husband and wife team soon.
The film starts by grounding us in Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine’s (Vera Farmiga) work through the aforementioned Annabelle case. We watch the pair absorb every impossible fact a couple college-aged girls tell them with absolute severity and acknowledge his demonologist and her clairvoyant are far from fear mongers looking to con a buck. The Warrens travel the country lecturing at schools about the existence of paranormal forces, willfully splitting time between their daughter and the countless clients hiring them for their expertise. Always professionals, they are the first to let someone know when a “ghost” is merely a creaking floorboard and leaking pipes because to make light of those few instances where the devil is present would render their personal prison of possessed trinkets acquired along the way nothing more than a room of junk.
They are therefore set-up as the only people suited to help the Perrons and their five daughters once their new house begins to escalate its hauntings to physical abuse. Carolyn wakes each morning to find bruises forming on her body; Christine (Joey King) jolts upright by something tugging her foot as she sleeps; Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) sleepwalks until her head bangs against an old armoire in Andrea’s (Shanley Caswell) room; and April (Kyla Deaver) has playtime with a young boy named Rory no one but she can see. A boarded up cellar is discovered in a hall closet; a creepy music box proves to be a doorway onto a parallel plane of existence; and Roger must run helplessly to the screams of his girls each night until Carolyn can track the Warrens down.
Up until this point—and truthfully straight to the end—The Conjuring gives us nothing we haven’t already seen before. Even so, I’m not sure it’s ever been portrayed quite as effectively. Wan puts away the gory morality contraptions he and writing partner Leigh Whannell created in Saw and instead moves towards the nuance of tense practical effects and atmospheric scares. Whether it’s Rory playing “Hide and Clap” with Carolyn in the cellar’s shadowy corners, the slow opening and closing of doors with nothing but the quivering lips and teary eyes of one character who “sees” something there to render it so, or the expertly paced appearances of lost souls that died on the property who never linger long enough to turn unsettling into funny, Wan nails every single beat with unparalleled precision.
The cast helps in this success by playing everything very close to their vests. Wilson and Farmiga are shown as real people with a daughter of their own to keep safe and provide them a reason to assist innocents like the Perrons that can’t do it for themselves. They have their own secrets shown via flashbacks of old cases and make their own mistakes that threaten those they love as the demons they seek to destroy fight back. Opposite them are Livingston and Taylor: two parents helpless not to believe once their daughters are tortured physically and psychologically every night as the clock turns 3:07am. They aren’t religious, are desperate to do whatever the Warrens tell them, and frightfully hold on for dear life as their safety is ripped from their clutches.
Drew (Shannon Kook)—the Warrens’ assistant—helps add some levity against local police officer and skeptic Brad (John Brotherton), but even their rapport must take a backseat to the heart-pounding suspense of events escalating outside anyone’s control. Daughters become trapped in the numerous hollow pockets between the house’s walls; Hayley McFarland‘s Nancy gets dragged through the living room by her hair; and an exorcism is performed in all its Latin screaming and guttural growls. You feel scared for all involved as the demons gradually break through to our world, holding onto that one marketing trailer with the real Perron family to comfort you to know some if not all will survive. It’s a mood piece that terrorizes you with its authentic reactionary action, making us believe because they believe. That’s no easy feat.
 Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor and Patrick Wilson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Conjuring (2013)
 Vera Farmiga stars as Lorraine Warren in Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Conjuring (2013)
 Lili Taylor stars a Carolyn Perron and Joey King stars as Christine in Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Conjuring (2013)