Written by: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Lili Taylor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Look at what she made me do."
Have we formally conferred “Master of Horror” status on James Wan yet? His résumé thus far is lined with efforts that are strong enough, but he’s returned with The Conjuring just in case we had any doubts. It’s familiar territory for Wan, who quickly left behind grimy, visceral “torture porn” for more elegant, supernatural fare after breaking through in 2004. While Dead Silence and Insidious were both solid, they were still in the shadow of Saw; with The Conjuring, Wan makes his most impressive attempt to outrun his own breakthrough hit. I’m not quite sure it makes it all the way, but it definitely makes a spirited dash just to the edge, and, if nothing else, he takes a tired sub-genre and reinvigorates it through pure skill--Wan hasn't built an entirely new house so much as he's put a spit-shine on a creaky one.
In true 70s exploitation style, the film begins in earnest with a text overlay explaining that famous ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigated thousands of famous cases, but only one has been locked away and unheard of--until now. Cue the awesome, overbearing strings and a garish, retro title logo. Said encounter takes us back to late 1971, where the Perron family has moved into a nice new home out in the rural countryside. Unlike most haunted house films, there’s no portentous dialogue about how the place was a mysterious bargain; instead, it gets right to the spookiness when the dog refuses to go indoors, and the clocks all stop at the same time. Before long, the dog is found in a bloody heap, the five daughters experience bizarre phenomena (ghastly figures, thudding bumps bellowing from all corners of the house), and the mother (Lili Taylor) begins to develop unexplained bruises. Eventually, she’s compelled to track down the Warrens, who confirm that the site is incredibly haunted.
Not only is The Conjuring intensely familiar, but it’s also a lateral move for Wan himself after Insidious. Remarkably, it never feels that way, as Wan seems like the type of guy who loves to conjure up ways to scare the shit out of folks. In some respects, this actually feels like a more grounded version of Insidious--if that film was his attempt at reviving the colorful, funhouse terrors of the 80s, then The Conjuring sends him back a decade earlier to The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist, both of which were similarly grounded in some semblance of reality. As such, Wan plays this one straighter than straight, with only bits of levity popping up with the Warrens’ two assistants (Shannon Kook and John Brotherton, sort of acting as muted counterparts to the silly ghost-busters in Insidious), and the resulting film is legitimately intense.
There’s a scene featuring a lecture from the Warrens where Ed explains the three steps to any haunting that should be familiar to anyone well-versed in this genre. The second stage—where the hauntings become more obvious and threatening—is appropriately considered the “oppression,” which is where the film seems to rest from the outset. The Conjuring carries an overbearingly ominous vibe that’s difficult to shake, and Wan continuously reaps the benefits of Chad and Carey Hayes’ economical script. From the outset, the duo provides the director with ample opportunities to craft unsettling sequences. A prologue introducing the Warrens even allows him to revisit Dead Silence territory since it revolves around a creepy doll that likes to move around an apartment on its own.
Going into it full bore doesn’t seem structurally sound, but the film isn’t without a sense of escalation. The first round of haunting—the tugging at the daughters’ feet, the weird sleepwalking, etc.—does hew closely to Warren’s “infestation” stage. Each is crafted with care; by now, you’re probably familiar with the “hide and clap” bit from the trailer that finds Taylor blindly stumbling about the house while being teased by a spirit—that’s one of the more harmless bits, and even it’s unbelievably eerie. As the paranormal activity escalates, Wan revels in it and concocts one impressive sequence after another. His innate ability to place the camera in just the right place establishes an unease to each scene—when the frame prominently features a window that threatens to engulf a character, it’s a given that something’s out there. The Conjuring might rely on a host of jump scares, but it at least earns them because Wan understands geography, misdirection, and suspense—there’s nothing cheap about the jolts here because the film is perpetually on edge, waiting to pounce with horrific sights and sounds. He even breaks out some great, brooding zooms for a few establishing shots of the perpetually fog-shrouded house.
At the risk of sounding sort of arrogant, the highest compliment I can pay The Conjuring is that it even unnerved me at times. I’m usually the guy delighting in the rest of the audience being played like a violin, but, this time, Wan even had a hold of my strings. One shot is likely to get lumped in with the all-time great jolts, and it’s surrounded by plenty more because the Hayes brothers have mined some fascinating lore from the Warren files. Though the usual suspects eventually crop up in the form of witchcraft and demonic possession, they don’t come without a wrinkle or two. It’s eventually revealed that it’s not just the house that’s haunted—it’s the entire land that it rests on, and its macabre history of violent deaths comes roaring back in the form of vengeful spirits. The result is a cacophony of 70s horror that melds the possession iconography of The Exorcist with the familicidal overtones of Amityville (the latter was also investigated by the Warrens, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the film itself).
What’s most incredible is that Wan is even more restrained than those decades-old films. For a guy who slashed his way onto the scene by hacksawing through limbs, he’s dialed things down considerably ever since. The Conjuring is his most accomplished film to date in this respect because there’s little gore and no vulgar outbursts from the possessed. In their stead is a palatable menace; without relying on loud, obvious contortions and similar fireworks, Wan makes it clear that this centuries-old spirit isn’t fucking around. When I was a kid, the Bell Witch terrified me to my bones because she seemed so malevolent, and The Conjuring recalls that same mean-spirited horror whenever it flings its cast members all about the house. Despite the restraint, it’s still hellaciously visceral for a haunted house movie. We’re perhaps used to these films making our skin crawl, but few actually puncture it like this one does.
Haunted house films also typically value scares over story and character, and it’d be easy to assume that The Conjuring follows suit because it’s so relentless from frame one. However, it actually cares about the latter and even frames it from the perspective of the paranormal investigators themselves, something that’s supremely rare (I suppose I did undersell some of the film’s ingenuity before). Because the characters (including the Warrens) are thinly sketched by the script, Wan leans on some fantastic, lived-in performances that authentically bring these characters to life. Wilson and Farmiga make for compelling leads and capture the Warrens’ homespun charm. If this film is to be believed, the duo were aware of their dubious reputation in some circles, and it’s nice that they aren’t made out to be weird, overly self-serious kooks here—they’re just an otherwise average couple with a daughter of their own that just happen to chase down and evict spirits. The bunch playing the Perrons is similarly convincing and resists clichés—there are no obnoxious teenage daughters, nor is there an obviously disturbed creepy kid. Taylor eventually throws herself into the role of the possessed matriarch who’s being compelled to murder her own children, and the film hits all of the right beats along the way to make that climactic moment actually matter.
The Conjuring offers further proof that films don’t need to reinvent the wheel—they need only make sure the wheel is polished up every now and then so it’ll run smoothly. Wan has this one in working condition from start to finish; even if it didn’t carry the currency of the Warrens’ true case files, it’d still be an effectively compelling horror film that’s filled with biting jolts and disturbing moments that linger. In short, it’s the work of a guy who’s seen dozens of these films and who has now replicated them with care. If not for the obvious aesthetic update, there are times when The Conjuring is indistinguishable from its predecessors—this is old school, bump-in-the-night stuff that primarily aims to send audiences burrowing into their seats before making them leap from them. It’s a resounding success that confirms Wan’s place among the masters—but just in case you have any more doubts, he’ll be back in a couple of months with Insidious: Chapter Two. I look forward to him completely obliterating those doubts again. Buy it!