Judging from his past work, you wouldn’t think James Wan was capable of a movie like The Conjuring. The first Saw film—the only one for which Wan can be held responsible—didn’t foresee the grim assembly-line product that the series would become, but it was still smothered with contrast, color-correction and fast-forward effects disguised as ‘style’. Insidious is Wan’s previous film and the one that most resembles The Conjuring, but even it was saddled with the assumption that blue filters are cool and people in Victorian clothing are inherently creepy, to say nothing of a third act that went completely off the rails.
Even if some of the plot turns mirror those of Insidious, The Conjuring is an improvement in every way: it’s a movie of earth tones, grounded scares and directorial restraint. Its pleasures don’t come from gleefully deployed, over-the-top buckets of gore, but from slow-burn scares. Wan takes his time to set things up, and when it clicks, it yields beautiful results, like the ongoing “hide-and-clap” routine. Wan’s continuing fascination with ghost-hunters is well-integrated into the plot, where as the ghost-hunters in Insidious provided some brief amusement but felt dropped in from another movie entirely.
The scares in the The Conjuring take the form of set-pieces so cleverly constructed that genre fans—or really, anyone who’s seen a horror movie—are as likely to smile as they are to shudder, such as the scene where Lili Taylor wanders into her daughter’s room blindfolded. It’s a feeling somewhat akin to seeing a long-anticipated bit of plot machinery click into place on a long-running television show, and it wouldn’t be possible if Wan didn’t take his time.
There are only two moments that qualify as “jump-scares,” which are typically derided as cheap shock. This sort of “come-close-to-the-camera-and-screen” trick is obnoxious if a movie offers you nothing else, but there’s something to be said for shock when it’s used properly and The Conjuring utilizes it in an unusual way. In most jump-scares, the audience is off the hook after the killer (or what have you) makes his jolt-inducing reveal. Most of the time, a jump-scare ends and the protagonist snaps awake from a dream. The first instance jump-scare in The Conjuring—which, like so many of the movie’s best moments, involves the old wardrobe in the bedroom—cuts away at the height of terror. The result is like an unresolved musical note played at high volume: we’re startled, yes, but we also fear for the character’s safety.
The film–apparently based on a true story–is set in 1971, and Wan flirts with Ti West-esque late-70’s pastiche, but it only amounts to a nifty title-card and a few old-school zooms. CGI is used sparingly: an exploding chair that shows up late in the film stands out, but only because it’s one of the few times that modern film-making rears its head. Of course, if the movie was actually made in the era in which it’s set—
Oh, big spoiler coming up.
–then the filmmakers might have gone for a darker ending, instead of letting everyone live and, less forgivably, indulging in the cliché that has sapped the power of many a haunted house story: the “You’re not strong!” ending, where the haunting spirit is defeated by “the indomitable will of the human spirit” or some other such malarkey. This time, a demon that has claimed numerous lives is done in by the memory of a pleasant day in the beach. Like everything else in the movie, it’s properly set up, but boy, what a waste.
Still, The Conjuring packs enough creepy visuals into the rote exorcism finale to make it worthwhile, right up until the power of love wins out. If the ending lets the wind out of the movie’s sails a little bit, well, it’s a rare modern horror movie that can hold itself together so well for so long.