If you were like me, you found yourself more than a little surprised when James Wan, who burst onto the cinematic scene when he directed Saw, revealed himself as gifted, intelligent and remarkably creative filmmaker.
While Saw really kicked off the entire "torture porn" sub-genre of horror, the film was actually a quite competent piece of filmmaking creatively constructed and far better written and acted than a good majority of contemporary horror films. In a bit of a rarity, Wan maintained his connection to the Saw series after that first film but left the directorial chair in search of other projects including Death Sentence, Insidious and now The Conjuring.
The Conjuring is definitely not "torture porn" and, in fact, is remarkably retro yet effective in its chills and thrills. This is a film that received its R-rating almost solely based upon its intensity factor, an intensity factor that is built upon actual suspense rather than slice-and-dice. VERY loosely based upon the paranormal work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, most famously known as the investigators who researched The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring takes place in 1971 New England. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are fairly well known throughout the northeast for investigating suspected paranormal activity, though they frequently refer to themselves as demonologists. Typically, the Warrens uncover easily explainable reasons for the mysterious activities they're investigating. Occasionally, however, they call in a nearby priest to perform an exorcism. While the real-life Warrens, and they are a real life couple, have long faced skepticism even from within the paranormal community, in The Conjuring they are portrayed as an intelligent, well-meaning and competent couple whose investigations are generally grounded in a true desire to make a difference for those who are troubled. That's exactly what happens when they're approached by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) after one of their many campus lectures. Carolyn shares the story of her family's increasingly violent encounters with a spirit of some sort in the home into which she recently moved with husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and daughters Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver).
While Wan utilized ample amounts of gore in Saw, anyone who saw that film should be able to testify that the film's real scares came from its genuinely human set-ups. Sure, the gore was terrifying but it was the people involved in the story who really got us invested and got us scared. There's considerably less gore here, but the scares are just as intense and frightening because, once again, Wan has cast the film beautifully and these people become people whose fear we actually care about from beginning to end.
Wan is also an expert at building the fear using creative lensing and a willingness to allow a camera to linger as long as it needs to linger. Wan is willing to toy with his audience, not in a manipulative way but in a way that makes us feel like we're smack dab in the middle of the story with his characters. Wan is also remarkably effective at working with kids, an absolute must in a film involving five young girls whose presence is central to the story. There are times when it feels like Wan is going to go an almost Poltergeist like direction, but the beautiful thing with the way it all unfolds is that Wan captures that weird duality of a child's fascination with what is essentially evil and the fear that develops as it becomes more predatory in nature. It never feels like Wan is exploiting the kids here, but he is giving us a glimpse inside the mind of a child experiencing a rather horrifying situation. All five of the young actresses do a remarkable job here in creating a strong sibling bond while at various times confronting the very real fears of living in a haunted house.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are beautifully cast as Ed and Lorraine Warren. Wilson, who also worked with Wan on Insidious and will be back for Insidious 2, is a calm and loving presence and quietly protective of Lorraine's more fragile nature. Farmiga, who seems to have a true gift for weaving her way into the deeply spiritual characters, embodies Lorraine as a genuinely compassionate clairvoyant for whom each act of helping another takes another little piece of her. It's a remarkably intelligent performance that is also at times painful and illuminating. I especially loved Lorraine's scenes with her daughter that created a strong sense of psychic connection that further fueled the investment in their welfare.
Ron Livingston, one of the better character actors in Hollywood perhaps best known for his work in Office Space, does a terrific job as Roger, a man who has relocated his family for reasons are never completely revealed but are strongly implied. The always dependable Lili Taylor has the most challenging character as a mother with a strong maternal instinct yet a vulnerable psyche' that fractures the more this mysterious presence reveals itself.
Wan utilizes long, unbroken shots throughout the film and avoids the easily predictable edits that so often show up in this type of film. Joseph Bishara's original score is jarring and disturbing, while Wan refreshingly minimizes his use of CGI and other special effects. Indeed, the emphasis in The Conjuring is on real scares that are developed out of real, or at least potentially real, scenarios. The film starts off just a tad slow and for some the ending might feel a little weak, but The Conjuring is a jarring and unsettling film throughout its nearly two-hour running time and it's a film that will stay with you long after you've returned home and started checking the closets before you go to bed.
If you live on a lake? Good luck.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic