Blu-ray Review: The Conjuring

James Wan is at a pivotal moment in his career as a filmmaker. In the early aughts, Wan was nobody until he made a horror feature about a serial killer that took his name after a type of puzzle. His low budget Saw (2004) not only was a modest hit; it changed the landscape of horror as it ushered in a then-profitable subgenre commonly referred to as “torture porn.” That little film would also become a profitable franchise. While Wan wouldn’t direct any of the sequels, his influence wouldn’t go unnoticed. But gaining that type of success again tended to be a fruitless endeavor as years passed; his films Dead Silence and Death Sentence failed to make much of an impression with audiences. When 2010 rolled around he delivered Insidious, and it was a strong comeback for Wan. A ghost story that was marked more by its sound design and overpowering score, the film, nonetheless, would help solidify Wan as a major directing talent. At least when it came to horror.

The arrival of The Conjuring in theaters summer 2013 was a well-deserved change of the tried-and-true blockbuster. A true tale possession picture, it perfectly encapsulated Wan’s talents as a filmmaker. Coming from someone who values atmosphere over cheap scares, it’s interesting to track his progression from the likes of Saw and Insidious. He puts audiences through the ringer by utilizing the slow burn – a less is more approach – in an effort to build a certain amount of trust. Once he gains that trust he is then able to coerce the viewer into a sense of unease.

Helping the film’s case is a sense of authenticity. The story is derived from true accounts involving Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators. Their most famous case is that of the Amityville Horror. Disputed as a hoax by some, the haunting would become the subject of a 1977 book and later film adaptations in 1979 and 2005. The case of The Conjuring takes place in Rhode Island, circa 1971. Carolyn Perron (Lili Talyor) is a loving housewife to her truck-driver husband, Roger (Ron Livingston), and a mother raising five daughters of varying ages. Since their arrival at a new farmhouse in Harrisville, the Perrons become plagued by a series of increasingly unsettling events involving a supernatural entity. A little skeptical at first, the Warrens take the case determined to help the Perrons rid the evil that haunts the farmhouse, inside and out.

When I stated that The Conjuring “perfectly encapsulated Wan’s talents as a filmmaker,” it’s mostly due on account of his ability to draw heavily upon the style, technique and production design of early ‘70s cinema. Even the title card gives the allusion of this being of that era. The film isn’t a full-on assault that calls attention to it; instead, Wan’s film evokes the famous filmmaking decade (regarded as “a decade under the influence”). Parlor tricks and gore are admonished whereas the unseen is highly valued. It’s so simple a concept you wonder why its simplicity isn’t replicated more often. Going from stillness to disturbing imagery tends to stay with the viewer. And when the big supernatural possession occurs near the end the effect is that much more unnerving due to the suspense and interspersed scares that Wan has allowed to percolate for the first 90 minutes.

Nobody walks into a horror movie expecting strong performances from the actors involved. Oftentimes the characterizations are beyond putrid (i.e., running upstairs when fleeing an attacker). At best they are barely passable. Here they are surprisingly strong. Wilson and Farmiga as the Warrens aren’t bowled over when it comes to dealing with supernatural forces. They approach things in matter-of-fact fashion and give their characters a bit of humility when it comes to being a loving couple – that just also happens to be ghost busters. Chad and Carey Hayes provide in their screenplay just enough of a backstory to let us know that Ed is a Demonologist and lecturer while Lorraine is a spiritual medium. They also have a child – a daughter – that is well aware of her parents’ paranormal exploits. A flashback provides reference of a case that goes south and the toll it takes on Lorraine. As such, it makes Ed that much concerned of his wife’s well being, unable to know what the future has in store for them both.

On the flipside in the parenting department, Taylor and Livingston hit the right notes as the matriarch and patriarch of the Perron household, letting their facial expressions and emotions tell the growing confusion and despondency that comes from dealing with things that go, in this case, clap in the night.

The Conjuring‘s strengths are strong enough to overcome its few weaknesses; a dry open with a James Wan calling card – ahem, demon doll – and a subplot involving the Warrens’ daughter. Her involvement seems like a shoehorned plot device. If the story is about the Perrons, then her appearance is likely the result of a ricocheted effect involving the Warrens investigation.

People have different reactions when it comes to horror movies. Some get spooked, while others find the circumstances quite silly. But The Conjuring got to me. Can’t say that that happens to me everyday. It’s all open to interpretation, though, but I’ll admit my scaredy-cat reaction was legit.

New Line Cinema and Warner Home Video bring The Conjuring to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack (DVD and Blu-ray) with an UltraViolet Digital Copy for those that want to take the thrills into another part of the house – maybe the attic? – or while travelling. The first pressing of disc has the BD50 disc sit opposite a DVD copy inside the traditional blue, eco-cutout case with a lenticular slipcover. And in terms of packaging art, the studio went with a good Photoshop job, which involves one of the earlier theatrical release posters and the key scare moment of the trailer that pretty much summed up if you were on board to see it initially or got too scared and decided “nuh-uh.”

Again sticking with the simplicity aspect of the film, after a few promos for upcoming features on home video (ahem, We’re the Millers), we are treated to a static image of Lili Taylor with a generic set of menu options (scene selections, audio, subtitles, special features) at the bottom of the screen.

In terms of audio and video, The Conjuring delivers the goods. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track provides a solid mix that becomes explosive when needed. Those with rear speakers will get a more immersive soundfield that provides a nice eruption when activity becomes frenetic. The illusion of ‘70s cinema offers up a nice muted palate which match the effect Wan was looking to achieve. The Perrons’ dilapidated farmhouse, at least judging by the interior, is dusty which provides just enough of a shadow to be foreboding to those who may come across a ghost or two. And when action moves to the basement and the Warrens plunge into its depths, the picture remains clear of imperfections. A strong visual presentation to match its knock-your-socks-off audio.

Where the Blu-ray falters is in the extras department. The release comes with no audio commentary from either James Wan or the screenwriters. Videophiles are instead treated to three featurettes of varying lengths and quality.

We begin with Scaring the @$*% Out of You, an 8-minute EPK-style featurette found on both the DVD and Blu-ray. It contains cast and crew interviews discussing the plot, the real investigation, the production and acting performances. Clips and behind the scenes footage are interspersed throughout.

The high-def exclusives found on the Blu-ray include a 16-minute featurette on A Life in Demonology, which has real paranormal investigators and the filmmakers reflecting on the life, history and career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Then there is Face-to-Face with Terror, a short 7-minute discussion about the real-life events that took place at the Harrisville farmhouse back in 1971. This piece includes interviews with the Perron family as well as Lorraine Warren. Vintage photos and movie snippets serve as supplemental footage that play over the interviews.

The Conjuring may not change the opinions of skeptics who find ghosts and Ouija boards to be a bunch of hooey, but there’s no mistaking that James Wan has crafted a modern horror classic. In a summer full of sequels, superhero movies and failed blockbusters, here is a little horror pic that was able to creep me out in the best possible way. While the MPAA enforced the film with restricted rating, despite no foul language or gore, it didn’t dissuade the viewing public while in theaters. The fact that it was also a critical favorite also wasn’t lost on those who would normally turn a blind eye to anything that falls into the category of horror.

As far the Blu-ray goes, the lack of supplemental material is a knock against it, but the film is what matters most. Paired with a terrific transfer and an even better DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and it’s an instant rental in time for Halloween. And for those that dig its ‘70s asthetics, The Conjuring will fit nicely alongside William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and John Carpenter’s Halloween.

New Line Cinema and Warner Home Video present The Conjuring. Directed by: James Wan. Screenplay by: Chad Hayes and Carey Haeys. Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, and Ron Livingston. Running Time: 112 minutes. Rating: R (for sequences of disturbing violence and terror). Released: October 22, 2013.

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