In the midst of summer blockbuster season, there are weeks when little projects come out hoping to squeeze out a few dollars between the next Jerry Bruckheimer or Christopher Nolan rip off epic.
And so this week James Wan’s The Conjuring slips in for the calm before the storm of Wolverine. It’s a classic haunted house that doesn’t rely on big CGI effects or even buckets of rubbery, runny gore. Wan, of course, helped usher in the torture porn era with Saw and already did the haunted house thing with the Poltergeist remake Insidious. He’s always been a work-in-progress director who seems to get better every time he steps behind a camera. This time he made a haunted house picture that got an R-rating from the MPAA not due to any particularly harsh content, but simply because the ratings board felt it was “too scary” for anything else. That’s a big claim that works well in marketing departments, and WB has rightly been flaunting that. However, in Canada, the film got a 14A because that’s what the decent if unspectacular movie deserves. There’s nothing here any kid who likes scary movies won’t have seen before, it’s just executed competently, unlike most of the Hollywood horror trash the MPAA sees.
The film takes place in the bad hair era of the 70s and more specifically in the world of late 70s/early 80s supernatural horror films like The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, which Wan constantly apes and references (even going so far as to use the font of The Exorcist’s title). The story unfolds in two overlapping plot threads. The superior half is the simplest, dedicated to a family of Ron Livingston’s trucker father, Lili Taylor’s warmhearted mother, and their five daughters who make the common mistake of moving into a haunted house. The weaker half follows a husband and wife pair of 70s ghost busters in Vera Farmiga’s psychic and Patrick Wilson’s amateur exorcist. The film borrows the old horror conceit of presenting the supernatural shenanigans as being “based on a true story” and crafts the Farmiga/Wilson plot as a biopic of sorts. The trouble is that since ghosts and psychics aren’t real (sorry internet conspiracy theorists!), it’s hard to take that material seriously. Thankfully, most of it is limited to an awkward wrap-around plot, with the bulk of the film dedicated to spook-house jump scares. It’s here that Wan essentially weaves together 90 minutes of haunted house set pieces and that material is a blast to watch, especially in a packed theater of sweaty-palmed viewers.
The Conjuring has already earned an uncommon amount of critical praise for a horror movie and most of that can simply be chalked up to the fact that it’s a classically and slickly produced horror flick, the likes of which rarely gets a wide Hollywood-endorsed release anymore. Wan relies on none of the gross-out gore tactics of Saw or the minimalist jump scares of Paranormal Activity (which got tiresome halfway through the first movie even though three sequels were squeezed out of the limited concept). Instead, he uses his budget and resources to “make ‘em how they used to.” Long tracking shots follow characters through shadowy corridors with a bump in the dark inevitable when least suspected. Creepy props like a rotting doll and a rusted Jack-in-the-box are used to maximum atmospheric effect. And, most effectively, Wan has his child characters playing a variation on hide and seek using blindfolds and hand clapping that already feels meme-worthy. The scare sequences pile up on each other with limited repetition so consistently that the audiences rarely have a chance to catch their breath. Make no mistake, if you’re the type of person inclined to jump in their seat from a well timed “boo,” you’ll be getting a workout. Yet, it’s all tastefully and artfully crafted at an impressive level. The Conjuring is kind of like a multi-million dollar, Halloween, haunted house attraction. You know exactly what you’re in for when you walk through the door and even while in the midst of the ride, and yet you still end up squealing like a banshee because, well, that’s why you bought the ticket in the first place.
Even though James Wan has been steadily improving as a genre craftsman since his low-budget franchise-launching debut, he still has a major weakness as a filmmaker. Wan might be a skilled cinematic technician, but his ability to craft an unpredictable narrative with believable characters has yet to catch up with his showman gifts. That’s certainly true in The Conjuring, which starts to feel like a TV-movie anytime the characters open their mouths. Fortunately, Wan gets away with that weakness here thanks to two things. First, he cast an uncommonly good group of actors who add emotional realism not present in the script. In particular, Vera Farmiga’s psychic is believable even to skeptics, Ron Livingston’s flannel clad Dad is charmingly truthful, and Lili Taylor’s haunted mom is heartbreaking thanks entirely to the work of the talented actors. You need only to sit through the painfully cardboard delivery of some of their cast-mates to see what a difference a good actor makes. The other element that helps is more accidental. The Conjuring’s biggest weakness is that it is humorless, which is a problem in a supernatural romp like this since a little levity is necessary to alleviate the relentless tension. Many of the worst lines and performances will get laughs from the audience at The Conjuring screenings and not because they are that terrible, but because the audience needs the release. The filmmakers might not have intended that effect, yet it honestly helps.
What we have here is a film that succeeds thanks to modest ambitions. It wants nothing more than to make audiences tense up and scream and thanks to James Wan’s skill with such things, it does exactly that. Now, the flick also does it in a very conventional way. Since those conventions haven’t been used in years (if not decades), that gives the movie retro cool that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. It’s still a meaningless and even dumb movie that will win no points for originality. However, The Conjuring’s dirty little audience manipulating tricks work and work well. As long as you aren’t expecting anything more than that, it’s even a pleasant surprise. This is a good old time-y haunted house picture, the kind worth seeing with a packed crowd for all the gasps, hoots, and hollers. This should be an average, Hollywood horror experience that’s expected week after week, but standards have fallen so low in the genre that it plays like an unexpected retro treat. Take that for what it’s worth and enjoy your jumps and yelps. Who knows, if the film does well, maybe this will become the new Hollywood horror standard. Wouldn’t it be nice if horror movies were actually scary again?