Against all odds, and over the course of just a couple years, one-time horror hack James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) has evolved into a gifted maestro of bump-in-the-dark entertainment. His previous film, Insidious, was a well-oiled shock machine, made in the spooky spirit of Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. It looks now, however, like a mere dry run to his new film, a shudder-inducing haunted-house movie built on the foundation of an alleged true story. The Conjuring has conjured loads of pre-release hype, most of it inspired by an anomalous MPAA decision—an “R” rating issued not for sex, drugs, violence, or language, but only for sheer, white-knuckle scariness. Running with that buzz, Warner Bros. has provided multiplexes with poster-board disclaimers and invited Catholic priests to hand out holy water at advance screenings. Such theatrical PR tactics do the film no real favors; those who walk in expecting a gauntlet of terror may walk out wondering what all the fuss is about. Yet as an exercise in classical scare tactics, delivered through an escalating series of primo setpieces, The Conjuring is often supremely effective.
Set in the early ’70s, an era Wan evokes through careful period detail and a heavy coat of “look, it’s the past” sepia, the film dives into the real-life case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, married paranormal investigators whose biggest claim to fame was the Amityville incident. The two are played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson and are introduced via an on-the-job prologue. (Wan gets bonus points for opening on the dead, fixed eyes of the world’s creepiest doll.) Following a thunderously portentous title card, which strains to position The Conjuring as this era’s answer to The Exorcist, the focus shifts to parents Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, who move their family of seven into a roomy Rhode Island farmhouse. The subsequent supernatural happenings—slammed doors, rearranged belongings, yanked limbs—are nothing audiences haven’t seen before, but Wan stages them for maximum heart-in-throat suspense. By tracking his camera through the entire home early on, he can play on viewers’ familiarity with the space. And he refuses to show a fearsome bedroom specter, opting instead to train his lens on the terrified preteen who can see it, pledging his allegiance to the power of suggestion.
Not content simply scaring the bejesus out of moviegoers, The Conjuring also fancies itself a kind of biopic, one with a procedural interest in the hows and whys of the Warrens’ work. That angle, intriguing though it is, sometimes works against the film’s fear factor: Once the ghostbusters enter the picture, ready to deliver a professional diagnosis, their clinical detachment seeps into the proceedings. (Providing hostile spirits with motivation almost always robs them of their dread-inducing mystique.) And despite the script’s efforts to give the Warrens a thematic arc, one based on their belief that God brought them together for a reason, the scenes between Farmiga and Wilson just end up feeling like dramatic distractions. Perhaps that’s because the true star of The Conjuring isn’t either one of them, but the man on the other side of the camera. Toying with on- and offscreen space and delivering each big scare like a perfectly timed punchline, Wan abolishes any traces of his “torture porn” origins. Now that’s an exorcism.