'The Conjuring' is based on not just one, but two true stories. It follows the ghost hunting husband and wife team, the Warrens, and the Perrons, a large family of seven that move into a haunted house. There are so many things in the movie that make it good, so it was a bit hard, but I did manage to figure out the six main things that make this ghost movie so good, and so scary.
6. The Doll Annabelle
The doll Annabelle was based on the possessed Raggedy Ann doll of the same name that has been featured in several ghost TV shows over the years.
The Warrens are a real ghost hunting couple who encountered the doll and locked her up in a case, similar to the one that Annabelle is kept in the movie.
The Warrens worked closely with the producers, which I feel only helped enhance the movie and make it all the more terrifying because it felt so real. Of course, most of the events in the film are incredibly embellished, but the way that they are made larger than life is subtle, and when things really get out of hand during the climax of the movie, everything that happens makes perfect sense.
5. The Characters
"The Conjuring" is old school ghost hunters at its best, and was filmed in the same vein as "The Changeling," and "The Awakening," where a haunted building is one of the main characters of the movie.
The movie slowly, and cleverly builds the tension, to the point where audience members are pinned to their seats, staring at the screen in terror as events unfold. This slow burn ghost movie does it right. It sets up the main characters, makes them very sympathetic people that you'd expect to meet in real life, and then throws them through an emotion and at times physical wringer as the ghost tears down their defenses one by one.
The ghost hunting duo are based on the real life husband and wife team, The Warrens. Their relationship is built on faith and love, and not in a cheesy, forced way.
The same thing goes for the poor victims of the haunted house, the Perrons. The five girls act the way that you'd expect sisters to be, and even their parents are believable.
"The Conjuring" avoids the cliche of the father being the one possessed by the evil of the home, and makes him a loving protector of his family- which is a refreshing change of pace from haunted house movies that take their cues from "The Amityville Horror" and turn the father into a vessel of rage and violence.
The thing that I liked the most was the fact that the movie cleverly misdirects your perceptions of the characters; the ones that you think are going to be the main victim of the ghost, aren't the ones that are the most affected by it, and that makes for one heck of a scary surprise at the end of the film.
4. Ghost Story Elements
There are several instances in "The Conjuring" that reminded me of ghost stories told around the campfire. A lot of thought was put into the script by the writers, and it's clear that they did thorough research of the source material prior to writing the screenplay.
The most interesting ghost story elements is the haunted music box, complete with its creepy peeping clown, and a swirled mirror (an embellishment that appears to be a signature visual theme of James Wan) that spins while the music plays. When it stops, you can see a ghost standing in the mirror behind you.
The music that the box plays is disjointed, the rhythm is syncopated, and unsettling, with unnatural pauses in the melody. The rhythm of the song creates tension, and really gets you ready to jump at any moment, making you believe that the ghost will pop up while it is still playing, but it doesn't. And that is one thing that the movie does right.
Another ghost story element in "The Conjuring" is the haunted hanging tree, a common trope of ghost stories, where one of the ghosts killed herself.
Then there is a ghost of a maid that committed suicide. She appears to one of the victims during the Warren's investigation and says, something along the lines of "Look what she did to me!" or "Look at what she made me do!", and manages to scare the crap out of the guy she appears to, and the audience as well.
Another ghost story element is the spooky, dark basement with long discarded items that nobody wants. It even had those steps without the back riser, where you can reach through from underneath the stairs to grab someone's foot when they are walking down them.
The first house that I lived in had basement stairs like that, and I hated going down them, they freaked me out, and there they were, in a scary ghost movie. Thanks a lot James Wan.
The last important ghost story element are the clocks. The clocks in the haunted house stop at the same time every day after the family moves into the haunted house. Ghost stories that feature this element often have the clocks stopping in the middle of the night, around 3:00 am. In the case of "The Conjuring" it's 3:07 am.
Thanks to the director's clever, and subtle use of these ghost story elements, the audience's suspension of disbelief is very rarely shattered during the movie.
3. Staring into Darkness
There are multiple scenes in the movie where both the characters, and the audience, find themselves staring into the darkness, trying to see what menacing, evil presence lurking within. The clever use of light and, more importantly, darkness, creates a wonderful tale of suspense and terror. The ghosts are left mostly in the shadows, and are only shown out of focus in the background of a shot.
The inability of the audience to see what is actually haunting the Perrons allows us to use our imaginations, which makes a scene a heck of a lot more scarier than if everything was shown to us. Many ghost movies don't get this part right. They show too much, too soon, and this ruins whatever scares it is attempting to create. Fortunately for us, "The Conjuring" doesn't fall into that trap.
2. The Set Pieces
The Perron's House
The Perron's house has a menacing feel from the moment they open the front door and movie in. It is full of wide open doorways, dark colors, and blind corners.
The basement is creepy, with several pieces of furniture covered in white sheets that are draped in such a way that they look like they are hiding the silhouettes of people. While it doesn't have a face on it, like the Amityville Horror house, the Perron's house still looks like it is watching, and waiting for its next victim to arrive.
The Hanging Tree
The hanging tree on the property is a dead, menacing presence that looms in the distance. The lake that it sits by is still, and stagnant looking. Water is thought by many to be a conduit for the dead, so it's no wonder that the lake looks like there is nothing living in it. That was done on purpose to add another layer of foreboding dread to the movie.
The Haunted Items Museum
The haunted items museum in the Warren's warm looking home is organized evil. From the arrangement of the items, to its focal point- Annabelle's locked glass display case- we can tell that all of the things that are stored there, no matter how mundane looking, are dangerous items that inhabit menacing, and often deadly spirits.
1. Less is More, Especially for Exorcisms
When the demonic ghost, or demon ghost, or evil ghost (take your pick) possesses one of the main characters, the Warrens are forced to do an emergency exorcism to save the possessed person's life.
The possessed victim attacks two of the children, and the other characters rush to save them. Once they wrestle the girls away, the victim is covered in a blanket (one of the blankets that has been draped over the furniture in the basement for the entire movie) and tied to a chair. You can't see the possessed person's face. This is done on purpose. When the evil entity possessing them is ordered to reveal itself, the sheet tears open and you can see only one half of their face. By not fully revealing the body of the possessed during the exorcism, your mind is allowed to conjure an image of what is happening to them, while you are assaulted by terrifying sounds and the pained screams of the innocent victim. This makes the exorcism scene absolutely bone chilling.
The entire movie holds the premise that less is more and that is what makes it an effective, and terrifying ghost film.
I also think that it's important to note that "The Conjuring" is rated R and yet, there is no foul language, no excessive gore or bloodshed. There isn't even any torture porn, even though the director James Wan is known for using them in his Saw movies, (you know, the franchise that made him famous in the horror movie world). Much like "Don't be Afraid of the Dark," the movie is rated R because it's so scary.
If you like subtle, realistic ghost movies that will creep under your skin and scare you half to death, you'll love "The Conjuring."