The new film by modern master of horror James Wan is a strange concoction. On one hand it manages to reel off every single genre cliché of the last decade or so without pausing for breath, but on the other, it’s one of the few genuinely terrifying experiences produced in recent years.
Wan began his cinematic career with Saw, a film which, however formulaic its sequels became, was a big step in the quest for originality, proving that you don’t need a shaky camcorder to make a low-budget horror. Now, after the relatively low-key Dead Silence, the hugely popular Insidious (with its sequel due mid-September) and the news that Wan is swapping ghosts for gearboxes and is now in the process of filming no. 7 in the Fast & Furious franchise, The Conjuring feels more like a conclusion: a summing up of what has come before.
Set on Rhode Island in a farm house typical of any horror released in the ‘70s (Amityville being the obvious comparison, though Psycho must also be an inspiration), The Conjuring is based on real life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren’s most infamous case. In 1971 Roger and Carolyn Perron move in with their five daughters and begin to experience the usual: doors slam, the clocks stop at 3.07am, a funky smell of rotting meat follows them around the house and one of the girls finds a music box that she uses to see her ‘new friend’. Reaching the end of their tether they seek out the Warrens, who come laden with night vision cameras, UV lights and a Bible, intent on destroying the sinister presence before it latches onto the family itself.
Credit must be given to the writing partnership of Chad and Carey Hayes (the brothers behind House of Wax, The Reaping and Whiteout) whose characterisation of the Warrens is what gives The Conjuring that extra dimension. The two ghost hunters, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, are themselves parents who are forced to leave a young daughter at home with her nanny while they travel the country relieving the possessed and putting minds to rest, but more importantly they fervently believe that what they’re doing is real (which is where the comparisons to Mystery Inc. end).
Farmiga, already a horror veteran, having appeared in Orphan and more recently A&E’s Bates Motel as Norma Bates, is undeniably the star of the film as Lorraine Warren, a clairvoyant on the brink of a psychological breakdown. Her obvious care for the wellbeing of the Perrons while at the same time having to deal with her own inner-turmoil gives The Conjuring proper substance, making it more than just another horror flick.
Here Wan does what he does best, creating a tight two hours of built-up suspense, slowly cranking up the tension until suddenly it snaps and everything comes crashing down. The director understands the needs of his audience; the scares are predictable, yet so persistent that even the flick of a light switch can set your heart racing. Yet perhaps this gathering-together of haunted house conventions is a sign that they’ve run their course, that maybe it’s time for mainstream horror to come up with something original rather than simply sticking the clichés together in different ways. It’s hard to say – more likely The Conjuring just proves that the old tricks are the best, and if that is the case, who better to perform them than James Wan?