Telling a haunted house story is a surprisingly difficult task. I know this firsthand -- I've had several aborted attempts at writing my own. And as challenging as it is to write, it's even more difficult to film. Stories of hauntings, more than any other sub genre of horror, almost always benefit from a less-is-more approach, and the written word is generally more successful than film at being able to suggest and create psychological tension. The director of a haunted house movie has a nearly impossible task to accomplish -- reveal too little, and the audience is bored. Reveal too much, and any carefully crafted tension implodes and the film falls flat. More than the slashers, zombies, werewolves, and vampires, who all take a more active presence on screen, the ghost requires directors to know their craft and apply a deft touch to an increasingly recycled checklist of genre tropes.
Enter James Wan. After the surprise success of 2004's Saw, Wan built his own haunted house with 2010's acclaimed Insidious, a film that rejuvenated a genre that, like so many in horror, had fallen victim to its own success and had died off from over saturation and greedy, uninspired film making. So, with his growing list of impressive credentials and a huge opening weekend, does The Conjuring continue Wan's hot streak and deserve a place in the horror pantheon? The answer is the perpetually frustrating "yes and no".
The Conjuring is based on the true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both already with impressive horror credentials to their names). The Warrens are most famous for their involvement in the events that became The Amityville Horror, but this was the case that they claimed was their most disturbing. After establishing The Warrens through a surprisingly effective creepy-doll opening sequence, we are introduced to Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. I was initially nervous at having to sit through a film with five child actors (one is bad enough) but the kids were well cast and used effectively, and the family dynamic was refreshingly believable. With five kids there isn't much time to establish them much as individuals but I did find myself caring about their collective fates, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and bonus points to Wan for pulling it off.
If the premise of the film seems overdone and uninspired, that's because it is. Hollywood would have us believe that paranormal investigators are as common as frustrated writers who write overly long film reviews for blogs while suffering through service industry jobs. But what The Conjuring lacks in originality it makes up for in execution. James Wan clearly knows what he is doing, and uses every trick he knows to take this stale premise and turn it into something that is occasionally genuinely nerve-wracking. I appreciated his use of long takes to create a more organic understanding of the flow of the house and help solidify it as a setting, while allowing a sense of menace to build without too many cuts breaking the momentum. I saw this at an early weekday matinee and people in the theater were still screaming and jumping at some of the scares. Through some really smart directorial choices, he brings us back to some of horror's most basic points: the terror of things like a dark basement, a creepy doll, an old mirror, and, in one of the movie's most effective sequences, a creaking door and the shadow it casts in a child's bedroom. These things scared us as children for a simple reason: the imagination of a child is a truly more terrifying thing than any movie can conceptualize, and Wan has an innate sense of what to reveal and what to keep hidden so that the audience recaptures a bit of that childhood nervousness. A well placed shadow will always be more frightening than a CGI monster which will look silly and out of date by next year's sequel.
Played as a straight-up haunted house film, The Conjuring works. However, like Insidious before it, the film changes tones halfway through and becomes more of a possession story, and that's where it started to lose me. As the demonic entity is revealed, I feel Wan undoes a lot of what he was building toward, and while Lili Taylor works these scenes as hard as she can, she's no Linda Blair. While both demons and ghosts primarily terrify through psychological damage rather than outright physical assault, their methods are different, and Wan seems out of his element here. The entity in The Exorcist is scary not because it uses foul language or increased physical strength, but because it had intelligence and occasional seemingly psychic insights into its adversaries, which made it more frightening than the straight up animalistic approach many films, including this one, have taken since. The demon in The Conjuring falls short of matching Pazuzu's ability to get under your skin and force some goosebumps to the surface. As a nitpicky side note, sometimes Wan's villains seem a bit too much like Face Off makeup artist challenges rather than organic creatures.
When my attention started to wander late into the film, it was brought back whenever Vera Farmiga appeared on screen. After becoming a fan via her (well deserved) Emmy nominated performance as Norma Bates, Farmiga continues to surprise me with her ability to not only play "big" scenes, but also incorporate subtle small and realistic quirks into quieter moments that make me believe all of her characters are real people. Unfortunately I think Patrick Wilson had more chemistry with Rose Byrne, and this brings me to my final point. Sometimes, when there is a ridiculous premise like this, it helps to be able to apply the always somber "Based On A True Story" tag to the title, but in this case I wonder if being stuck on this "true" story may have actually worked against the film. I feel like the character of Lorraine Warren may have been more interesting if she was working solo, combining bits of both her and her husband. The underrated and fabulous Lin Shaye pulled off this kind of character with great success in Insidious, but I think Vera would have brought something different and special to the role.
Similarly, for all his mastery of the genre, the times where it feels like Wan isn't above using the occasional cheap trick (a dead dog always seems like a lazy way to emotionally manipulate an audience, and why the hell would anyone in real life actually ever own a doll that creepy?) it turns out that those were things that actually happened. When I crankily questioned the appearance of the doll, my boyfriend (with equal or greater crankiness) was quick to point out that the actual doll the Warrens confiscated looked like that. The lesson being that reality is often just as lazy and unimaginative as a horror film.
With Insidious 2 coming up in a few months, I'm worried that Wan may be in danger of killing off the genre he helped revive unless he brings something fresh and new to the film, but I'll worry about that in September. For now, I will say that The Conjuring takes many of the techniques James Wan used so successfully in Insidious and refines them to make a mostly slick, effective, and scary film with only a couple of awkward missteps in its second half. For those of you who are generally bored by ghost/haunting movies, The Conjuring probably won't do much to change your mind. For fans of the genre and of James Wan's previous work, though, I highly recommend The Conjuring as, so far, the best horror film of 2013.* Rating: B
*tied with Evil Dead, depending on whether the viewer prefers creepy atmosphere or violent blood splatters.