If The Conjuring works at all—and it works very well for what it is—it’s because of an often-unheralded part of the filmmaking process, particularly in the horror genre: production design. The Oscars have rarely taken notice of horror in the past, and in a good film year like 2013, The Conjuring will justifiably be left on the outside looking in, probably unrecognized in every category. But it deserves recognition for art direction. Without that big, spooky house to roam around in, there wouldn’t be a movie at all.
The pieces of The Conjuring that stick in the memory are largely in the first two-thirds of the film. (The climax, while serviceable, suffers from that old horror movie problem of making the terrifying mundane so it can be fought on some level.) Much of this stems from the way director James Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti shoot the house, particularly its upper floor, so that the camera glides along through its many rooms, an unseen intruder in the lives of these haunted family members.
Just as important, however, is the ability to orient ourselves within this house. It’s a rambling sort of place, the kind of home that would have been a big farmhouse at one time and is gradually growing closer and closer to the city. As such, it has multiple floors and rooms, and the audience needs to be intimately familiar with all of them for the scares to make sense. That’s a challenging problem for any movie less than two hours long, particularly one that also has to work in an entire parallel narrative about the ghost busters who will come calling when the family is haunted.
Julie Berghoff (production designer), Geoffrey S. Grimsman (art director), and Sophie Neudorfer (set decorator) handle this challenge with aplomb. Their answer is to fill the house with little totems of the characters, so viewers always recognize, say, the master bedroom shared by the parents or the bedroom shared by the family’s two older daughters. This lets viewers know which family member the ghost is targeting when, often on an almost subconscious level. It’s a big part of why the movie doesn’t degenerate into the confusing mess it could have been with so many family members (two parents, five stair-step daughters, and a dog) to keep track of.
But that’s not all. So thoroughly does the production-design team suggest who these people are that certain items and furniture, just sitting there in the background, begin to seem vaguely other, menacing in a way that’s hard to describe. In particular, an armoire in one of the bedrooms begins to feel like the creepiest piece of furniture imaginable after a while, and once the characters break through into a boarded-off basement filled with unsettling old artifacts, the film has entered a whole new level of well-constructed sets and perfectly chosen props.
At the same time, Berghoff, Grimsman, and Neudorfer are building an entirely separate world of creepiness around Ed and Lorraine Warren, the film’s ghost hunters who will inevitably do battle with the evil entity in the third act. It almost seems as if the only reason The Conjuring is getting a sequel—one that was greenlit before the film was a hit at the box office—is that one room in the Warrens’ house, cluttered with spooky totems of evil spirits. The production-design team has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the layout of the Warrens’ house, so a key late-scare sequence set at the location makes sense, even when we haven’t spent nearly as much time there as in the farmhouse.
The Oscars have always been a little uncomfortable with how to handle set design and art direction. Should the trophy go to just the art director? The art director and set decorator? Separate awards for both people? Whoever of the three Conjuring designers is on Academy ballots—likely Grimsman and Neudorfer, given the award’s precedent—deserves to have a place among the names revealed on nomination morning. A haunted-house movie is only as good as its house, and The Conjuring team provided a corker.