The Conjuring is doing so well at the box office that the major studios that are losing millions of dollars because they spent bazillions of dollars on big blockbusters that are busting, but not blocks, are scratching their heads.  With a budget of about $20 million, the scariest film of the summer has raked in over four times its cost so far and will easily hit the $100 million mark before it’s finished.

Set in Rhode Island in the 1970’s The Conjuring is based on a true story of a house built in the 1770’s where evil lives.  Why are haunted house movies always set in New England?  The frightening shenanigans begin shortly after the Perron family move into the creepy place and things get downright nasty and nail bitingly horrifying before the Perron family finally enlist the help of “ghost busting” husband and wife team, Ed and Lorraine Warren. 

The Perrons have five daughters and about three times as many rooms in the house and although it is sometimes challenging to tell both the daughters and the rooms apart, this combination makes for endless haunting incidents throughout the first half of the film.  I think it is safe to say, don’t go in the cellar no matter what noises you hear emanating from there.

Director James Wan does a terrific job at creating suspense and dread throughout the first two thirds of the film.  The scares build nicely and create a culminating, intensely emotional effect.  As with the scariest movies of all time, it’s what you imagine and not what you know that freaks you out the most.  Therefore it makes sense that once the Warren’s are brought in to investigate and their research uncovers the ugly evil secrets of the big scary house and adjoining property that the challenge of keeping up the scares increases.

Because of this, the last fourth of the film feels a bit emotionally deflating and less tense.  However, this doesn’t seem to be the fault of the screenplay, just the situation. Anytime the action is removed from the house there is a feeling of relief, yet a feeling of the plot going astray.  Most often this is used to emotional advantage in the sense that you don’t want to go back to the scary place, but you do want to go back to the scary place at the same time.  However staying away too long will make you feel cheated and get you bored.  The savvy filmmakers understand this and wisely get the viewer back in the house for the climatic sequence, which is effective, but somehow feels “small” compared to big scares that preceded it.

Of all the actors, Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren, is my favorite.  She has played in several films that have dark doings and her face has become synonymous with something freaky and ominous about to happen, but there is something in her eyes that work astonishingly well in film.  Here they portray fear, confusion and compassion without ever being horror film over-the-top.  She also rocks the seventies costumes.  Her husband is played by Patrick Wilson who manages to be movie star sexy in sideburns and polyester.  How he pulls this off without being particularly attractive or emotive is the reason why he is a movie star.

The seventies period details are fun and it is great to see a movie made in 2013 that doesn’t have cell phones, i-pads and hybrid cars.  The entire production design, which includes great props (huge tape recorders!), set pieces and big gas guzzling cars is great; hats off to the production design team: Julie Berghoff, Geoffrey S. Grimsman,  Sophie Neudorfer (source imdb).

The Conjuring isn’t a great film and comparisons to The Exorcist (1973) are unfair.  The Oscar winning 1973 film directed by William Friedkin is a masterpiece.  But The Conjuring is a hell of a lot of fun. Part of this fun is seeing it with a packed audience, all of whom have come to be scared.  Sitting there in the theater there are audible gasps, “oh nos” and “don’t do its”.  There is also plenty of contorted sitting and tense hand holding.  This shared experience reinforces the success of the film and illustrates that movies don’t have to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to get an audience to like it.  They just have to make you feel something. 

Bonus: check out this CBS news story about the true story behind the film.