Director: James Wan
Runtime: 112 minutes
From the moment the title card scrolls up onto the screen, James Wan's The Conjuring gleefully announces itself as a cinematic throwback to the 70s (both in style and in setting). Despite an R-rating, the Saw and Insidious director's latest film has barely any blood (and no noticeable gore) to speak of. Instead, it's content to make you jump and clench your armrest simply by holding the camera on an empty room, or unpretentiously showing someone receive a ghostly yank on the leg. Aside from the surprisingly strong digital photography, there's little that's new or 'modern' about Wan's approach to the haunted house sub-genre, but that's hardly a bad thing. What The Conjuring lacks in new ground, it makes up for with good old fashioned scares, tension, solid character work, and committed performances from its central quartet.
Wan, a native of Australia, got his big Hollywood break with the Saw franchise, which has led to the much maligned type of horror known as torture porn. Yet despite the proliferation of such films in the past decade, Wan himself has grown quite a bit as a filmmaker. There are no heinous traps or masked figures to be found in The Conjuring, only twisted spirits and the humans they love to terrorize. Those humans are Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who move into a paranormal-prone house along with their five daughters. At first it's the small stuff that lets them know that something is rotten in the state of Rhode Island. Objects move. Doors slam. And, every once and a while, an unseen force seems to literally pull people's legs in their sleep. As the incidents intensify, however, the Perrons become determined to fight back.
Their best hope is paranormal expert Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). First introduced in a unsettling and slightly goofy opening (which includes an extraordinarily creepy doll), the Warrens take their profession seriously, even though they often run into cases with mundane solutions (one couple's ghost turns out to be no more than some old pipes). Despite the flashes of humor (some of which may not be entirely intentional), Wan treats the Warrens and the Perrons sincerely. The gradual progression of paranormal encounters is expertly handled, giving Wan and his actors room to build the characters (the adults, anyway) into more than just blank slates to be harassed from beyond the grave.
The women are especially strong here, with Farmiga's psychic and Taylor's unhinged housewife contrasting to striking effect. Taylor, who starred in the disastrous haunted house film The Haunting (2000 remake), is afforded the most range, and the actress takes hold of the role without making Carolyn come off as dumb or shrill. Taylor's role takes her from curious to terrified to full on possessed, and the arc feels natural given her naturalism and the script's patience.
Farmiga, meanwhile, brings an understated mix of strength and vulnerability to Lorraine that serves the character and the film well once the final act arrives. Like Ed, Lorraine is a professional (as much as a paranormal investigator can be a professional). So when the Perrons call on the Warrens for expert help, they actually receive it. Even as events spiral out of control, the writing is smart enough to not just tell us that the Warrens know what they're doing. There are moments of doubt and moments where the house has the (invisible) upper hand, but Ed and Lorraine know how to maintain composure and fight back, rather than become another pair of annoying victims. The Warrens' own relationship drama may be rather thin, but the conviction of the performers in the scenes truly relevant to the plot ring true enough to further heighten the stakes.
As far as technical aspects go, John Leonetti's cinematography, which evokes the 70s through its sepia-tinged color palette, is outstanding without drawing too much attention to itself. Combined with Wan's smart use of long takes, the camera work and lighting are a big part of what makes The Conjuring's scares work so well. Even when setting up for a jump scare, Wan allows the camera to linger longer than most of his contemporaries. He allows the tension to build, subside, build again, subside again, and then execute the big moment. Wan's camera doesn't want you to cover your eyes for the entire movie. It wants you to hold them open as long as you possibly can, so that the moment that you flinch or jump is even more intense.
Rather than throw a bunch of chaos at the screen, the formalism of the filmmaking gives even the simplest shots the sense that someone or something is lurking just out of sight. Julie Berghoff's art direction is also first rate, with everything from the Perron's basement to the Warren's room full of possessed artifacts brimming with the potential for a good scare. With so many horror films content to look either grimy or purposefully unpolished (such as found footage films), it's refreshing to see Wan and his collaborators put so much effort into the film's production design and atmosphere.
Only Joseph Bishara's score stands out in any negative capacity. The film's most intense moments are those agonizing seconds as the camera pans across a room in near silence. When the screaming and running begins, however, Bishara lays it on thick with blaring horns that would be more at home in straight-faced. Still, it's not enough to break the spell that Wan and co. cast from the film's opening moments. Though the anticipation is often more satisfying than the actual scare, The Conjuring consistently manages to put one just slightly on edge, and always for a few seconds longer than expected. In an age where stores of ghosts and ghouls are captured on crummy camcorders and iPhones, The Conjuring's dedication to classic technique is actually a breath of fresh air. If anything, it's the frantic cell-phone horror films of the past few years that feel out of date, rather than Wan's film, which reaches more than 30 years into the past for its inspiration.