Originally thrown into the group of early 2000’s “splat pack” directors like Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, and Rob Zombie, James Wan has started separating himself from that group. Not only has he branched out into making less violent, more atmospheric horror stories, he has actually strived to improve as a director. While Saw was a terrific debut, it was still more gimmick than anything else. On Insidious, he showed growth in his ability to ramp up suspense and menace to a fever pitch and not disappoint with a quality payoff. With The Conjuring, his latest effort, he has made his best film. It is easily his most technically superior, made with the confidence and sure-handedness of a director who totally understands what he’s trying to accomplish and how to achieve it. While it lacks the raw ferocity of Saw, it is far more elegant, classic, and a brilliantly constructed piece of supernatural terror.
I’m not going to go so far as to place this film in the pantheon of horror greats, like Poltergeist or The Exorcist, two of its biggest influences. Ultimately, The Conjuring is mired in American horror movie tradition, and uses every trope and cliché there is in the genre. Fortunately, it does so with such love for the genre that you get sucked into and startled by every single scare you already saw coming two scenes earlier.
The story is about as basic as haunted house/demon possession stories get. The Perron family (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) moves in to a new house and weird things start happening all around them. Doors open, bad smells arise at weird times, the clocks freeze, and the youngest starts playing with an imaginary friend. Wan wisely chooses to spend some choice early moments showing the rapport and affection this family has for one another. I really cared for this family, and rooted for them to pull through as the demons started making their presence felt.
Where The Conjuring separates itself from many of its breed is in the introduction of two real life demonologists, the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). These two lecture about their experiences with the supernatural at universities and are recognized for their efforts by the Catholic Church. Our heroes aren’t your run of the mill kooks – they are aware of the criticisms levied against them, and try to find self-effacing humor in what they do – but they completely believe in the forces of good and evil in this world with confidence. Unlike many of our conflicted summer blockbuster heroes, the Warrens seek out evil to fight because that is what they were put on earth to do, even if it means they have to suffer the consequences of their work.
The Warrens are brought into the supernatural world of the Perron family, and from there you can imagine how quickly the horror mounts. Wan, unlike slow burning horror filmmakers like Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), builds the tension and never forgets the payoff. The Conjuring has a spiritual connection with 70s horror shows like Amityville Horror and The Changeling. One especially fun sequence involves mama Perron playing a mid-morning game of “Hide and Clap” with her little girl. As she stumbles around the house blindfolded, trying to find her daughter, the clapping draws her into a room where one of the ghosts is waiting for her. It’s clever and menacing, despite being a variation on a classic horror staple.
While I really liked The Conjuring, I am beginning to worry about the horror genre in general. The demon possession/haunting trend of recent years is wearing thin. We live in a time in which our government spies on us, unarmed black teens get shot and the killer gets away scot-free, and every group whether in the minority or majority feels like their being misrepresented and oppressed. It makes horror shows like these feel antiquated, and even anachronistic. The best horror cuts open the chest of the times to reveal the cancer surrounding its heart. The Conjuring is a Hollywood treat, but it has the staying power of an amusement park thrill.