A review of The Conjuring after the jump:
You know that moment in a horror film. Someone is walking, and you've been primed to expect a scare. The camera follows the character fluidly. Maybe it peeks around a corner, or pauses at an open door. The details vary, but the nerve-racking tension doesn't. When it's done right, there's nothing as powerful in all of cinema, perhaps because of how few and far between the movies that actually get it right are. James Wan's The Conjuring is one of those rare films. It provides at least three dozen moments (I wasn't counting, too busy leaning forward in my seat in anticipation and dread of the next scare) of the type outlined above, and all are just a bit different, with the timing and location of the scares altered just enough so that you never know exactly when to expect them. Sometimes they take forever to arrive. Once in a while they're even withheld altogether. The film is a glorious exercise in classical horror filmmaking, with both agonizing suspense aplenty and tons of good old-fashioned, jump out of your seat jolts.
The film lets us know we're in for a treat the moment a bravura long take shot glides through the Perron family's new house as they're unpacking. This is confident, beautiful filmmaking from the get-go, even as the movie quickly succumbs to its one truly groan-worthy horror cliché: the dog that refuses to enter the house. This isn't to say that the rest of the film is the picture of uniqueness; there are plenty of familiar moments in The Conjuring. But this is one of the few that lands with a thud rather than a shiver: an obvious nod towards the fact that something isn't right here that really isn't needed. In practically every other case, the movie tells its story with such skill and panache that the specifics of both the overarching narrative (possession, witchcraft, exorcism, etc.) and the construction of the individual scares themselves (doors that open and close on their own figure prominently) feel pleasantly and frighteningly recognizable rather than in any way derivative.
It starts, as most such hauntings do, with simple occurrences: an unseen force grabbing the feet of one of the Perrons' children, a door slowly creaking open, and so on. The Conjuring takes its time increasing the level of intensity, and it's in these early sections that those brilliantly withheld scares occur, as Wan refuses to provide a payoff—a jump scare—where one would ordinarily be expected. Had this technique been used throughout, it would have been frustrating, but here it's a mere prelude that promises more ferocious frights to come: a promise the film proceeds to keep. To say anything of how would spoil the fun, but suffice to say a large part of it has to do with the elegant camerawork, which uses both motion (a POV shot looking under a bed is particularly dread-inducing) and utter stillness to great effect. The cinematography gets a little more frenetic later on—with mixed results—but for the most part the mobile framings favor a fairly deliberate pace, milking the anticipation for all it's worth as they smoothly explore pretty much every nook and cranny of this house.
Once the haunting begins in earnest, it's not long before a pair of demon experts, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) become involved. The Conjuring's main interest is sustaining a sense of terror, but here it becomes apparent that there's actually a pretty decent script supporting the action. The family being haunted isn't given a huge amount of dimension (though performances are solid across the board), but it succeeds rather well in regards to fleshing out the husband and wife demonologists who may well be the Perrons' last hope. True, Chad and Carey Hayes have saddled Farmiga and Wilson with some occasionally wooden passages of dialogue (a scene in which Ed explains the toll their career has taken on Lorraine is particularly bad), but they've also imbued them with a down-to-earth decency and sense of humor that makes them immensely sympathetic. Credit them also for a no-frills approach to the scenes in which the Warrens explain things to both the Perrons and us. We spend enough time learning the whys and hows of the situation to understand what's going on, and then it's back to the scares. (The movie also wisely avoids any sort of flashbacks to the history of the house, in favor of keeping the focus squarely on the present-day nightmare.)
Those scares somehow grow even more rapidly paced once the Warrens enter the fray. And for the majority of The Conjuring, there's not a single one that doesn't land perfectly. Nor is Wan content to always let the initial jolt be the end of things, gifting us with an impressive variety of scares, from some seriously shudder-inducing images to moments in which we watch helplessly as something strange and terrifying occurs right in front of our eyes. For the most part, though, the film sticks to the same basic techniques: gorgeously silken camera movements, dimly-lit rooms, perfectly timed cuts, and meticulously creepy production design. The final horror sequence—revolving around an exorcism—sadly doesn't work quite as well as the others, but that perhaps has less to do with anything the movie does wrong and more to do with the fact that I've never found watching a possessed person writhe and scream while someone recites words to be particularly scary. But even here The Conjuring has a few tricks up its sleeve—including crosscutting between the exorcism and action going on elsewhere—that keep things reasonably tense and interesting.
The overall sense one has while watching The Conjuring is that of James Wan and the production team gleefully pushing our fear buttons. They know all the tricks, and exploit that knowledge by including so many moments (a character closing a door with a mirror on it, for instance) where we're conditioned to expect to see something, thus making us terrify ourselves much of the time without doing much of anything. (I jumped on at least one occasion when there was nothing there.) And yet sometimes they do just the opposite. The result is a delightfully frightening funhouse of a film, where a potential scare is truly lurking everywhere. Though not without its minor imperfections, this is one of the few movies I can honestly say scared the living daylights out of me pretty much from start to finish. Though it won't quite haunt your dreams the way Halloween does, it might be the most effective horror film I've seen since John Carpenter's 1978 classic.