Filmmaker James Wan has, in the last decade, become horror cinema royalty. He was behind the creation of the Saw franchise, the two Insidious movies, and, from just this past summer, The Conjuring. His bona fides as a horror auteur are unassailable...which must be why he’s currently helming Fast & Furious 7. After directing three straight ghost stories, maybe a change in direction was inevitable.
I can’t gaze into a crystal ball and fathom anyone’s motivations for what they do at work or what projects they choose to take on. Nor can I criticize people for selling out, if that is what they are doing. I want a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, in a part of the country where it’s warm all year around. Right now I can’t have that. But if someone or some organization offered me the opportunity to knock out that real estate trifecta and all I would have to do is compromise my artistic integrity, I would have to ask myself how that would be any different than anything else I’ve done to pay the bills. And who knows? There’s a chance Fast & Furious 7 will be good. Maybe. Probably not.
But this review isn’t about a movie that hasn’t even been made yet. It’s about the first of two films Mr. Wan released this year: The Conjuring.
By this point, we’re all familiar with how haunted house films work. A family moves into a new home and things begin to go wrong. Picture frames start falling off the walls, doors open and close on their own, the youngest child makes an imaginary friend, etc. After that things get scarier for the family, and they have to reach out for help, usually to a psychic or very open-minded university psychologist. These types of films are starting to get as predictable as rom-coms or underdog sports comedies. Even worse, more and more of these predictable films are made every year. Most of them are so bad that they can actually be found on Netflix streaming, unlike most good movies.
The Conjuring, while following very closely in the footsteps of just about every haunted house film that came before, overcomes its lack of originality by being well made and damned frightening. James Wan’s direction continues his growth as a filmmaker. Once upon a time he relied on stomach-churning gore as one of the progenitors of the torture porn subgenre of horror. All those films did for scores of horror fans was make them physically ill. Some people enjoy that, which is fine. I never have. I love it when a horror film makes me look away from the screen, not because of the sickening physical harm happening to characters, but because the tension is just too much. Gore versus fright represents two oft-opposing forces in horror films, and Wan has shown that he is adept at both.
In this film, the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters have moved into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island. But they are not alone. The house appears to be haunted by a whole host of specters. None of the family members is immune. Bad smells, banging doors, physical contact, even demonic possession; the spirits messing with the Perrons mean business. After a particularly disturbing night for the family, Carolyn decides it is time to get some help.
Enter the husband and wife team of Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), self-styled demonologists and spirit mediums that specialize in helping families plagued by ghosts. Believe it or not, this film is based on supposedly true occurrences. The Perrons and the Warrens are real people, and the Warrens supposedly did help the Perrons with their supernatural problems. The Warrens have some celebrity cachet in the ghost hunting world. In fact, this is the third real-world experience the Warrens have been involved with that was turned into a film, the others being The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut. Whether or not the Warrens have helped with genuine experiences or they’re just modern-day hucksters is not for this article to say. This is a movie review...of a work of fiction.
The Warrens are serious about what they do, going so far to present documentation they collect at various university lectures. This lends the characters an air of credibility that they probably do not deserve, but it works well in developing the characters beyond their interactions with the Perrons.
Wilson and Farmiga do a good job portraying the duo. Especially Farmiga. Farmiga plays Lorraine with a compassion and empathy that I wish more people in real life showed. They also play their parts arrow-straight, never showing any doubt that what they are seeing in the Perron’s home is not real. The confidence of their characters is also quite comforting. If I ever did find myself in a situation like the Perrons’, I would be much less frightened if this Hollywood version of the Warrens were in the room with me.
As the film moves along, a viewer will begin to notice that, unlike many other ghost films, it remains frightening almost the entire way through. The moment when a viewer becomes too accustomed to the scares for them to be frightening anymore comes late, with around twenty minutes left. Credit goes to Wan for maintaining proper pacing, balance, and tension throughout. The Conjuring is a spectacle of a horror film that does much to scare the audience without going overboard. It’s accessible to basically all audiences without falling into blandness. I’m impressed with it because it managed to give me everything I wanted to see out of a haunted house movie without being dumb. Wan showed that, deftly handled, a filmmaker actually can show a lot in a movie and still have tension. I hope not too many other filmmakers try.