“The Conjuring” effortlessly summons scares with great characters

Alex Williams

For movie buffs, the month of October means one thing: 31 days of horror movies. With tons of horror flicks to choose from, The Daily Texan is going to be providing a daily horror recommendation. Whether you prefer ghosts, zombies or stark explorations of the human condition, we’ll be featuring horror films of all flavors. Check back every evening for the movie of the day. Today, “The Conjuring” will haunt your nightmares.

Most of the films we’ve featured so far in the Daily Horror Movie are pantheon-level horror classics, films that have stood the test of time and still hold up decades later. On the other hand, “The Conjuring,” which hits DVD today, is still fresh in the nightmares of its viewers. We feel comfortable featuring it, though, since James Wan’s follow-up to “Insidious” is an instant horror classic, with immaculately constructed scares and likeable characters personified through sincere, compassionate performances.

The film follows the template for the haunted house film with little deviation, even as it claims to tell the true story of the Perron family, an unlucky clan that moves into a new home with a terrible past. As paranormal occurrences around the house steadily increase in frequency and intensity, matriarch Carolyn (Lili Taylor) tracks down esteemed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to help the family.

Though the film’s scares are clearly its draw — and the reason for its $137 million gross at the box office this summer — “The Conjuring’s” secret weapon is the importance it places upon character. You feel for the Perron family as they’re terrorized, and Taylor captures this maternal warmth that makes her more harrowing work later in the film doubly effective. The Warrens are vocal, devout Christians, a quality most films (horror especially) tend to dodge, but their faith is what drives their work and their marriage. Perhaps the film’s most surprising element is its ability to make their bond genuinely moving, striking touching emotional notes as it dives into its most horrific territory.

And it does become horrific. “The Conjuring” constructs its scares as masterfully as any film featured this month, and it refuses to build slowly. From the very beginning, it manifests a sense of creeping dread, and Wan plays the audience like a fiddle, paying off every scare he sets up in thrilling fashion. Even the film’s jump scares avoid feeling cheap or calculated, but the far more terrifying moments are when Wan confronts the plainly terrible spirits at play in the Perron home with sleek, unflinching style.

Though “The Conjuring” starts off scary, it never runs out of steam, and the film’s relentless, chilling material — only occasionally defused through comic relief — climaxes in one of the most accomplished, tautly-staged horror set pieces I’ve ever seen.

Though the material is scary enough on its own, the characters are so well-drawn and their struggles so vital that you root for them to survive. Horror and its viewers thrive on the brutal deaths of the characters, and this film is so effective that it actually manages to make the audience invest in their survival. That focus on populating a film with people you care about, and then putting them through the wringer of horror, is what makes “The Conjuring” an instant Halloween essential.