I can count on one hand the number of horror movies that have truly startled me in my adult life. I mean really shaken me up, jostled my nerves, and left me exhausted by the end. The Conjuring is on that hand. For two hours, I slid down in my seat, sucked in my breath, tensed at the lengthy silences, and jumped at things that went bump in the night; no tricks, no cheats, no ostentatious CGI. This is a movie that sets out to scare and does it like an overachieving honors student. In fact, The Conjuring is so effective, I would put it on a list of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. High praise, I know; but if you’ve wearied, as I have, at the endless line of genre dreck churned out over the past few decades — from self-referential cleverness to unceasingly nasty torture porn, to tripe like the latest Texas Chainsaw reboot — then you’ll understand why The Conjuring is some sort of miracle.
It’s an irony of sorts, then, that director James Wan cut his teeth on Saw in 2004. There, he proved himself adept at ripping body parts asunder, but little else, and obtained the dubious distinction of having helped to birth a new — and ultimately excoriated — sub-genre of horror. Later, there were whispers of an accomplished filmmaker in Dead Silence (2007) and Insidious (2010). But nothing in either of those films, even if they were decent examples of the genre, could have prepared me for the full-throated cry of Wan’s arrival in The Conjuring. This is a man who understands what it means to scare someone, that a true, red-blooded horror film thrills not with a litany of empty jump scares, but sustained tension, mood, the right music and an uncanny knack for the proper placement of shadows. If Wan keeps up at this pace, we’re in for the horror revolution I’ve so desperately dreamed of for years now.
Of course, even the best directors are nothing in the face of shoddy screenplay material. Fortunately, Wan has been given a rich source, in the form of that grand old tradition: the true story. How true is it really? I don’t know. Certainly two of the film’s key subjects, Lorraine and Ed Warren, were real, famous as a clairvoyant and demonologist, respectively, who claim to have investigated several cases of paranormal disturbances, including the now-debunked Amityville Horror. The Conjuring is supposedly based on one of those cases, about a family tormented by spirits in Rhode Island, circa 1971, and as the film gets off the ground, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lily Taylor) and their five daughters (!) certainly seem to be bugged by something. Fresh in a new house, doors open and close by themselves. A rancid smell emits from origins unknown. Roger discovers the entrance to the cellar boarded up. And the youngest daughter, April, insists that you have only to look in the mirror of her music box to see her imaginary friend, Rory. Benign enough, but Wan sets all of this up with wicked style, slowly ratcheting up the tension through the threat of something happening. Sure, he provides a few thrilling jumps, but they’re nothing compared to the long, slow silences where something might be hiding just within someone’s reach. The real threats in the house increase exponentially, as an innocent game of hide-and-clap turns into a nightmare for Carolyn, who finds herself locked in the cellar with nothing but a box of matches. Here, Wan does more with shadows in a frame than I’ve seen in any horror film since John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the effect is truly chilling. So, why don’t the Perron’s they just move? Well, let me just say that The Conjuring finally provides the most logical answer to that question I’ve ever heard. With nowhere else to turn, they call in the Warrens, who reluctantly move in to the house with their motion-detection equipment and affable assistant, Drew, played winningly by former Degrassi: The Next Generation alum, Shannon Kook.
To say that all hell eventually breaks loose is an understatement. The Warren’s investigative skills are put to the test as the source of the malevolence becomes clear to all involved. Is the final explanation for all the terror satisfactory? Sure, it is. Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.” A movie like The Conjuring isn’t necessarily about its story (although its story is very good), but about how its story is told, and here it is told expertly. This is a truly scary film, intense and nerve-wracking in ways utterly unfamiliar to modern-day horror movies. Much has been made of the R rating, despite the absence of sex, nudity, or profanity; but let me tell you, the rating is richly deserved. I wouldn’t let a young teenager watch The Conjuring–and I’m a life-long horror junkie who has pretty much seen it all.
As I said, I’ve wearied over the horror genre, fearing for some time that it was dead in the water, no pun intended, or, at the very least, drowning. But James Wan may have revived it all. Is The Conjuring a fluke? I’m not so sure. I don’t think a film of this caliber can be a happy accident; it takes the deliberate guidance of someone who understands the genre in which he’s working. So, even though he’s been around for a few years, I’ll say that James Wan is an important new voice in horror. His Insidious 2 is set to release later this summer. He’s set the bar; let’s see if he can raise it.