The 60’s and 70’s represented a gilded age of sorts for the horror genre. It was a fantastic time period for cinema in general, but the horror genre was pushing the envelope in ways that not only churned the stomach, but ignited the mind with horrific possibilities. It’s easy to champion films like Repulsion, The Exorcist, and Halloween, films featuring a hearty helping of malevolence, but coerced the viewer into using their imagination to explore the unknown residing beyond the frame. For me, lingering fright outweighs grotesque mutilation, which reasonably explains the disdain I hold for my generation’s horror films, films that lazily rest their laurels on jump scares and skin desecration. Admittedly, there’s a level of destructive ingenuity in a film like Evil Dead (the remake), but I want a horror film that latches on like a vicious spirit, haunting me well into the night. James Wan’s The Conjuring is that kind of film, which is ironic considering Wan’s career began with the first Saw film, a grisly tale that helped define gore porn. Based off its style and investment in atmosphere, The Conjuring is an impressive ode to 70’s horror.
Taking place in the 70’s, the terrifying film recounts the true tale of the Perron family, who experience a collection of strange occurrences in their new home. Disembodied voices and claps echo throughout the Perron household, undermining the family’s sense of security. Soon, unexplainable noises are replaced with physical aggression from the house’s unwanted guest, forcing the Perron family into action. Enter in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), two pronounced mystics with extensive paranormal experience. The Warren’s presence grants the Perron family momentary amnesty from the unknown, if only because the large family has someone on their side not cloaked in skepticism. Upon their first investigation of the Perron house, the Warren’s conclude that something sinister lurks within the home’s decrepit walls, but a solution is out of reach until the Warren’s unearth the house’s past. The film’s build up resembles that of a slow boil, where the first two acts masterfully revel in small atmospheric moments. Once the Warren’s unravel the house’s history , Wan ignites a ferocious flame, allowing terror to run wild in an absolutely absorbing last act.
Wan’s patience and attention to detail are what‘s missing in contemporary horror films. Sure, there is a jump scare or two shoehorned into the film, but Wan’s low key efforts make the deepest cuts. A clock striking 3:07 am and a creaking door produces far more shivers than the grotesque, and Wan delivers off kilter sounds and moments in spades. One of the more jarring moments in the film is simply the image of a child softly banging her head against the heavy doors of an armoire while sleepwalking. The rhythmic sound of a skull meeting wood is horrifically enchanting. Even more to the point, there’s a terrific scene where the Warren’s outfit the Perron household with trip wire cameras, hoping to get a glimpse of the dead walking amidst the living. We eventually get to see one of the ghastly incarnations, but not before the sound of exploding camera bulbs send a disorienting buzz to our ears. Outside of his use of sound and unforgiving disjointed human behavior, Wan’s visual panache is absolutely stunning and hypnotic, making The Conjuring one of the better looking films of the year. In actuality, it’s also one of the few that properly caters to all the senses.
Supporting Wan’s scare tactics are fantastic visual and sonic flourishes that perfectly embody the peak of horror cinema. From a chilling score that at times sounds like a swarm of bees readying their stingers to vintage 70’s crash zooms, The Conjuring possesses scenes that are both deathly and playful, reminding us how sickeningly enjoyable the horror genre can be when executed properly. The film’s weakness, which is overcome by Wan’s deft orchestrations and strong performances, is its inability to avoid cheesy, sentimental family moments, especially the connection between the Warrens and Perrons. I imagine these scenes act as a form of catharsis after we’ve plunged into the abyss but they’re often dead on arrival, inducing eye rolls over empathy. But these particular moments, which are far and few between, don’t undermine The Conjuring’s goal: striking fear in the viewer. By adopting a less means more approach, and slowly wringing out the tension, James Wan gifts us a throwback film that for once has us hopeful for the future, and not simply wishing for the past.