It’s ironic that the creator of “Saw,” the first film in the defining franchise of the “torture porn” movement that represents everything that’s wrong with contemporary horror filmmaking, would go on to become Hollywood’s leading director of old-fashioned ghost stories that overtly reject current genre trends, but such has been the fascinating career path of James Wan. With “Insidious” and now “The Conjuring,” Wan has proven himself to be a master of classical scares, realizing that the more he doesn’t show us, the more frightening the film usually is. Early Steadicam shots through the hallways of the haunted house in “The Conjuring,” which merely hint at the presence of something sinister, are far scarier than any of the graphic bloodshed in “Saw.”
The first half of “The Conjuring” succeeds by sheer dint of Wan’s stylistic command—he plays the audience like a fiddle, riding our nerves with John R. Leonetti’s swooping camera and Joseph Bishara’s temperamental score—and performances that feel organically terrified. Wan doesn’t need much plot: in 1971, the seven-member Perron family move into an old house in the Rhode Island countryside and various spooky things occur. Mom (Lili Taylor, in a welcome return to a lead role in a major movie) develops several unexplained bruises, the clocks mysteriously stop at 3:07 every morning, one of the five daughters sees someone in the corner of her room in the middle of the night, and more. The sense of impending doom is immense, allowing Wan to build to jump scare crescendos that pack greater punch than usual (one scene with a certain mischievous pair of clapping hands had my audience screaming with delight).
It doesn’t take long for the Perrons to become afraid for their lives, at which point they recruit paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) to tell them whether their fear is legitimate or not. You might recognize those names — that’s because they belong to a real couple, most famous for their involvement with the Amityville Horror case. “The Conjuring,” too, claims to be based on a true story—one of the Warrens’ most difficult jobs, we’re told—though as with any “fact-based” horror movie, it’s probably best not to investigate the actual details too intensively for the sake of keeping the scares untainted by skepticism. However, it’s clear that studying their real-life counterparts helped the cast embody humans and not just horror movie stereotypes — especially Wilson and Farmiga, who play the least gimmicky versions of a demonologist and a clairvoyant imaginable.
The one area where the film falters—in no small way—is in terms of the backstory that the Warrens uncover concerning what/who is haunting the Perrons. One gets the sense that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes sought to spend as little time as possible on this exposition; you’ll miss it completely if you make an unfortunately timed bathroom break. I understand why they did this—too many horror films get caught up in narrative mythology and forget to focus on the scares—but it was a poor decision. In keeping the backstory so simple it can be explained in just a few minutes, the villain of the film comes across as perfunctory rather than menacing. As a result, the film is significantly less frightening in the third act, when we’re aware of the villain’s identity. Especially compared to “Insidious”’s creative, off-the-wall plot revelations involving astral projection, “The Conjuring”’s explanation of its apparent supernatural activity is anticlimactic.
Still, in spite of this miscalculation, “The Conjuring” stands out in a horror landscape filled with reprehensible torture porn and boring found footage films (the characters only make sparing use of Super 8 and still cameras to capture paranormal activity here). At least for the first half, it’s legitimately scary, which is an exceeding rare quality in a movie. Plus, “The Conjuring” is worth seeing just to keep tabs on Wan, who ranks second only to indie filmmaker Ti West (“The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers”) in terms of his abilities as a stylist in this genre.