James Wan, for better or worse, seemed destined to be known as the guy who made Saw a film that ushered in the recent era of torture porn cinema.
Never mind that hes directed four movies since then. Never mind that in the hazy memory created by six diminishing sequels, people forget the original Saw was a decent piece of filmmaking (with less torture than you remember). Wan was on track to endure a lifetime of sideways looks when he got introduced at parties.
If theres any fairness, hell now be known as the guy who made The Conjuring. The horror movie is artfully crafted from the first scares to the closing credits, with a bold retro vibe. But while its closest cousins are The Exorcist and the original The Amityville Horror, Wan understands that modern audiences have short attention spans. The scares here begin in the pre-credits sequence, and barely let up until the end.
The throwback horror genre has been percolating for years in art houses most notably with talented young Ti Wests The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. So although West prefers a minimalist approach with a slow build, Wan aims for a more epic feel.
The Conjuring introduces us quickly to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), demonologists who believe in the occult, but understand most events are easily explained hoaxes. Next we meet the Perron family Carolyn, Roger and their five girls. With their 1970s clothing and sensibilities, the family is recognizable and realistic, with seasoned Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor in parental roles.
The Perrons have invested too much in an old house, which they gradually learn is haunted by spirits who mean to do them harm. They quickly hook up with the Warrens, who want evidence of the paranormal events before calling in an exorcist. The Perrons agree, after being told that these demons will follow them if they leave. The tale is tied together well at no point does the plot require anyone to make idiot decisions in the name of narrative momentum.
Wans boldest move is his reliance on practical effects, which enhance the 1972 setting. A storm of crows looks more like something from The Birds than a modern movie apocalypse. Demons are clearly played by made-up actors. The post-production digital effects bill couldnt have topped the low six figures and yet nothing feels skimpy.
The weakness of The Conjuring is repetition. There are multiple sequences where a Perron lights the basement with matches, sleepwalks or investigates an armoire, and scenes start to blend together in the 112 minute run time. (The emotionally satisfying ending forgives minor editing flaws.)
Although the budget was likely modest, attention to detail is rich. The musical score sets a menacing tone and is also an effective tease, changing things up to avoid tipping off the audience. As action builds, the camera work seems to get a little shakier and rise to impossible angles, as if the demons are handling the cinematography as well.
The actors are all committed to Wans vision, but Taylor stands out, giving everything to a complex and constantly shifting role. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes are also assets, resisting the horror movie urge to over-explain. They craft memorable scenes, but also include mystery, ensuring new things will be discovered upon repeat viewings.
There are two kinds of people who wont like this film: Those who hate all horror movies, and a less mature crowd not ready to experiment beyond the cheaper thrills of the Paranormal Activity or Final Destination templates. (That latter group doesnt trust mainstream movie reviews, so this glowing take should provide adequate warning.)
As the critic in charge of putting together a summer movie preview, I barely considered The Conjuring worthy of mention. That was a clear mistake. Id be shocked if we see a better horror film in 2013.
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