The most welcome surprise in James Wan’s The Conjuring isn’t the fact that Wan, purveyor of torture-porn cinema, can be capable of a fairly quiet, almost elegant horror film. The Conjuring was, after all, preceded by Dead Silence (2007) and the surprise hit Insidious (2010) — three relatively calm films that couldn’t be farther from the depredations of Saw (2004) and its sequels. The shocker here is how much mileage Wan gets from restraint and the power of suggestion: from deep blacks to tight close-ups, teasing the viewer with what lies beyond the frame.
But even this isn’t anything new. Take the minimalist approach to horror that Paranormal Activity and its sequels has taken, with a special effects budget close to nil and a keen sense of the limitations of the medium and camera placement. And after all, the first storytellers surely used light and shadow around the campfire to scare the bejeezus out of an audience of cavemen. (I just used an anachronism there, but whatever.) Wan uses jump cuts relatively sparingly, instead using old-fashioned zooms to isolate characters.
The Conjuring, set in the early ‘70s, is a nice throwback to horror classics of the same era like The Omen or The Exorcist, right down to its opening titles. Which, perhaps, leads to a bit of a problem. The Conjuring isn’t quite an homage to those earlier films, because of its source material, but it feels like a combination of every haunted house / possession movie that came before it. The cast of characters is no surprise: a stubborn family who can’t take a hint, a team of researchers, and an old sprawling house with a basement and/or attic. The massive pounding, furniture being rearranged, levitation of bodies, doorknobs being turned, picture frames falling off walls — they’re all here. Even the red rubber ball materializing out of nowhere from Peter Medak’s The Changeling has a cameo.
So what new thing, if any, does The Conjuring bring to the table? Wan does have a little fun with the film’s time period, with the low-tech equipment, and the shirt collars. The cast is also a talented treat, with Lili Taylor as the hapless mother — who can always be depended on to bring a bit of the crazy — and a rather humorless Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Wilson, demonologist and clairvoyant respectively. (Wan does miss an opportunity here to play with the Wilsons’ characters a bit; they take themselves way too seriously, perhaps in deference to the real-life investigators, and that whiff of hucksterism the audience gets in the beginning is too quickly dispensed with. Too bad — it could have been used as a source of even more tension.)
What is novel, though, is how terrifying this all is, possibly because the quiet shocks come one after the other. It’s unrelenting, and I’d swear the hair on my arms were standing on end for a full thirty minutes in the theater. As the credits roll, you leave the dark room with your nerves all twitching with tension, and carry the fear back home with you.