The Conjuring is an astounding piece of work, and while its at the top of this list, it should be among the greatest horror films of all time. Hopefully with this review, I can explain why that is.
James Wan has quietly followed a very natural progression that culminated in this film. He will be doing the sequel after switching genres to the Fast and Furious franchise, which is the best possible news imaginable. You never want to see a genre director burned out like Takashi Shimizu was, so its good he got to do something else, but at this point, I don’t know who else could make another film like this.
It wasn’t always like this.
Wan and partner Leigh Whannell created Saw in 2004, a lean, clever film with an industrial aesthetic that was retroactively condemned as torture porn because of its sequels. But looking objectively at the first film, which is the only one Wan directed, you see a serial killer thriller that stood out from the pack.
Simultaneously, the Hayes brothers, who were the writers of The Conjuring did House of Wax. Again, this film was dismissed as a slasher film with Paris Hilton, which dated it immediately. I recall the film as having a difficult first third, before transforming into a surprisingly effective movie that stood out from other ‘wax horror’ movies.
Looking at the cast and director Jaume Collet-Serra (who went on to direct the bizarre Orphan) its possible the problem was the lack of talent in front of the camera, and the lack of a storyteller behind it.
In 2007, Wan directed Dead Silence. Now, I want to be clear, Dead Silence is a failure as a film, with some serious plot issues and a focus on horrible performances by Donnie Wahlberg and Ryan Kwanten. (Side note: Judith Roberts was so good in this film, it made my head hurt to think that they saw that performance and didn’t give her more screen time. I still don’t understand.)
But Dead Silence showed me a side of James Wan I didn’t know, a guy that liked gothic horror, a guy that was experimenting with sound design to create tension. I saw the influence of Mario Bava in his lighting and in his monster, who reminded me of Bava’s legendary ‘A Drop of Water,’ short film. Dead Silence was a miss, but I wondered if he was onto something.
In 2010, Wan did Insidious, which was the best remake of Poltergeist we’re going to get. Budgetary and scheduling issues dragged the second half of Insidious down, but the first half of the movie is absolutely pulverizing. Leigh Whannell wrote his tightest script yet, and Wan created a fast-paced, very scary film that was less violent than any of his prior work.
Insidious was occasionally chided by ‘critics’ for cheap scares, which is frankly a stupid critique. There is more than one kind of horror film, and jump scares are a legitimate technique for a filmmaker. (As far as I know Evil Dead is still a classic.) Insidious was more exciting than the majority of horror films released at any level. But I get the feeling that that negative feedback was relevant somehow, because The Conjuring has both the slow creeps and great scares.
My first feedback on The Conjuring was about its “R” rating. Producer Walter Hamada explained that the film was intended to be a PG-13 and the MPAA rejected that idea completely. There was no cut they could make to the film, because it was simply too scary.
Now that sounds like gamesmanship, except that the recent environment for horror films has been PG-13 ratings because they tend to make more money. And the MPAA description of the rating, “Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” is extremely nebulous. Having seen the film, I can tell you that there is no nudity, little foul language, little actual violence, and it is quite nearly bloodless.
I don’t know of another film like that.
Seriously, think of another film that was for adults only, solely based on the terror it created and not for any objectionable content? I can’t.
The acting was on point as well, seeing Lili Taylor in anything is usually a good sign, but Patrick Wilson was subtly great (and honestly, he’s displaying more range in his career than I thought at first), the talented Vera Farmiga had something to do, and Ron Livingstone was able to use his comic timing and natural likeability to great dramatic effect. It helps your film a lot when you don’t have a single bad actor.
The Conjuring is about the Peron family, who claimed to be tormented by an ancient witch named Bathsheba Sherman. They were helped by the Warrens. (For the record, I am completely uninterested in debating how ‘real’ the events were, which has been a weird sidebar to the success of the film.)
I had an expectation on how the film would be laid out, perhaps an early jump scare and then a deliberate build, like most films of this type, or Wan might just eschew the beginning and take the first twenty or so minutes and focus on character and mood.
The Conjuring caught me flat-footed by immediately focusing on another case, a rather malignant doll named Annabelle that absolutely is the most paralyzing evil doll that I’ve ever seen in anything ever. I have watched a lot of evil doll movies, and I saw Annabelle concept art before I saw the movie, and I wasn’t blown away by it. Now, I hate looking at the thing.
The Annabelle storyline completely changes the timing of the movie. The Conjuring is impeccably paced, instead of slowly building around the Peron family in a predictable fashion, the movie flips back and forth between the two cases until they eventually intertwine.
There have been plenty of movies with hauntings, but almost none show the savvy that The Conjuring does. Wan knows exactly when you expect to see something and when you don’t, and he teaches a masterclass on manipulating audience expectations. The Conjuring simply wears the viewer out over its run time. In the end, The Conjuring was the scariest film I’ve ever seen in the theater and the audience clearly agreed with me.
When I put this list together, this was number one and it wasn’t close. The only thing that gives me pause is that the sequel intends to focus on the Enfield case, which was the basis for the legendary BBC special Ghostwatch. With this creative team working on that project, it would be a good idea to make sure you’re on the right heart meds before you see it.