James Wan, who achieved fame and fortune by creating the Saw franchise, must wish to atone for steering the American horror film into the waters of torture porn. That’s the only reason I can come up with for why the talented filmmaker has so abruptly switched course, leaving the violent slasher genre behind and focusing instead on eerie haunted house movies. Compared with the sheer excesses of the Saw franchise, Wan’s previous film—Insidious—and The Conjuring are exercises in restraint and solid, traditional filmmaking. Whatever Mr. Wan’s motivations, I fervently hope he continues in this direction, because The Conjuring just so happens to be one of the better horror films released this year.
Allegedly based on a true story, The Conjuring follows paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they assist the Perron clan—a typical horror movie family headed by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston—in exorcising the demonic entities that have infested their new home. There’s not an iota of truth in this somewhat clichéd tell of witches and ghosts, but the movie is enjoyable on its own merits. The scares are effective; the house is creepy as hell; and the cast, composed of subtle, talented actors, lends immediate credibility to the production.
Great horror filmmaking requires solid direction. Effective scares depend not only on what’s captured on screen, but what isn’t captured on screen. Wan understands this, and he gifts the movie with a constantly moving, voyeuristic camera that is guaranteed to instill any viewer with a sense of dread. Much of the horror generated by the movie depends on the unknown, lurking just outside the frame. For much of the film’s running time, Wan wisely avoids gore or easy jump scares. There’s nothing exactly innovative here; every technique employed is well-tested and somewhat timeworn, but almost every element of the production is handled exceedingly well.
One of the movie’s best (and most playful) bits involves a variation of Marco Polo played by the Perron girls. One person blindfolds herself with a bandana, the others hide, and the blindfolded person seeks out the others by asking them to clap. I think you can see where this is going. The house, which looks like an immense, rotting deathtrap that has been left untouched since the nineteenth century, is probably the last place to cavalierly explore blindfolded, ghosts or no ghosts. It’s not long before the house’s undead inhabitants join in the little game. Claps begin to come from unexpected areas of the house, and members of our naïve, all-American family literally walk into horrifying scenarios blindfolded. Soon the house’s undead inhabitants start to do more than merely clap.
Yes, it’s a somewhat contrived way to generate scares, but like almost every other aspect of The Conjuring, these sequences are so well crafted that it doesn’t matter that you’re being openly manipulated. Every unexpected clap or noise carries excitement and fear with it. It’s so simple and yet brilliant at the same time.
The first two-thirds of The Conjuring rely on this simple, no-frills style of storytelling. The filmmakers opt to allow the horror to simmer, using sound and misdirection to instill dread. It works. But then Ed and Loraine arrive as the disruptions within the house begin to ramp up, and the story loses the asset of having an unknowable horror. The demons haunting the family are quantified and given names and motivations. It’s a testament to the talent and likability of stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga that the film doesn’t become grating as soon as the Warrens arrive with their outrageous claims and crackpot theories.
Evil is soon given a face, and our protagonists find themselves locked in a life-and-death struggle with the forces of Satan. At this point, the movie becomes predictable, overwrought, and almost comical. The over-the-top finale and saccharine ending almost ruin the good-will generated by the first two-thirds of the movie. Its not unlike Wan’s Insidious in that respect.
In spite of a few significant flaws The Conjuring works. Like with last year’s brilliant Sinister, this movie relies on solid craftsmanship, good acting, and decent writing. This film helps to prove the notion that there’s no substitute for good storytelling. Director James Wan certainly came to that conclusion years ago, and he has acted accordingly. I hope the rest of the industry follows his example.