After bursting onto the scene with franchise-starter Saw, director James Wan has continued to deliver some of the most effective old school horrors of recent years with the likes of Dead Silence and most recently Insidious, one of the best horrors of the 21st century so far. Now he returns with The Conjuring, and he has delivered another chilling and supremely atmospheric experience that feels lifted from the ’70s era in which it’s set.
Based on the real case files of husband and wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the plot centres on their investigation into the disturbances plaguing a couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their 5 daughters who have just recently moved into a new house.
It’s a simple set-up that should feel familiar to fans of classic cinematic horror stories, back in a time when it was much more about what you don’t see rather than the gore you do. The key to why the film works as well as it does – why most of Wan’s films do in fact – is how it both seems part of the classic horror film aesthetic with all the tropes that go along with it while having fun playing around with our inherent expectations.
It nods its head to everything from The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror to The Innocents and The Haunting, using atmosphere and extremely well-timed jump scares to great effect. All the ingredients of a classic horror are there: the large secluded house, idyllic family being terrorised, creepy children, strange noises in the house at night – it’s all familiar territory but comes off as a loving homage to horrors of year’s past than any sort of rip-off.
Just like he did with Insidious, Wan makes just as much use of audience imagination as he does on-screen effects within the scene to get as much tension and fear out of it as possible. For instance, in a particularly frightening moment one of the daughters feels a presence in her room standing behind the door. All we can see is shadow but by strongly suggesting something is there it makes us do a lot of the work to imagine the worst.
It’s the first Wan horror film not to be written by his Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell, instead written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. They don’t necessarily have the greatest track record with the likes of Whiteout, The Reaping and the House of Wax remake on their filmography, but they’ve crafted a classy and surprisingly emotional story with characters we actually care about.
On paper some of the horror set-pieces might seem silly – a subplot involving a haunted doll for example – but through courage of conviction and commitment to mood and atmosphere the film pulls it off with great aplomb. It’s not quite as unique or imaginative as Insidious, which even in its lesser moments (namely the last 25 minutes) is at least trying for something interesting and outlandish, but as a bit of good old-fashioned horror filmmaking The Conjuring is very well made and very scary.