James Wan is a true and deserved success story.
Starting out with a low budget, big idea'd little film called Saw that changed (for better and a lot worse) the very nature of the theatrical horror genre, this is a director with has only improved with each foray into the genre. While he leaves us lowly horror fans behind to carry on the rather fertile (though now rather uncertain) legacy of The Fast & the Furious (or Fast/Furious or Fasurious or whatever the new not-numbered sequels will be called), let us hope he makes the occasional visit back to us.
You know...because the guy clearly has a thing for creepy dolls.
Quick Plot: We start with a fun little prologue of sorts that qualifies The Conjuring for The Shortening. In the early '70s, a pair of roommates report their experiences with a possibly haunted, probably evil, and most certainly ugly doll named Annabelle to Ed and Lorraine Warren (the impossibly handsome Patrick Wilson and the impossibly awesome Vera Farmiga). The Warrens are the country's most esteemed pair of psychic investigators and deal with Annabelle as you do: lock it in a glass case inside your Friday the 13th: The Series-esque basement of haunted chotchkes.
Moving on to our main narrative we meet the Perrons, a pleasant family of seven moving to a secluded country estate in Rhode Island. Just a few nights in the mysteriously low-priced real estate gives way to the usual trappings of any haunted house:
-Every clock inside stops at the same time each night
-Dog Sadie refuses to enter, only to find the backyard even less safe
-Dad (Ron Livingston) discovers a hidden basement loaded with antiques
-The temperature remains freezing despite the furnace being in working order
-Middle child's sleepwalking keeps leading to an antique wardrobe that seems to house something else
- Mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor, taking a better stab at being in a ghost film titled in the noun form of a verb in the present perfect tense) wakes up with unexplained bruises all over her iron deficient body
-The youngest daughter discovers a disheveled music box that reveals an imaginary friend
-There's a ghost and it attacks everyone
Forgive the Foxworthy routine, but if your home is never above 20ºF, your daughters report invisible things grabbing their legs in the middle of the night, and your dog has all but drawn a police sketch of an angry Casper with its paws, you just might be in a haunted house.
Thankfully, Carolyn is able to reach the Warrens for an investigation, something that comes loaded with its own history as the clairvoyant Lorraine is still recovering from a horrific exorcism gone wrong.
By now, you're probably thinking that all of this sounds very familiar. Patrick Wilson already trespassed through The Further in Insidious, Lili Taylor saw her share of The Haunting, and just about every detail thus far has a faint smell of a Long Island home in Nassau County.
Except this one is better.
There is little new in The Conjuring, and that's almost the point. The opening credits blatantly style themselves on those of any '70s ghost film, while The Changeling's bouncing ball makes an adorable cameo. There are traces of The Exorcist and Poltergeist at play, but here's the thing: The Conjuring knows how to position them.
Ever since he stretched a low budget and short filming time for Saw, James Wan has been steadily growing as a filmmaker. I'm in the minority that appreciated Dead Silence both as a stylish throwback and clear attempt to toy with certain horror elements. True, maybe I just like Wan because he and I share a fascination with puppets and their like, but in watching his development from Saw to Dead Silence to the strong-til-its-last-act Insidious, you can see a filmmaker with a love and understanding of the horror genre finding his own way through it. Sure, Insidious and The Conjuring call back all the tropes of haunted house movies--the kooky psychics, the children's games gone wrong--but think of what they do differently than so many others: when investigating a mystery, characters TURN ON THE LIGHTS. The first instinct? MOVE OUT. Like us, James Wan has clearly watched his share of ghost stories and translated what I assume to be his mental checklist into an effective chill.
It helps that Wan is working with a seasoned cast that clearly cares. Farmiga has been one of my favorite actresses for years, and not JUST because she goes head to head with Isabelle Badass Fuhrman in Orphan. No one is phoning in a performance here, and the cast is aided by a clean and occasionally, quite funny script from Chad and Carey Hayes. Wan carefully builds his characters and the situation with deliberate care, making everything onscreen hit harder when the chairs start flying.
In addition to all the aforementioned strengths--good cast, script, ambiance--I should point out something that Wan and his crew do incredibly well: architecture. As we followed a character investigating a strange sound, it dawned on me that I knew exactly which bedroom it was coming from and where said room was located in the house. Because the layout of the set was established so clearly (and innocently) early on in the film, I as a viewer was put in the same place as the characters, bringing me one step closer to the action and horror. It's something that can be overlooked so easily in the age of quick cuts, and yet watching The Conjuring made me realize just how much this kind of precision can help a film
It's simply a matter of taste, but for me, as soon as the demonic forces go from eerie suggestion to concrete existence, the scares become a little less throat gulpy and more 'eh, at least it's not CGI'-y
Gentlemen, I apologize for my crassness, but it must be said: whenever Patrick Wilson appears in a film and does not show his rear, the ladies are sad
We could make all sorts of easy jokes about how the REAL horror of the Perrons is being a family filled with five daughters, but let's face it: if The Conjuring has taught us nothing else, it's that wallpaper of the 1970s was truly horrifying
Listen to your dog. ALWAYS listen to your dog
Ghosts smell like rancid meat or REALLY bad farts
Like The Purge, I was incredibly satisfied with 2013’s OTHER big profit, low budget studio horror film. The Conjuring isn’t perfect and won’t necessarily get the jumps out of all audience members, but this is the kind of well-made little ghost story ideal for an evening of lights-out, cats-on-lap viewing. Good stuff.
Shortening Cred: Though the real threat is a fully grown ghost, The Conjuring has a nice supporting turn by doll (and possible distant cousin to Seed of Chucky’s Glen) Annabelle.