Who would have guessed that the man responsible for spearheading the “torture porn” label would turn out to be such a classicist filmmaker? James Wan, who famously abandoned the over-long “Saw” series after its first gruesome installment, has gone on to make a number of pictures that harken back to an earlier era, less grisly and more foreboding. It’s perhaps a testament to his craft that his latest, “The Conjuring,” seems to feature no sex, almost zero foul language, and a minimal amount of blood-letting, only to still comfortably secure an R-rating. Rarely do you find contemporary horror films dedicated to genuinely scaring you instead of making you laugh ironically, recoil in disgust, or react with politically-fueled anger.
With “The Conjuring,” Wan accomplishes this task, creating a picture that owes a great deal to seventies-era chillers like “The Amityville Horror” and “The Changeling.” It’s 1970, and two families are about to cross paths. One is a fairly generic American clan, the Perrons, with a truck-driving patriarch attempting to provide for a wife and a five-daughter household as they move into a rickety Rhode Island fixer-upper. There isn’t much, if any conflict, separating shaggy-haired Roger (Ron Livingston) from sweet-natured Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and each of their five daughters bicker and joke amongst themselves a healthy amount, even with their differences in age and temperament. In quieter moments, the girls pick each other up, through nuanced interactions at the fringes of the story that provide an interest in character this genre long stopped providing.
The Warrens, however, have a decidedly different outlook. The picture begins with a scare sequence involving a couple of girls stalked by a malevolent force, but after these conventional spook moments, in walk the Warrens. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) enter as investigators primarily, and they dispose of the spirit off-screen, calmly explaining the otherworldly phenomena to the victims. A fiery sideburned alpha type, Ed compliments Lorraine’s intensely intellectual, observational style, the two of them explaining their work like exterminators getting rid of a not-particularly-threatening insect. That this scene introduces the throwback title sequence is telling; unlike pretty much any studio horror film this year, “The Conjuring” isn’t desperate to scare you, but rather to showcase two professionals working through a problematic situation. The only flash between these two likely happens behind the scene, where their obvious chemistry takes flower. When dealing with the supernatural, it’s just another day at work.
The Perrons’ new home is a musty two-floor townhouse, but the discovery of a boarded-up, spider-webbed closet door reveals a cellar, which the family pragmatically refers to as “extra footage.” If prying those boards off doesn’t necessarily unleash the demon inside this house, it certainly allows it to loosen its belt, and soon the attacks happen with frequency. Some items are misplaced. Others fly across the room. The damage isn’t as considerable as its meaning, as one sequence results in the Perrons’ family photos violently coming off the wall. At times it appears there are ghosts afoot, particularly the kind that like to linger mischievously in the back of the frame. In other, more violently alarming sequences, it’s as if this new house is belligerently rejecting its new tenants.
The Warrens agree to lend their expertise once the haunting appears legit, and soon they are moving in with the couple and their rambunctious daughters. The Warrens’ tech is charmingly analog, as they and their collegiate assistant Drew (Shannon Kook) lug bulky equipment around that’s probably pocket-sized today, but Wan warmly treats this incursion as a temporary extension of the family. There’s the opportunity for manufactured contempt but it doesn’t manifest, not even in the skeptical macho cop (John Brotherton) providing protection. The best non-scare moments occur with the teaming of the two core couples. Farmiga and Taylor don’t share much screen-time, which somewhat handicaps the emotional payoff of a portion of the third act, but Livingston and Wilson share moments where, beyond the intensity of this situation, they’re just two bros, bro’ing out. There’s lip service paid to the fact that the Perrons are not religious, a contrast to the cross-clutching Warrens, but neither side seems in a hurry to grandstand.
Speaking of which, the scare moments: “The Conjuring,” at points, is terrifying. Wan really understands how active, acrobatic camerawork can enhance the storytelling without breaking the fourth wall, a technique abused by today’s horror craftsmen. Often, he’ll switch perspective in the middle of the scenes, where it will cast doubt as to whose eyes we’re looking through, and in other moments it will shift from one person to the next, without knowledge if that other person is our spectral threat. Moments with obvious CG, as always, don’t convince: Wan stages spook moments well, like the sudden possession of a white cloth, but as it stays into frame and moves unnaturally, the distraction of excessive effects pulls you out of a film very much dedicated to creating believable characters in a real period setting. But contrast the dusty, sinister basement in this film versus the same one in this year’s flop sweat-drenched “Evil Dead” remake. Wan understands the horror of the mundane, and his success with creating atmosphere allows a few stacked chairs and some covered-up furniture to register as menacing.
Mostly, Wan takes his time, allowing a methodical approach to the material that forces you to be absorbed into the world created therein. The Warrens, a real-life paranormal team, are seen giving lectures about their work to college students in a way that suggests a dry familiarity bordering on boredom, and there is no real attempt to sex them up or heighten the stakes by creating division between the two of them. In fact, what startles is the strength of their bond when the chips are down. The third act is a bit sloppier than the first two, particularly when the rather familiar ghostly motivation surfaces, and the editing glosses over some key plot progressions. But it’s Wan’s unpretentious sentiment regarding the union built by this duo that shines through, which we see represented by a suburban chamber of haunted souvenirs from past cases. To them, every defeated boogeyman is another vow renewal; what ghost would stand a chance? [B]