In 2004 director James Wan helped launch an entire subgenre of horror with Saw. Dubbed “torture porn” — a derisive label used by cultural critics that confused catharsis with titillation — it became the gory norm for years, with the Saw franchise creaking out sequel after sequel. Starting with 2010’s Insidious, however, Wan himself has been exploring different, more nuanced ground: bringing the classic ghost story back in terrifying fashion.
His latest effort is The Conjuring, based on a case from Ed and Lorraine Warren — the real-life ghost hunters behind The Amityville Horror investigation. While the “true story” premise adds an additional layer of allure, the film goes far beyond that sort of one-note trickery, providing Wan the opportunity to take the techniques he’s learned in his previous outings and turn them up to 11. It’s a movie that doesn’t quite leap into the pantheon of genre classics it’s riffing on, but it proves James Wan is able to do one thing better than almost any filmmaker working today: scare the hell out of you.
It's the early 1970s, and Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) are moving into an old Rhode Island farmhouse along with their five daughters. Right off the bat things seem a little off: the family dog refuses to enter the home, and the Perrons discover a cobwebbed basement behind a false wall in the closet. At night things only get worse. Clocks mysteriously stop, strange knocking echoes down the halls, and one of the Perron’s daughters starts sleepwalking — with a particular fixation on the creepy wardrobe they found abandoned in the home.
Carolyn eventually contacts renowned demonologist Ed Warren (a chilly Patrick Wilson) and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), begging them to investigate. And once the Warrens arrive, they realize there’s something very, very wrong.
It’s all standard-issue setup, but it’s clear Wan knows that just as much as the audience. The film is littered with references to genre classics — Poltergeist, The Changeling, Robert Wise’s The Haunting — but they’re never foregrounded. They’re passing nods; a filmmaker acknowledging what excites him, and letting the audience know he’s a fan, too. Instead, Wan uses the familiar plot as a canvas for his own bravura performance in genre filmmaking.
A familiar set-up paired with bravura execution
The longer Wan holds on to the silence, the more the audience squirms
From his cinematographer (longtime collaborator John Leonetti) to his editor and sound designer, Wan uses every creative ally and cinematic tool at his disposal to maximize tension. The look of the film and its affinity for slow zooms places it squarely in a lived-in, realistic 1971. Clever composition misdirects the eye like an expert magician, setting up scares from the most unexpected places.
The film has its share of classic jumps, but in a refreshing departure few actually rely on the cheap gag of music stings (one particularly unsettling jump scare uses nothing but framing alone). In fact, during the first half of the film Wan is content to let long passages play with almost no sound or score. The longer he holds on to the silence, the more the audience squirms, knowing that something is coming. It makes every creak of the house a shriek; every groan a demonic howl.
The Conjuring is the kind of movie that knows exactly when it has you — and then decides to push you even further. It gets inside your head. So much so that I was instinctively sinking down in my chair in the theater. Enough that the empty back seat in my car had me rattled on the drive home. That may sound extreme, but if you like horror movies and being scared these are very good things.
Despite its effectiveness, the film does fall short of some of the greats it’s so clearly inspired by. Part of it is simply the way the film resolves. When you get into the realm of the supernatural, it’s hard to wrap things up in a way that feels both dramatically satisfying and realistic — even within the expanded boundaries of a supernatural world. The Exorcist arguably did it best, but the reason that film was able to pull it off was because it spent half its running time focusing on Father Karras; the film was about his journey, not Regan MacNeil’s.
Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes try to do something similar in The Conjuring. The horrible haunting happens to the Perron family, but the emotional spine of the movie belongs to the Warrens. Unfortunately, that aspect of the film fails to click the way it needs to. Wilson’s Ed comes off strangely detached, never blending into the period landscape, and when the film requires Ed and Lorraine’s relationship to bring things home it can’t quite follow through.
Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, on the other hand, both shine. Livingston expertly draws Roger as a straightforward man who suddenly finds himself in a world that’s anything but, while Taylor keeps Carolyn grounded and real — no matter how crazy her circumstances get.
Wan has made one of the scariest movies of 2013
Of course, in a world of found-footage retreads, not besting some of the best horror films of all time is hardly a crime. Leaving slashers behind for the murky uncertainties of the supernatural, Wan has found a way to expand his talents while driving yet another modern genre shift — and he’s still got a sequel to Insidious coming this September. It’s all the more notable given that so many of his torture porn brethren have since stalled out or otherwise failed to deliver on the promise of their early films. James Wan has made one of the scariest movies of 2013 — the only question is, will he top himself with Insidious: Chapter 2?The Conjuring opens in the United States on Friday, July 19th.