True story. I was a fan of the first grimy, ultra-violent “Saw” film, and a few years later made a trek to the multiplex to see one of its sequels. By this point, any real creative juice in the limb-loosening series had leaked out, and things grew increasingly foul.
The film’s most memorably icky sequence was a long brain surgery episode, and it was so visually revolting that I took my glasses off, happy to stare at the screen and see only moving shapes and colors with a dopey grin on my face.
That was gross horror, and it was cheap and ugly. But good horror – like “The Conjuring” – has the ability to involve an audience like no other genre. It’s so fun, so wonderfully goosebump-inducing, that you won’t even think about taking your glasses off.
James Wan’s film is a smart, thrilling reminder that there is no cinematic experience as cathartic as a real scare. A good laugh and a bit of blubbering might come close, but to be genuinely frightened amid a crowd of gleeful fear-mongers – that is some kind of bliss.
That is why a movie like “The Conjuring” deserves more respect from the critical establishment than it will likely get. Wan’s modern haunted-house tale is a wonderfully old-school creation, a “Don’t go in the basement!” treat that might be the best pure horror film in years.
It is the early 1970s, and the cash-strapped Roger (Ron Livingston) and Caroline Perron (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters are moving into a rickety old farmhouse they bought at auction. Within minutes, there is reason to be weary (why won’t the dog enter the house?) And how come all the clocks stop at 3:07 every night?
What follows is a slow, methodical build. Wan does not rush the chills, letting them develop with ease over the first 30 to 45 minutes. When they do, they hit hard. Enter Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The paranormal investigators are quasi-rock stars in their field, having handled everything from demonic possession to the creepiest doll this side of “Poltergeist.”
When Caroline finds them, she and her family are a bundle of nerves, forced to huddle together every night for support. Over the film’s final hour, Ed, Lorraine and their team must find a way to “cleanse” the house and save the Perrons from a grim fate.
There are many reasons why “The Conjuring” is so impactful, and one of the keys, believe it or not, is its charm. Wan plays off genre tropes with expert precision – the creaky doors, stories of murdered children, creepy old toys. The audience knows what’s coming, but the director succeeds in making these scares feel fresh.
The setting also maximizes the creepiness, and not just because the ’70s fashions look so silly, but because of the technology of the time. At one point, Wan shoots a scene through a camera filming the Warrens in the home’s (gulp) basement, and it is handled so expertly that it renders the recent cluster of found-footage horror films truly useless.
But just as important as the setting and style are the performances. As Ed and Lorraine – the real-life couple known for their involvement in the Amityville Horror case – Wilson and, especially, Farmiga, are passionate, driven, yet wounded. As Ed explains, each case “takes a bit” out of his clairvoyant wife, and we can see that in Farmiga’s eyes.
The supporting cast, too, makes an impression. All five daughters are believably spooked, and I especially liked two members of the Warrens’ team, the square-jawed Officer Brad (John Brotherton) and the wry Drew (Shannon Kook), perhaps the unsung hero.
“The Conjuring” solidifies Wan’s spot near the top of the modern horror filmmakers’ list; last year’s “Insidious” and the original “Saw” (the original still packs a punch) were certainly among the more memorable of the last decade.
In fact, next, Wan will bring us “Insidious 2.” Prepare for more horror catharsis. And prepare for me to contemplate taking my glasses off.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
Director: James Wan
Running time: 112 minutes
Rating: R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror.
The Lowdown: Paranormal investigators work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their home.