Too many horror movies nowadays rely on blood, gore and jumps to elicit scares. These cheap parlor tricks may work in the moment but they don’t make for very satisfying movie-going experiences. Take this spring’s ultra gory remake of Evil Dead for instance. For all its graphic depictions of dismembered body parts and nasty mutilation, there wasn’t a single moment in the entire picture that came close to eliciting genuine tension and suspense.
It takes creativity, smarts and experience to generate effective tension – especially in a genre as formulaic as horror. It’s what separates classics like The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense and The Shining from the Texas Chainsaw 3Ds and the Hostels of this world. It’s also a pivotal reason why The Conjuring, a surprisingly old-school spook fest from director James Wan succeeds as one of the most terrifying horror films in recent memory.
Set in the early 1970s, Wan’s film centers on two families – the Perrons and the Warrens – who screenwriting team Chad and Carey Hayes introduce concurrently. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are famed paranormal investigators who use a mixture of scientific and religious tools to investigate and debunk paranormal happenings around the nation. The Perrons, on the other hand, are your average working-class brood comprised of Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters.
When the Perrons move into a decrepit mansion in Rhode Island, which they recently purchased in a bank auction, they believe the place to be their dream house. But then inexplicable things start happening. The doors swing open at night, the clocks all stop at 3:07 a.m., and birds drop dead on their lawn. When Carolyn begins bruising all over her body and one of the daughters is violently attacked by an unseen force, the desperate family immediately turns to the Warrens for help. It’s only when the Warrens move into the house that the demons truly begin to reveal themselves.
Like the demonic characters in the film, Wan, deliberately waits to reveal the tricks up his sleeve. Instead of shocking the audience right off the bat with jump and gotcha-scares, he elects to build atmosphere and character first, only revealing the big scares once we’ve become familiarized with these people. Although he’s dabbled in horror before – he wrote and directed the original Saw, as well as Insidious (and its upcoming sequel), The Conjuring marks a creative breakthrough for Wan from genre gun-for-hire to a legitimately strong filmmaker with a unique voice.
It’s telling from every frame of the film – from the way he places the camera, utilizing techniques like slow zooms, upside down shots and dynamic pans, to the creepy sound effects he employs to pervade tension through the audience – that this film is a product of an experienced filmmaker who knows how to get under the audience’s skin. Things like a breeze, a bouncing ball, and the sound of a clap have never been as terrifying.
Perhaps the only thing that prevents The Conjuring from staking claim as one of the classics of the genre is its Exorcist-like climax which, while brutally efficient in its ability to elicit thrills, shocks and intensity, feels a little too derivative, especially by haunted house movie standards. Still, by the time that scene comes around, Wan has ratcheted up the intensity to such an alarming degree that even the thought of looking into a mirror had me covering my eyes in horror.