There are films and there are movies, and the best thing a movie can do is to know it’s a movie without insulting you for wanting to watch a movie. James Wan, previously of Saw and Insidious, treats The Conjuring (trailer) like a good cook might treat a nice plate of chicken nuggets, respecting his audience and putting as much pride into the product as he would if he was making some molecular, avante-garde concoction of free-range pine needles. He’s not making art, but he has a clear vision and he cares. Sometimes you want processed cheese, and this cheese is nicely processed.
I know, I’m shocked to be writing this about a horror film, let alone one from the Saw guy. The Conjuring is the first horror film I’ve seen in a long time (the last two according to my review archive being Stoker, which is only sort of a horror movie, and Scre4m, which is a horrible movie). Lately they all seem to be about a haunted house, demonic possession, or a creepy little kid, and once you’ve seen one creaking swing set ominously swaying in the breeze you’ve seen them all, right? That was my assumption. As it happens, The Conjuring has a haunted house, demonic possession, and some creepy little kids, with a scary doll and a preposterous “based on a true story” claim thrown in for good measure. And, as if manifested by the universe for the express purpose of proving me wrong, it’s a lot of fun. Either I’ve been missing out on these or I jumped back in at just the right time (in the business we call that instincts).
You don’t usually think of movies about death and murder as a nice glass of lemonade, but oddly enough, the relaxed pacing and straightforward plot of a haunted house movie is actually pretty refreshing in a summer full of shrill, convoluted action films. At a time when screenwriters all seem to think the way to make movies more exciting is to add more subplots, sideplots, and characters suddenly switching from good to evil and back again, The Conjuring is delightfully simple.
Set in the plaid, Earth-toned seventies, Lili Taylor and the criminally underused Ron Livingston just bought a house. You’ll never believe this, but it’s haunted. They have five daughters, all cute as buttons, who they’d prefer not be terrestrial vessels for Satan. So they call up Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson (“the world’s only non-ordained exorcist recognized by the Vatican” – no doubt having also been recognized by Who’s Who Among Secular Exorcists), a husband-and-wife-team who tour colleges giving very sciency lectures on spooky demon stuff. Farmiga’s character is the sensitive seer type, using her psychic powers and feminine intuition to determine the nature of the demon infestation – whether it be ghost, witch, creepy doll, poltergeist, or chupacabra – while Wilson is the muscle, beating spirits out of the afflicted with his Bible while shouting threats in Latin. Turns out evil spirits usually just need a good telling off. It’s a little unclear who’s paying these ghost hunters, since Livingston seems working class and has all his cash tied up in the monster mansion, but maybe they’re milking some government program aimed at preventing ghost-based mortgage default. I don’t know, I’m not a real estate agent.
Within that structure, the film is ninety percent pacing and composition. How can we scare you using a completely ambiguous malevolence? Ghosts can’t kill you, exactly, they can only scare you, and the scare is all in the set up. Because what’s a ghost anyhow? Stinky air underneath a sheet? James Wan uses horror tropes brilliantly to create that sense of creeping dread, where the characters do something that’s moderately believable, but that everyone in the audience knows is stupid because it’s a horror movie – like, say, going down the steps of a creepy basement the previous owners boarded up and didn’t tell you about, for example – and you just sit there with your fingernails dug into your arm rests waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or a sleeping daughter gets her foot yanked by an unseen presence, so she turns over to look underneath the bed (eep!) and the camera flips upside down following her POV as she slowly, sloooowly scans for creepy crawlies (and you just know there’s going to be a jump scare coming, BUT WHERE IS GOING TO BE??). The anticipation is everything.
They don’t put a ton of creativity into the storyline, but they use every ounce of cleverness on framing and composition, to pull the thread of your anticipation taut, and then, once they pop that bubble, show just enough, but not too much (because the threat is only scary in the anticipation). It’s classic Hitchcock bomb-under-the-table stuff, all refreshingly old school. Remember long takes? Remember tracking shots? Slow pans? Long shots? Good God did I miss long shots. It’s so nice not to be crammed up the actors’ nostrils while they shout “Look out!” or “It’s behind you!” or “Take that, Mr. Hitler!,” followed by 12 nano-second cuts set to dub-step.