Review: James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ terrifies without getting gross

James Wan first made a splash with the original “Saw,” and for several years afterwards, he struggled to define his voice further. Even if you like “Dead Silence” or “Death Sentence,” they didn’t connect with pop culture in the same way. He took three years off before he made “Insidious,” a movie that made a strong case for Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell being much more than “just” the guys who made “Saw.”

Now, looking at “The Conjuring” and the previews for “Insidious: Chapter Two,” Wan seems to be coming into focus as a guy who can scare the hell out of an audience without leaning on gore, and I suspect “The Conjuring” is going to be one of this summer’s biggest word-of-mouth phenomenons. It does not reinvent the wheel, 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.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star as Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real-life husband-wife team of parapsychologists who made a name for themselves in the ’70s. A big part of why this film is so good is because of the casting. These people aren’t making a horror movie… they’re just making a movie. There’s no sense that anyone here is slumming it. You’ve got these actors playing all of this very real and emotionally honest and treating everything in it with the appropriate respect, and the result is far scarier than if they were all pushing it in that direction. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play Carolyn and Roger Perron, a couple who move into a new house only to start experiencing some unexplainable and upsetting phenomena. They reach out to the Warrens because of their reputation handling incidents like this, and for the Warrens, a routine investigation turns unexpectedly personal, building to an emotionally harrowing final act.

One of the details I loved here in the script by Chad and Carey Hayes is the room the Warrens keep in their house that is filled with all the artifacts that they’ve come into contact with over the years that are either cursed or somehow tainted by evil. That room is the key to what could be a very cool franchise for Warner Bros., a series of Warren cases. Wilson and Farmiga play the emotional connection between the Warrens of one that is built on deep love and a shared sense of purpose. The film does not diminish or de-emphasize the faith that drives the Warrens, either. It’s easy for horror filmmakers to leave out conversations about God, but this script treats their faith as a key part of their mission to fight evil any place they find it.

The family life of the Perrons is etched ably and quickly at the start of the film before things start getting dark, and the way these scares are built, it’s personal. It’s not just scares fro the sake of scares. Instead, the film paints a convincing portrait of what happens when a malevolent force focuses on a family and begins pushing to tear them apart. Lili Taylor’s Carolyn is the one who gets the worst of it. There are few taboos more upsetting to me than a parent hurting their own child, and that’s the threat that hangs over the whole film. If something awful ends up in control of Carolyn, none of her children are safe, and the film also does a great job of showing us Roger’s perspective as he watches this unfold. Ron Livingston’s having a great year, with roles in “Touchy Feely” and the excellent “Drinking Buddies” also showcasing him well. He and Taylor are a great team here, and they make this feel like something happening to real people and not just the thinly-drawn types so many horror films lean on.

Wan’s technical work here is exceptional, and I think part of that is the ongoing collaboration he has with his cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Their use of space in the house is terrifying, and Julie Berghoff’s production design perfectly evokes the period and also makes these feel like real homes under siege. The score by Joseph Bishara and the editing by Kirk Morri are top-notch, contributing heavily to the mood and atmosphere that draws out the tension of the film beautifully. I think if you really want to get inside an audience, you make your horror film beautiful. There’s something awful about seeing these things performed this well, in a film this handsome. It feels like more of a violation somehow.

Everyone seems to be performing at their best in the picture, and I think it stands for now as the best thing Wan’s made. It is enormously confident, and yet it seems to have enough faith in the audience that it doesn’t come across as a big noisy assault, another common mistake with much of modern horror. It is relatively restrained, with no gore to speak of and very little actual violence. It is the threat that hangs over everything, though, that creeping dread pushing in at the edge of the frame all the time, that makes “The Conjuring” so special and so difficult. If you get seriously freaked out by effective horror movies, I warn you… “The Conjuring” will stick with you. I can’t wait to see it again, and I am excited to see it with a big crowd. I think that shared theatrical experience of being terrified is one of the great thrills of being a film fan, and this should be a great example of that.

“The Conjuring” arrives in theaters July 19, 2013.