To me James Wan has always been one of those directors who was close, but not close enough, to making a very good horror movie. Saw was a huge hit and even reinvented horror for a few years, but it was also hampered by some serious issues with acting, pacing, and plotting. Then Insidious took his talents in another direction, but still left me cold as it too kept a focus on cheap thrills while feeling more like a video game than a film.
However, my streak of disagreeing with him (it's not even really a streak, I kinda liked Death Sentence) has ended with the release of The Conjuring. Dropped in the middle of the summer, slapped with an R-rating for being scary (although I get the feeling the suicide-by-hanging imagery throughout the film was the main culprit), and directed by Wan didn't look like a recipe for great success to me, but it overcomes some similarities to Wan's previous work and works on several levels.
The story has gained a lot of traction from the "based on real events" aspect of the advertising, as the film stars Patrick Wilson (returning to work with the director after Insidious) and Vera Farmiga starring as famous real-world paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The duo were involved in some of the most famous supernatural investigations of the last 60 years - most notably the Amityville "haunting" - and seem like the perfect characters to base a horror film around despite your beliefs on how real their experiences have been. I was lucky to have the real world Warrens fresh in my mind after seeing an aged Lorraine appear in the documentary My Amityville Horror earlier this year, so I had an idea of what I was getting into with these characters before The Conjuring. Like plenty of other viewers, I was giving the story a chance largely because these were real characters and I was interested in seeing just what somebody says might-have-possibly-maybe-one-time happened.
(Random Tangent: The upgrade from Insidious' Rose Byrne to the fantastic Vera Farmiga is another of the main reasons I gave The Conjuring a chance. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Byrne and her wooden reactions to everything are like having a package of processed cheese slices, while Farmiga's range as an actor is like owning a fully-staffed dairy farm. BTW, Can I have season two of Bates Motel yet? Please? OK, back to the movie.)
Though it was a look at the Warrens that got me interested in the film, it was the haunting story that sucked me in completely. The Perron family of seven - parents played by Office Space's Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, who is apparently atoning for her role in the all-time-horror-dud remake of The Haunting, an their five daughters - moves into a big old house by a lake and quickly becomes one of the more interesting haunted families I've seen on screen. The number of characters certainly adds to the tension, making the film feel like a supernatural slasher film in which any character could be assaulted by unseen forces at any moment, and all of the cast members - including the five young women playing the daughters - do a good job selling their fear to the audience. Livingston, who is most known for his comedic work, is a refreshing presence as his patriarch character brings a calm presence to the family while visibly being shaken and confused by events that defy explanation. At the same time Taylor is perfect for the role of terrified potential victim - she did it relatively well in that awful Haunting movie too, the rest of it just really stunk - and her presence as the film's adult "scream queen" really moves the film forward.
Wan has shown that he understands the mechanics of cinema scares in his previous work - Insidious, despite feeling rather soulless as a film, could be used as a text book for modern jump-scare horror - and his control over The Conjuring's farmhouse is excellent. There are plenty of things you expect to see - doors slamming, creaky floors, and even possessed birds crashing into windows for the THIRD time in a multiplex horror film this year - but also some well-timed shocks that took even me completely by surprise. Some of the scare tactics don't really work - a subplot involving a possessed doll that looks like it was leftover from Saw or Dead Silence fell completely flat for me - but Wan definitely keeps The Conjuring feeling more fun than his previous haunts.
With strong performances by Wilson and Farmiga taking over the latter part of the film and the solid work of the family, The Conjuring builds up enough steam to coast through a rather chaotic and overproduced final act unscathed. There's too much going right to get caught up in some of the sillier twists and the film moves too fast to really get us questioning just how out of control the final battle for the Perron family's souls really is. It would be easy to pick it apart after the fact, but if I wasn't taken out of the film while watching it there's no reason you should be either. The Conjuring is one of the more engaging mainstream horror films in a long time, and it has a legitimate shot at sticking around as one of the most successful horror films of this generation. It's scary, it's fun, it's even kind of smart - it's possibly the perfect summer horror film.