Okay, it's 4:00 am and I'm still not asleep. Guess why.
James Wan's latest horror film THE CONJURING - adapted from the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren (real paranormal investigators, best-known for their involvement in the infamous "Amityville Horror" case) - is a really really REALLY scary movie. How scary exactly? It's a film that was "shot for" PG-13, meaning no graphic sex/nudity, violence, or language is in this movie. However, it's rated R for "sequences of disturbing violence and terror." Meaning the MPAA (a dubious authority at times, but still) deems that there's just stuff in here that's too frightening for those under the age of 17.
THAT'S how scary. And I mostly agree.
James Wan has been an interesting film-maker to watch these past few years. He first exploded into the public view with SAW, a film that single-handedly (or single-footedly?) revived the "torture porn" horror sub-genre, and his first haunted house story INSIDIOUS was a surprising hit (banking nearly $100 million worldwide on a $1.5 million budget) considering it went some VERY weird places in its third act. In between those he made a movie about possessed dummies and a revenge film starring Kevin Bacon, so he's got some range. But with all his movies, it seems like he's either giving nods to (or directly emulating) the aesthetics, tone, and setting of 70's and 80's genre films, delighting in practical and make-up effects and old-fashioned stagecraft.
He's also the guy who's been tapped to replace Justin Lin for the seventh entry in the surprisingly-now-awesome FAST AND FURIOUS franchise. Tell me that's not wild.
Now THE CONJURING has him returning to the world of creaky floorboards, ghostly whispers, and possessions in a film that is at once an assured example of modern film-making and impressively cultivated craft (it's almost like Wan was only warming up with the spooks in INSIDIOUS), but also drenched in the dressings of 70's haunted house films - and while SAW opened the way for more films of its ilk, Wan's latest may have just closed the book on the haunted house movie.
You're aware of the setup, even if you know nothing about the movie - an idyllic family moves into their new home (about which they know nothing) to start a new life, and from minute one something seems slightly off. The dog doesn't want to come inside, or there are odd noises and cold spells at night, strangers that the youngest child talks to but no one else can see. And then it gets worse. Much, MUCH worse. By the time the Perron family have gotten the Warrens in to help with their "problem," the audience is feeling almost as worked over as the people living in the house. The film is a master class in building, sustaining, and inventively paying off tension and terror, usually with the absolute most low-tech of means. There's a moment where the big scare is literally a bed sheet (clever, right?), and while the movie has its share of jump scares, it's the times where it builds to those and refuses to pay off but just keeps building and letting you stew in your own adrenaline that really make it work its way under your skin.
Well, that and the laughs.
Yes, laughs. Don't misunderstand, this isn't GHOSTBUSTERS, it's a played-straight horror film, but one of the really delightful things that this cast brings (along with their total commitment to the premise and their roles - there's some heavy lifting going on from all involved here) is the genuine levity that these sorts of situations allow for. Not only is the line between terror and comedy a thin one, laughter is one of the most natural ways to respond to the relief from tension. Because we're allowed to come back down far enough to laugh at the situation every now and then, we have that much further to go the next time the lights go out. And because we believe that these characters are real enough to still crack the occasional joke (like you do), we invest in the rest of their story with equal commitment.
If there's one caveat about the film, it's that it takes a decidedly religious approach to a lot of its material, and is very unflinching about both how it portrays this and how it demonizes certain other faiths (that have nothing to do with actual demons). However, it does this in the context of a couple's reading of a situation that could very well be slightly different (also, it's a movie), so it didn't bother me. And it's not like the movie ever felt preachy or proselytizing. Still, I don't know how some might react to its approach to a couple elements.
The other caveat is. . . well, I honestly don't want to say too much more because that would give away a lot of the movie. And what else is there to say? It's a great example of brass-tacks storytelling, with slick character work, effective reveals (but it gives you more than enough right off to get invested in both the Perron family and the Warren family), a steady stream or set-up and pay-off which feels natural and inevitable instead of cheap work-arounds, and a great little cast. I can't stress that last enough - Patrick Wilson (WATCHMEN), Vera Farmiga (THE DEPARTED), Ron Livingston (OFFICE SPACE, BAND OF BROTHERS) - these are folks with long resumes and little recognition for their talents, and they're putting in top-tier work. Even the kids are great, especially Joey King (OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, WHITE HOUSE DOWN - she's had a busy year) as the middle Perron child.
I have a confession to make: don't have much patience for modern horror films. I actually find the torture porn that Wan himself helped popularize rather repugnant and visit many past films in the genre as much for amusement as for chills. I raved about THE CABIN IN THE WOODS last year in large part because it was a brutal deconstruction of how stale and lazy and predictable the genre had become (and how complicit the audience was in this), but here's a movie that's so like other films before it that you can guess most of the plot from the poster, and yet it's still one of the finest theater-going experiences of the year, and arguably the best haunted house movie in decades. It is easily the most frightened I've ever felt watching a movie.
Go see it. Just. . . maybe during a matinee.