Nearly every horror film that is released nowadays bills itself as "the scariest movie", either of all time, or that particular year. It's hardly surprising - after all, horror is one of the few genres that is focused on how they make the audience feel, as opposed to being clustered according to theme or iconography. The problem occurs because how scary a film is can be a difficult thing to judge - what terrifies me does not necessarily terrify you, and even if we're terrified by the same thing, there's no guarantee that we'll find it frightening when we see it on screen.
That being said, I do think The Conjuring can lay some sort of claim toward being one of the creepiest films of recent years. Director James Wan might be responsible for Saw, and thus the tedious succession of torture-porn-lite sequels, but having begun to explore the supernatural side of horror with Insidious in 2010, he now has a go at a period piece horror. The Conjuring is set in the 1970s, and based upon a true story surrounding Ed and Lorraine Warren, prominent ghost hunters and demonologists who also investigated the Amityville case. Patrick Wilson plays Ed, while Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine. Despite their scientific and methodical approach, the couple's brand of ghost busting relies heavily on their Catholic backgrounds, as well as upon Lorraine's clairvoyancy. This is not a film that wants to leave any ambiguity as to whether these things are real - as far as The Conjuring goes, this might as well be a documentary.
The Perron family buy a house in Rhode Island at auction, and promptly move in, excited by their spacious new home. This being a horror film, settling in is not destined to be easy, and after discovering a boarded-up basement, things start going wrong in the house. Carolyn, played by Lili Taylor, finds herself covered in mysterious bruises, while the five daughters are either pulled out of bed by an invisible force or speak to people that no one else can see. Carolyn realises something is afoot, and contacts the Warrens for their help. The couple investigate, and must tell the family the grim truth, that their house isn't haunted by a ghost, but rather an inhuman spirit. In order to qualify for an exorcism, evidence must be gathered, and the family must wait it out while the spirits do enough damage to persuade the authorities that this isn't just a pesky poltergeist.
Just as Paranormal Activity purported to be about ghosts but instead went with the demonic, so The Conjuring eschews ghostly goings on in favour of diabolical intervention. It essentially takes the worst parts of Poltergeist and combines them with The Exorcist, all while reminding you that this actually happened. It would be incredibly easy to dismiss it as cinematic fluff, but in all honesty, I found some of the scenes quite harrowing, not necessarily because of the phenomena depicted, but because I actually cared about the characters. I've done paranormal investigations myself and I've never been thrown across a room or seen mysterious figures in mirrors, but that doesn't mean I can't feel for a mother who's been locked in her own basement by someone she can't even see. I'm also uncomfortable with the insistence that all of this activity is the result of demons - naturally a belief in demons requires a belief in God - but I'll go with it for the sake of the film.
A lot of the reviews of the film keep picking flaws based on how 'true' the film is, but I think that's to miss the point. Even if the entire thing is made up, it doesn't follow that it'll be a bad film. Mary Shelley dreamed Frankenstein and it hasn't stopped the story from being a success, has it? James Wan has proven he can direct a film with little/no gore, and very few special effects, although the insertion of the Warrens' famous Annabelle case just seemed like an excuse to shoehorn yet another weird doll into one of his films. The performances all round help to make The Conjuring feel like a real family drama, as opposed to the usual melodrama that accompanies modern hauntings. It's not scary in the slightest, but it's downright creepy - and in my book, that's harder to manage.
5 blunt pencils out of 5