By this point you have probably seen The Conjuring. It’s the rare horror film released during the heart of summer blockbuster season yet it laid waste to the box office and garnered the rare thumbs up from both audiences and critics. In less than a decade, Wan has helmed three massive horror hits (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) while his peers Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Adam Green struggle with appeal to mainstream audiences . Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the film, I wanted to spotlight a handful of areas that make The Conjuring shine, and what makes Wan so damn good at crafting horror.
Make sure the audience cares about the characters you’re putting in danger. The Conjuring tells the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston & Lily Taylor) along with their five daughters as their terrorized by demonic forces after moving into a Rhode Island colonial home along with the attempts of real life ghostbusting team Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga) to help the family rid themselves of the demon. From the outset there’s a lot of warmth within the two families, and that warmth is shared between them when they are brought together. Wan makes sure that if you’re going to spend close to two hours with these families, then you’re going to be invested in what happens to them. Whatever your personal take on the Warrens and their claims may be, The Conjuring treats them like the real deal. Wan shows the physical and mental toll their work exacts.
The Conjuring goes out of its way to make the two families feel like fleshed out real people (an obvious benefit when telling a based-on-real-people story I imagine). I loved the fact that Ron Livingston wears a constant look on his face that shows just how shocked Roger is to have to live in a home with five adolescent girls and that he maybe regrets not keeping his sword in the sheath a bit more often. Lily Taylor (or her stunt double to be exact) is put through hell and back throughout the film. The temptation to play the Warrens as a pair of kooks must have been there (at one point Wilson’s character breathes a sigh of relief when he believes a magazine profile he’s just interviewed for isn’t going to mock them) but Wan paints them as a warm couple that happen to have a very outside the norm occupation.
Compare this to The Purge, which was a hit in its own right. In that film Ethan Hawke plays a character that even is one percenter neighbors feel jealousy and seething rage towards. His family members feel like they were crafted by a marketing and research team and not a writer. It’s tough invest any interest in them at all, let alone spend ninety minutes hoping they make it to the other side okay. Part of the reason why The Conjuring works is you spend the whole film caring and rooting for the Perrons and the Warrens.
It’s okay to let the tension build to unbearable heights only to reveal…nothing. There’s a scene at the midpoint of The Conjuring that should be taught in film schools as the perfect example of how to build tension to a nerve wracking crescendo. One of the girls wakes up in the middle of the night when she feels as if she’s being pulled off the bed. At first she blames her sister, only to discover that she’s fast asleep in her bed across the room. It happens again, except this time she’s awake. Now she’s terrified. She does what we’d all try to do at her age in mustering up the courage to peer over and under her bed despite her terror. Every moment you’re waiting for something to snatch her and pull her under the bed. The parent’s bedroom might as well be located in Qatar for all the good it will do her at the moment. It’s only then that the young girl looks into that pitch black space behind the open bedroom door, convinced that she sees something, and that it is not of this world, that it is pure evil and that it is out to get her.
Wan does such an excellent job building that moment through his camera movement, through the odd angles he frames certain shots with, through meticulous sound design and through his commitment to allow a moment to build until its no longer bearable, and then holding that beat for a few ticks longer. At that moment, the fear from that little girl is more than conveyed to the audience, it’s transferred to them. The ten year old kid in you comes to the surface and takes over and for a few moments you believe that monsters are real and they’re out to get you and one of them is just behind that goddamned door.
And when it all becomes too much to bear, Wan reveals…nothing. The lights come up, and there’s nothing behind the door. Wan does this a few times, leaving the audience on edge and adding to the impact when things truly go haywire.
It’s okay to laugh at how ridiculous it is to be scared. Getting frightened in a crowded theater is a bit silly isn’t it? Yet somehow the best film play on that emotion of fear, tugging at it until it comes bubbling up over your skin, making those little hairs on the back of your arms stand up. The moments that elicited the loudest screams from the theater were followed by by peals of nervous laughter from the peanut gallery.
While The Conjuring takes itself very seriously, Wan also provides moments of levity, mostly through the police officer character (John Brotherton) that accompanies the Warrens on their ghostbusting trips. About five minutes after entering the Perron residence it’s clear he has no idea what he’s signed on for and his reaction shots and penchant for doing the “acting stupid in a horror movie” go a long way to bringing needed moments of humor to the film.
Creepy dolls will never not be creepy. The breakout star of The Conjuring is Annabel, a disturbing looking doll that moves of its own accord and has a habit of making booming noises and leaving cryptic messages for its owners. I don’t know where Wan’s obsession with creepy dolls comes from, but this thing is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Upon walking back into our home, the first thing I was tempted to do was gather my daughter’s stuffed toy collection and set it on fire in the middle of the living room.
As he did with Insidious, James Wan does not look to reinvent horror with The Conjuring. Wan’s strengths lie in his ability to cull what works in classic haunted house stories (think The Old Dark House, The Haunting, Poltergeist) and adapt them for modern tastes. The Conjuring is proof that a solid story paced and crafted is more than enough to leave audiences quaking in their seats.