While I was deep into the scares of The Conjuring, I found myself making correlations between the creative input of director James Wan and his horror / thriller contemporary Darren Aronofsky. Both have a unique vision and refuse to be pigeonholed into the genres that marked their success. Yet, both have had a way of working around those limitations to produce exceptional works. Wan said that he does not want to work in horror forever and move on to different stories, much like Aronofsky said he wanted to eventually work in mainstream film. To the gratitude of cinemaphiles worldwide, Wan continues to provide excellent scares, much like Aronofsky has taken difficult subjects and made them mainstream.
The Conjuring is not as refreshing as Wan's excellent 2010 film, Insidious, but Wan continues to mark unique territory for himself in modern horror. While the genre has given itself over primarily to found-footage with extremely diminishing returns, Wan finds inspiration in the confident styles of horror films from the past. His films have found that precious balance between campy and creepy by providing his lens a point of view that takes the threat seriously, instead of catering to the post-Scream self-reference crowd that treats horror like a joke.
That said, even if you're in-tune to the style of The Conjuring, much feels like a retread of Wan's previous Insidious success. The story, again, centers on a family that moves into a new home only to find their lives plagued by the supernatural. Also, there is a supernatural investigation team that just so happens to specialize in matters demonic and terrifying, who can help out the beleaguered family. This plot convenience is only something that's going to matter to those of us who have seen Insidious, because even with this fill-in-the-blanks approach Wan makes the scenario feel pretty fresh.
Moving the setting from contemporary times to the '60s is a real boon. The isolation that the family is photographed with takes on an added heft when the creeping realization comes in that there is no way for any of them to call for help quickly. It also allows Wan to steep his film in the style of old horror films like Amityville Horror or, in one unsettling zoom, equating the seemingly innocent members of the family to the likes of Michael Myers.
Wan takes to these flourishes with ease and The Conjuring is always filled with delightful shots. His respect to the horror films of before is seen in the moments where the camera takes the POV of the supernatural. A beautiful, floating shot early in the film drifts throughout the home like the spirits seeing what their new live-in neighbors are like and introduces us to the many dark nooks of the home. Even during The Conjuring's nod to found footage its done more as an ongoing scene from the perspective of those tuning in through a live video-feed, not as an event that has passed and here is the relic of those unfortunate souls.
Another strong point to Wan's work is that the further he moves away from Saw, the more that he elicits performances from people who buy into the horror completely. That's why his partnership with Patrick Wilson, who plays one of the investigators, is so refreshing. Wilson is the kind of performer who's able to make a character feel at once reassuring and threatening. After all, he once played a charming pedophile in Hard Candy in a performance that walked a very fine line. The other standout of the cast is an excellent Lili Taylor, whose growing concern begins to tear at her already straining voice.
The only thing that's unfortunate about The Conjuring is that familiarity. I have no doubt that first timers to James Wan's brand of horror will find this an excellent film. Unfortunately, because of that familiarity, all I can do is admire the craft. The performances are excellent, the scares well set-up, and all done with the same excellent style. But beyond the raw craft there's nothing new, and while this isn't a bad thing on its own, it still carries with it some disappointment at hitting all the old chords, even if it's with more skill.
Even so, it's hard to be disappointed with the results of The Conjuring just because it's not brand new. I had a blast watching it, shivered when Taylor reached out into the dark when she realizes her daughter isn't there, and laughed at the arrival of the skeptics to monitor the true-believers and make sure none of them get hurt. The Conjuring suffers little in the way of diminishing returns for its trip around horror, and is well worth the price for a lap.
Directed by James Wan.
Screenplay written by Chad and Carey Hayes.
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, and Lili Taylor.