Putting Billy in Saw was a stroke of masterpiece, giving an otherwise not-TV-friendly film franchise a mascot that was both highly recognizable and easy to use in all sort of settings. Whether you consider it a good or a bad thing, it's hard to argue that the Saw franchise could have lasted for seven films if not for Billy's presence. The role of puppets was just as important, if not more so, in Dead Silence, where they played a central role in the film. In Insidious, a roomful of dolls existed entirely for creep factor in a single room with no explanation.
In The Conjuring, a doll features as well. This time, Annabelle is a doll possessed by a demon that exists in a movie-within-the-movie. Technically, it's not possessed, but for all intents and purposes, it is. To use the language of the film, the Annabelle doll is a conduit through which a demonic spirit enters the world.
It is through this story that we meet two of our main characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The couple exists in real life, and demonology were their real careers. Save for how it influences the plot, I will not be delving into their real lives, for several reasons. For the purposes of this review, the characters in this film are fictional adaptations of the Warrens the same way that characters in South Park or Robot Chicken would be – not that The Conjuring treats them nearly the same way.
In fact, much of The Conjuring is slice of life, and here is where it might start to lose some people. Fifteen minutes might go by of the Warrens and the Perrons – the other family the film focuses on – going about their day to day life. Then, something strange will happen. At least, that is the perception. After all, a dog refusing to go into a house, or finding a bruise on your leg, or seeing a known sleepwalker sleepwalk isn't that strange, right? Then, maybe eight minutes of the same will pass before something else strange happens. Then four minutes. Then two minutes, or a minute. Then thirty seconds. Fifteen seconds. Eight seconds. Suddenly four seconds later, we're in the movie proper.
If Insidious was James Wan's take on Poltergeist – a strange haunting that takes the youngest child to another world with a parent in pursuit – The Conjuring is his take on The Exorcist. I doubt this was intentional – the writing and production teams, as well as the studio, are all different – but all of the elements are there. It doesn't seem that way at first; rather, it seems as though the house itself is haunted, despite there being hints at a demonic possession tilt in the prologue. Still, the talk early on is of demons and possession, and a lot of the scares and imagery are modeled after The Exorcist. On top of this is the religious tilt.
After the slow buildup, this is the second place where the film may lose some viewers. In order to follow the film, you must either believe in, or suspend your disbelief of, Christianity. While the film does not come down on the side of one religion, it does definitively state that there is a powerful source of evil whose followers refer to it as Satan. It also states that demons believe in Christianity enough to be offended by its symbols as well as to go out of their way to mock it, and that successful demon hunters are Christian and allied with the Catholic church.
As these elements are introduced, the Exorcism parallels build steadily, up to and including an exorcism scene. However, many of these elements are much larger. Rather than the source of terror being a single, clear demon, the film begins with a strange haunting by multiple spirits. After an investigation into the matter, the source of these spirits is discovered, as well as which is most dangerous, but that only escalates the danger they're all in. I have to recognize the Hayes brothers here: they are fully aware that they are writing for a savvy audience in the days of Scream and Tvtropes.
In fact, this is part of why the buildup takes so long. When the audience expects one fake-out, the movie gives them two. When the audience expects a jump scare, it either doesn't give one, or it gives a small fake-out. When the audience expects to see a corpse, we don't get one. “Don't go out there,” the savvy audience member says, “something will kill you.” Then the character walks out onto the pier, and nothing terrible happens. Nothing, that is, other than finding something that works to her advantage later. This does drag the movie out a bit, but it also makes the scares all the more satisfying when they do come.
Which brings us right back around to the doll. Annabelle is, in fact, a huge fake-out. She exists in scenes primarily to build her up as one of the most terrifying things the Warrens have ever seen. This works well, largely because audiences have been bred over years to think “doll” equals “scariest thing ever”. When dolls start doing things you don't want to, it's either because they're going to simultaneously molest and murder your child or because the thing haunting your house is so scary that its very presence incites every doll in the house to action. Or both.
The Hayeses cash these years of built-up terror, plus their scenes of building up their own doll, in one scene: a scene of someone holding the doll, rocking on a rocking chair, while the doll turns its head to look at someone. The scene continues from there, but that is the end of Annabelle's participation as a threat, and it is brilliant. Someone finally managed to do “build up the big, scary character (or thing, in this case) and have it be completely outclassed just to show how powerful someone else is” and have it work. In no way does this scene make Annabelle look like a bitch, which allows the doll to sit atop a throne made of Worf, Wolverine, Piccolo, Vegeta, Rodan and countless others.
Another thing that really helps this film is that the male leads are easily distinguished from one another. I generally have a lot of trouble telling multiple leads apart, particularly in a film where eleven characters share much of the screen-time evenly. The females are pretty simple to tell apart: generic very young girl, slightly older girl who is usually afraid, older girl who wears glasses, and even older girl who acts like, well, a teenaged girl who has just been moved out of her home, and the two adult women who are almost always in the company of their husbands. As for the men, we have traditionally attractive white male (the hero), traditionally attractive white male with a porn 'stache and sideburns, younger Asian male, and a white male who doesn't look like any of them. I wouldn't be able to pick Ron Livingston as he looks in this film out of a crowd, particularly in 1971, but he definitely stands out against the three I described. Altogether this is brilliant, or at least something that is frequently overlooked that James Wan did not ignore here at all.
The Conjuring is not a film for everyone. However, if you are still reading, you are aware of the two main caveats and the only things I think will really fit into deciding whether not to watch the movie. It fits right alongside recent films that I greatly enjoyed such as Insidious and The Woman in Black, and is probably smarter than either of them. If you like horror, particularly haunting and possession films, you don't want to pass this up on the big screen.