By Vincent Abbatecola
For the horror genre these days, any approach can feel worn out, whether the story focuses on slashers, hellish monsters, the undead or haunted houses. Many filmmakers in the past few years who have dipped into horror have failed to live up to the standards of those set by Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Atmosphere and tension, nowadays, are usually sidelined for a simplistic showcase of blood and gore.
James Wan, however, is one director who understands how to effectively scare an audience. Through his distinct visual style, he has contributed some striking renovations to haunted houses in film. He accomplished this for his 2011 film “Insidious,” and has done it again for his latest cover-your-eyes horror film “The Conjuring.” With his method of execution, he proves once again that all a viewer needs to be frightened is the anticipation of what’s waiting around the corner or behind a closed door, factors that he makes scarier than they have been in years.
In 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters, move into an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Not long after they settle in, the family begins to experience some strange occurrences. As the family’s sense of unease heightens, they set out to seek the help of paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). As investigations on the house get underway, the Warrens reveal to the Perron family that the house is haunted by several spirits, but that there is one that is so aggressive to protect the house that was once its own, that it will do anything to reclaim it.
Although the performances are generally fine for a horror film, it’s Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga that give the best work. Taylor portrays her character as a mother who will do anything to protect her children and husband, particularly in one scene where she walks around the house late at night to investigate some strange sounds. In this sequence, the viewer knows that she means business when trying to intimidate whatever it is that’s in the house, but she also showcases her vulnerability in not knowing what she’s dealing with.
Farmiga’s character is fairly similar. Just like Carolyn, Lorraine is a mother. The way her character presents herself with a calming smile and friendly posture when she first enters the Perron household shows her as a comforting presence to those around her. She holds a motherly quality in her character, extending her maternal personality to people outside her own family, people she is promising to help. Similar to Carolyn, Lorraine showcases her own vulnerability when she’s investigating the case, having suffered some psychological damage from a previous exorcism, damage that becomes more evident as she sinks deeper into the house’s horrific history.
Cinematographer John R. Leonetti, who also collaborated with Wan for Insidious, uses some of the same photography methods from that film to frame the characters and settings here. He uses several long takes to capture extended views of the home’s interior. The first shot of the house, which is a long take, comes from inside as the camera looks at a window, and then slowly zooms in closer to watch the family as it arrives. It’s like seeing the family through the eyes of the demonic entity that resides within. The use of long takes and an unsteady camera create a feeling of unease as they track the characters around the house as the viewer wonders what horrors await to be revealed in these unbroken shots. In these cases, what makes this filming method unsettling is how the audience is following these characters and searching with them as they are going through the house from room to room, unsuspecting of what will be found.
The screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes not only focuses on the Perron family and their troubles, but also puts in a few scenes at the Warren household that show how they are dealing with the case. The viewer sees the toll that the supernatural is taking on Ed and Lorraine, especially the latter, and it’s clear that the couple has as much at stake in the situation as the Perrons. Besides the scares, there is plenty of focus on characters, and this helps keep the film from being a generic haunted-house routine.
There are some horror clichés, however, that creep their way into the story. We have the dog that senses trouble before the family does, birds that crash into the house, and very prominent appearances from a possessed doll. In fact, the opening shot is a close-up of the doll’s face. If it wasn’t for director Wan’s ability to craft a heart-pounding and spooky ambiance, those aforementioned tropes would cripple this film.
Wan has a noticeable talent for slowly building the tension in his horror films. He did it with the first “Saw” film (the more psychological and, thankfully, least bloody of all seven), and with “Insidious” two years ago. By prolonging the shocks, he doesn’t give it away all at once. He can hold off on the scares for a while until it’s difficult to tell when the moment will come that will cause the viewers to spring out of their seats, which is a significant aspect of the terror in his films.
Wan is also adept with the handling of the characters. They’re not cheap, expendable characters that garner only indifference from the audience, but are people that are easy to care about who have lives to fight for. With “The Conjuring,” Wan has made himself the new host of haunted houses in modern horror cinema.
Final grade: B+