Director James Wan is no stranger to horror. Though he’s best known for launching the torture porn trend with Saw, it’s starting to seem like he’s really more interested in spooky, retro ghost stories. He’s already made two attempts at creating a creepy classic: in 2007, he directed Dead Silence, an awkward but ambitious film about a ghost ventriloquist, then in 2011, there was Insidious, a deliriously messy demon possession movie. With The Conjuring, though, he’s finally cracked it. This is a film that’s going to give you nightmares – assuming you can get to sleep at all after watching it.
In its opening text crawl, The Conjuring claims to be based on a true story, though it probably doesn’t matter too much whether you believe that. Its main characters are Ed and Lorraine Warren, and they’re definitely real people: they’re paranormal investigators, best known for working on the case that would become known as The Amityville Horror. The events of The Conjuring take place before that, though, back in 1971.
At that point, the Warrens were already well into their ghostbusting career; when we’re introduced to them, they’re travelling around the country giving lectures about their work. They’ve also got a young child at home, and after Lorraine was badly hurt during an exorcism gone wrong, they’re feeling kind of ambivalent about the whole demonology business. When they’re approached by Carolyn Perron, a mother of five who’s recently moved into a very haunted farmhouse, they’re reluctant to get involved, but can’t bring themselves to ignore her pleas.
The film weaves together the story of the Warrens with the story of the Perrons and their demons, creating higher stakes than normal for a haunted house movie. It’s not just the family of adorable moppety children that’s in danger: it’s the demonologists and their family, too. Though the Warrens are only quickly sketched, they’re clearly good people who care deeply about one another, which makes the danger lurking in the haunted house seem more menacing than it otherwise could have done.
Even so, in other hands, this could’ve been just another generic exorcism movie. The script is competent, but it’s not particularly original. What makes The Conjuring special is its style. It uses its period setting to its advantage, borrowing the swooping steadicam shots and tight focus pulls of classic 70s horror; because it’s really 2013, though, it also nabs the best bits from more recent horror, notably Paranormal Activity.
It’s almost a greatest hits of horror, but this is no generic copy and paste job. Wan understands what it is that makes a scare work; he twists the essence of older ideas into new shapes, making familiar things terrifying again. He knows horror is as much about what you don’t see as what you do, and smartly reveals just enough of his ghosts to make your hair stand on end. The Conjuring isn’t stingy on the scare front – once it gets going, it’s relentless – but every single one is perfectly set up and orchestrated.
This is a film that revels in making you jump, and it’ll make you love it, too. The Perron house seems to have been designed deliberately to give its ghosts the best possible playground; it’s all long corridors, heavy doors, and endless secret hidey-holes. Even the wallpaper is creepy. The antique music box the Perron kids find in the garden could only scream “HAUNTED!” more loudly if it actually, y’know, screamed “HAUNTED!” when you turned the key, and its red and white stripes and spirals remind you exactly whose film you’re watching.
The marketing can tell you this is a true story as much as it likes, but really, it’s James Wan’s show. From the ominously foggy lake beside the haunted house to the appearance of the inevitable creepy puppet, The Conjuring has Wan’s fingerprints all over it. And while his earlier movies were spirited, zeitgeisty, but ultimately flawed, The Conjuring is an accomplished work that shows that he’s matured into one hell of a filmmaker.
The Conjuring is out on the 2nd August in the UK.
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