Given how successful his films have been, it’s surprising that James Wan doesn’t have a better critical reputation. Together with writer Leigh Whannell, he created the Saw franchise but kept away from the sequels. After the admittedly lukewarm reception to Dead Silence and Death Sentence, the two made another splash with Insidious. Insidious: Chapter 2 is released in September, and Wan has briefly gone solo for this 1970s-set ghost train.
Christine and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) move with their five daughters to a large country property. When they investigate the boarded-up basement they unleash an aggressive supernatural force that terrorises the family. The beleagured parents call on demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to help them cast the evil spirits out.
Although The Conjuring bears more than a passing similarity to Insidious, Wan fills the film with little touches that make it stand apart. His previous work has shown an inclination to hop around subgenres, and if Dead Silence was his Hammer homage and Insidious was a tribute to 80s haunted house films like Poltergeist (and nearly every other horror film from that era, to be fair), The Conjuring is his love letter to the 1970s. From the soundtrack to the zooms to the lovely yellow opening titles, it luxuriates in its time period but packs enough visual fireworks to keep customers who haven’t seen The Amityville Horror happy.
Wan has also always been able to attract a strong cast and The Conjuring is no exception. Livingston and the perenially excellent Taylor have played put-upon characters in the past, and they’re excellent as the couple attempting to keep their family calm as the paintings fly off the walls and the girls are pulled from their beds. The family unit is further strengthened by good peformances from the young actors playing their daughters, particularly Joey King (Oz The Great and Powerful) and Shanley Caswell (star of the fantastic Detention).
The Warrens are real-life demonologists who investigated Amityville and the script is based on one of their cases. Taking that with the recommended forklift of salt, it’s interesting to compare Ed and Lorraine with the Perrons. From the sharp costumes and Wilson and Farmiga’s assured performances, they could just as easily be door to door hucksters. Ed has the style and the confidence of a snake-oil salesman, while Lorraine’s fragility hides a steely determination.
But, this being a “true story” based on their account, something supernatural is definitely afoot. After an extremely creepy opening sequence, Wan slows things right down and makes us wait for the inevitable big jumps (and they are big). The period setting also allows for some endearingly primitive ghost hunting tools: photos have to be developed and a UV light is so impressive it draws a “groovy” from a Perron child.
On the downside, the “true story” aspect means that things don’t ever get too dark and each twist and turn is well signposted. It’s also more than a little saccharine, with a few moments that may well draw a groan from the more cynical members of the audience. But when Wan winds The Conjuring up and lets it go, it’s great fun. There is a discernible formula but it’s one he’s finely honed: scaring the daylights out of an excellent cast. He’s not a director who’s afraid of going big and while that sometimes makes it less scary, it has no effect on the overall entertainment levels. This is tense, scary, very well acted, and it will make you jump out of your seat at least once. The Conjuring is another very well-designed funhouse horror from an increasingly assured craftsman.