Saturday, July 20, 2013

New Old Haunts: THE CONJURING


I was dubious when I saw too-promotable-to-be-true reports that The Conjuring was rated R for being too scary for PG-13, but actually seeing the film has me thinking otherwise. With barely a drop of blood, the movie had me more frightened than any horror film of the last year or two. It is an expertly calibrated haunted house experience complete with all the strange noises, fleeting movements, and odd apparitions you’d expect. But even though it draws upon all the expected tropes of the haunted house movie, it scares early and often. It’s a tingling, absorbing horror film full of dread and wittily staged and framed scares. What makes it so compelling and convincing is not just that it’s an impeccably timed series of jumps and jolts, but that it’s a fully inhabited film with superbly real production design, excellent natural performances, and a relaxed and patient approach to building up to its best moments of panic and fright. Director James Wan has been making horror films for nearly a decade now, from the nasty, torturous Saw to the sleek freak out of Insidious. With this new production, he’s made his best film yet.

It’s a film with a clear appreciation for its genre’s history (the 1970’s setting allows for appealing echoes of that decades horror landmarks) and a dedication to fulfilling tropes in surprising and unrelentingly creepy ways. As it must, it starts with a nice normal family moving into a big old house in the country. The mother (Lili Taylor) and father (Ron Livingston) wearily unpack boxes while their five daughters (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver) run around exploring. It’s not too long before the family starts to feel something is not quite right with their new surroundings. Their dog dies. One girl starts sleepwalking. Each morning, the family wakes to find every clock in the house has stopped at exactly 3:07 am. Footsteps, whispers, and claps are heard in empty areas of the house. Some events can be explained away, but as they pile up, coincidence gives way to a sense of oppressive invisible spookiness.

This is all familiar haunted house stuff, but Wan manages to create a sense of novelty. Sure, we, the horror audience, have seen this type of thing before. But this is the first time it’s happening to this family. Because the acting is so unaffected and comfortable, because the family dynamics feel so real, the growing unease is all the more shivery. The surprise of creaking floorboards and drafty door swings escalates to the insinuating presence of something not quite right and it feels fresh once more. A stroke of genius in the film’s construction is to introduce and intercut the story of a pair of paranormal investigators for whom this is not fresh. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple that specializes in investigating reported hauntings. While happenings at the house in the country grow increasingly distressing, we occasionally cut to the Warrens giving lectures, conducting interviews, and inspecting properties. They’re professionals. By the time they show up at the house at the center of the film and express concern, we know that means trouble. It amplifies the dread.

The script by Chad and Carey Hayes builds and escalates with a nicely varied assortment of dangers and scares. (I especially appreciated the creepy and clever solution to the eternal haunted house question “Why don’t they just leave?”) This is a horror film that’s in confident command of its mood, able to sustain the absorbing hushed creepiness even as the events on screen are teasingly normal. Scenes of familial warmth and professional confidence may scare the darkness away, but the dread lingers. The production design is impressive, a homey lived-in 1970s of complete and convincing period detail that emphasizes the “Based on a true story” trappings. Publicity would undoubtedly emphasize “true story,” but the key word is always “based.” Also sold this way was the 1979 film The Amityville Horror, the quintessential film of this subgenre, despite its vaguely dull pulpy junkiness. Its “true story” also involved an investigation by the real-world Warrens.  There’s a connection here that’s nicely felt, a continuity with horror past not just with the Warrens and the period setting, but in The Conjuring’s smooth steady long takes, the period design, and the oblique nods to hauntings past. Classically, handsomely designed, the film’s a throwback without feeling old-fashioned.

Its most welcome throwback aspect is in the way it is a bit more of a character piece than you might expect. It has time for small moments – a shy smile the oldest daughter shares with a young research assistant of the Warrens, a scene in which the family bonds with the investigators over a breakfast of pancakes. Small details turn scary, too, like a friendly hide-and-seek game involving claps and blindfolds that becomes predictably, but oh-so-effectively, chilling when a ghost gets involved. Wan may have set out to make something like the ultimate haunted house movie, filled with possessions, poltergeists, curses, and exorcisms, but like all good horror movies, The Conjuring scares not through genre prowess alone, but through skillful filmmaking on every level. It’s a film that builds up a big creaky house, populates it with people to care about, and grooves on a frightening atmosphere of anticipation punctuated by scares that work allusively, metaphorically, and viscerally. Its scares may make you jump, but it never feels cheap or exploitative. It is unrelentingly entertaining and terrifically effective.

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