It was 40 years ago this December that William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” terrified audiences and found itself in the rare position of being a critically admired prestige horror film. It landed 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller) and Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair). William Peter Blatty even walked away with the trophy for the adaptation of his own novel.
Why am I mentioning this now? Because four decades later, James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is easily the best film of its kind since Friedkin’s masterful thriller. In a genre that has increasingly given way to the cheapest levels, where films like “The Devil Inside” are rattled off like products on an assembly line, here is a film with a real respect of the craft and, most importantly, a level of restraint. Restraint and a sense of build is what made the most chilling elements of “The Exorcist” land like holy water burns on demon flesh, and it’s equally what makes Wan’s more direct terrors connect in “The Conjuring.”
It’s a film that frankly seems somewhat enamored with its 1973 predecessor, borrowing a similar title treatment and employing a score with familiar rapid string movements blended with ominous low end dread. It also takes a fair amount of cues from 1982’s “Poltergeist.” But it’s very much of a piece with the age into which it is born, a sort of bridge from that era’s sensibilities and this one’s. That it depicts events which took place two years before the release of “The Exorcist” only strengthens the bond.
I don’t want to get out of hand here. “The Conjuring” isn’t a masterpiece and it isn’t quite up to the level of “The Exorcist” or “The Shining,” true high water marks of the genre. But it stands out amid the fray of an increasingly cheapened corner of the horror shelf, that of the exorcism film. More than that, it’s a haunted house ride with earned thrills and plenty of cringing at what’s around the corner.
“It does not reinvent the wheel,” Drew McWeeny wrote in his review, “and it’s not a movie that suddenly redefines a genre, but it is confident, it is beautifully acted, and when it gets serious about being scary, it is remarkably tense and terrifying.”
I feel like I’ve witnessed Wan creeping to this place. The first “Saw” film may have wrought one of the most dubious horror franchises of recent years, but it was, finally, something truly unique. I was mostly unconvinced by 2010’s “Insidious” because the screenplay couldn’t find a more elegant way to present its otherwise compelling ideas. But Wan handled it from a place of vision. Even stinkers like “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence” I would argue play like exercises building to the full set of something like “The Conjuring.”
It takes a lot for the Academy to respond to a film like this. “The Exorcist,” which certainly had its critics, may likely have been ignored were it not a box office and pop cultural phenomenon. But “The Conjuring,” particularly on a craft level, deserves recognition. The sound editing, as you might imagine, sets the atmosphere. The production design is in many ways the star of the film, forging a fun house of terror out of a Rhode Island farm house. And the photography is immersive and rich.
If you’ve tired of films like this over the last decade or so, give “The Conjuring” a chance. It’s one of those rare films that — like “The Exorcist” — might even get a non-believer to stop and consider, but moreover, it’s a wonderful example of a horror filmmaker in complete control of his craft. That’s a luxury these days.
“The Conjuring” arrives in theaters July 19, 2013.