What is the recipe for a good cinematic fright? First, you might start by introducing the presence of something ominous: a bump or a creek off in the distance or the whisper of someone passing by unseen. Now that you have acknowledged that something evil is lurking, you could slowly ramp up the tension – the occurrences growing increasingly worrisome, the victim in question becoming more and more paranoid. Perhaps to add to the suspense, you might throw a minor scare or two; a loud bang, a chair moving by itself or a red herring that momentarily puts our hero at ease. Then, and only then, at the perfect moment, you unleash the horror.
With his throwback to ‘70s horror cinema, James Wan’s supernatural old-school chiller The Conjuring employs exactly this aforementioned structure, not just in the scares but over the entire course of the film, to create one of the most effective and well-executed genre pieces in several years.
We open with the bumps and the creeks. The Perron family have just moved into a quaint new country home in need of restoration. There, they struggle to adjust to their new accommodation. Their family dog refuses to enter the house, their youngest child begins to sleepwalk again and father Roger (Ron Livingstone) uncover a gloomy, cobwebbed basement hidden beneath the home that no one knew existed.
Then comes the tension as disturbing incidences begin to transpire: doors suddenly slam shut, picture frames are hurtled from the wall, mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) begins to find unexplained bruises on her body; the presence of something sinister is clearly skulking in this house.
It’s at this juncture that the family, whose story is based on real events from 1971, approaches an infamous paranormal investigation team comprised of married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Together, they have tackled numerous cases of supernatural experiences – many fictitious and some real – but when they arrive at the Perron home to inspect the disturbances they realize they may be facing their most malevolent foe yet. And it’s here that things begin to get really freaky.
It’s a familiar set-up, but as James Wan slowly cranks the notch higher and higher, culminating in an intensely terrifying – if slightly OTT – climax, it’s impossible to deny that he executes The Conjuring expertly. He employs every tool in his arsenal, from sound and lighting to camerawork and performance, to capture the haunting of the Perron’s home with as much terror as possible.
The Conjuring doesn’t just employ cheap shocks as we bear witness to the demonic haunting of this family’s home though. Yes, you will jump. On one or two occasions you may even leap right out of your seat. But amid these moments, Wan’s film actually manages to scare viewers on a far deeper level; the kind that sinks right into your bones. It drags you into the world in which these characters inhabit and, at least for its duration, persuades even the biggest skeptics of the evils that might be hidden in the darkness, in the unknown.
The reason it’s so convincing, and in turn the most impressive thing about The Conjuring, is responsible to something that very few horror filmmakers appreciate: likeable, humane characters. The movie manages to maintain a foreboding atmosphere throughout while allowing enough room to create protagonists with histories, desires, fears and personalities. These aren’t the air-headed bimbos we’re used to seeing in horror; they’re people just like us. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes therefore ensure that you come to care deeply about the fates of both the Perron family and the married investigators at the center of the story.
Similarly, the performances are exceptional with Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and in particular the always-underrated Lili Taylor giving spectacular turns. It’s because of this that when the supernatural identity inevitably threatens their lives in the searing final act The Conjuring not only delivers a viscerally terrifying experience but an emotionally powerful one too.
Some have called The Conjuring James Wan’s masterpiece. It’s not. With shades of The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror written all over it, he has neither reinvented nor reinvigorated the genre. Nonetheless, Wan delivers a skillful, confident and, above all, genuinely scary entry with his newest release, the kind that shows he has a masterpiece somewhere in him and could be coming very soon.