As a big fan of Insidious and Saw, I was terribly disappointed to see James Wan misstep with Insidious: Chapter 2. Fearing he may have run out of ideas or had been overrun by franchise-whoring producers I was tentative about seeing The Conjuring, worried that his supposed retirement from the horror genre would turn out to be a blessing.
The Conjuring tells the stories of two families in the early 1970’s that inevitably become intertwined; Ed & Lorraine Warren are paranormal investigators; while Carolyn & Roger Perron have just bought an old farmhouse to live with their 5 daughters, a farmhouse that it soon transpires has an unpleasant past that may have left some supernatural remnants. The 1970’s setting with relevant music, and the classic ghost story setup lend it a retro feel (in a good way) for the first part of the film and this feeling is carried through the slow reveal of the horror elements. Rather than relying purely on jump scares and gore, there are countless genuinely creepy scenes in this film. While many of the scares, one could argue, may be derived from previous films, they are pulled off extremely well, often feeling more in place here than in their ‘original’ source. That said, the film’s strength lies in the atmosphere it creates and the intelligence it allows it’s audience to have – at least half of the time a long, suspenseful setup leads to nothing. It knows that you know what may happen, and allows the unease to come from your imagination in these moments. Even most of the jump scares are incredibly effective, either being genuinely unexpected or by misdirecting you through the scene. Shot beautifully on a reasonably high budget of $13 million, camera movement is used to great effect in most shots, sometimes with incredible, head-scratchingly complex acrobatics that lend spectacle to scenes, or with subtle, ‘slightly off’ motions that can make a fairly understated scene feel just a little bit more uneasy.
A very strong cast sells the film even more; while films often struggle to convincingly portray a single central child character, this one manages six key child characters; all great actors that work together really well with great direction that produces some incredible terrified performances. It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving too much away, as it is really a film about a slow reveal and slow build in tension; it isn’t until the shocking finale that it is certain precisely what sort of supernatural element is being dealt with; despite the frequent presence of countless ‘experts’, never does the film’s suspenseful atmosphere get bogged down by trying to give a textbook explanation as to exactly what is happening, precisely what is tormenting them. Even what the presence wants is only suggested throughout the first two acts of the film, all lending a sense of dread and desperation as, since it is unknown what is at stake, it is not entirely clear how to stop it. I struggle to come up with any major negative points, really; only one or two moments felt the slightest bit silly, even to my cynical mindset. The seemingly compulsory suffix to the film that it is ‘based on a true story’ even turns out to be more accurate than I would have imagined, with the real Warrens & Perrons being involved in the making of the film and giving their support to the final product.
Eschewing the modern horror tradition by actually having an ending, a sequel is nonetheless already in development alongside supposed spin-offs, all with James Wan thus far unattached, true to his horror retirement announcement. Completely blowing my reservations prior to seeing this out of the water, if we all pretend that Insidious: Chapter 2 was never actually made, or at the very least that James Wan wasn’t feeling very well when he made it, he leaves behind a series of great horror movies that I say would certainly rank amongst the best of the last 10 years* and this definitely sits beside the first Saw film as one of my favourites of the genre full stop. If he truly has retired from horror I look forward to seeing what he has in store for other genres, starting with Fast & Furious 7.
*I haven’t seen Dead Silence yet so this statement may be unceremoniously retracted in the future