With Saw, director James Wan made an impact on the horror genre with all the force of a reverse bear trap springing open; and then years later he did it again with his high concept spook show Insidious. Whatever could be next for this scrappy, low-tech visionary who could boast not one, but two legit horror franchises based from his works?
Well… we got ANOTHER ghost ridden movie where a quirky group of paranormal investigators aid a warm family with possession trouble that ALSO spawned a popular franchise – but different! Slightly.
Ok, I’m being mean, but at first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that Wan may have plateaued somewhat, but in reality it was just the filmmaker shifting gears slightly and trying something familiar in a different sort of way…
The Perron family, made up of husband Roger, wife Carolyn and an onslaught of young daughters of various ages have just moved into their new house in Rhode Island but it isn’t long before they realise that they may be pulling a house-share with a malevolent who won’t do it’s share of the dishes, is a nightmare to get rent from and who… oh yeah, launches an all out assault on the girls by pulling the same slammy door shit we’ve seen a trillion times before. Unable to move and living at their wits end as some of their daughters are driven into a hysterical state by spotting strangers standing in the corner of their bedroom and other start to have very intense “imaginary” friends, the Perron’s start desperately looking for help.
Who they gonna call? The Warrens, that’s who!
The Warrens, in case you didn’t know, are a couple of paranormal investigators and demonologists who have a basement full of poorly guarded supernatural shit that they’ve accumulated after years of house cleanses and exorcisms. The husband, Ed, is by far the more careful of the two (but then he’s played by Patrick Wilson so of course he is) whereas Lorraine is a psychic is as typically gung-ho as you’d expect someone played by Vera Farmiga would be and between them they’ve not long solved the case of the possesed Annabelle doll (oh don’t worry, we’ll be hearing much more out of her later).
In short order, the couple have figured out that the asshole spirit of a woman thought to be a witch has been laying waste to anyone who has dared to settle on “her land” in the years since she pledged her soul to Satan and then hanged herself (Seems a little desperate to me, maybe just send a card next time). As the two families wrestle with the supernatural they realise that one of their number has been selected to be a host for this monstrous spirit, but who?
The more cynical among you may penalise Wan for a preserved lack of originality, because even though The Conjuring is supposedly based on real people and events, it seems that the director is playing it safe what with there being more than a few similarities with Insidious (let’s not forget that they even share the same leading man!). However, on closer inspection it becomes evident that Wan is actually trying to broaden his directorial skill set, a fact that’s proven by the absence of his frequent collaborator, Leigh Whannell, who had begun forging a directing career of his own. Far more subtle than his earlier plunges into ghostly goings on, an argument could be made that what Wan’s gained in slicker, more restrained storytelling, he’s lost some of that ferocious, uninhibited style he originaly became renowned for, but in actuality the tonal shift into a slightly slower, more classical approach benefits the fact that this stuff “actually happened”.
A softer pallet and more deliberate pace means that throwing cheap scares at you utterly at random is only going to upset the apple cart and Wan knuckles down to tell a story in a slightly more rigid format.
Even though the more blatant scares are thinner on the ground, that doesn’t mean the horror veteran doesn’t serve the odd spine chilling moment or three, with a game of Marco Polo variant Clap Clap going ball-shrinkingly sour and a harrowing exorcism all providing ample goose flesh. Also, the hinting of a larger spirit community gives the sense of a bigger universe just waiting to blow up the box office (spoiler: it did) in a far more organic way than just selecting a new ghost for another sequel.
The cast is formed of such a dependable group of actors that it’s barely worth dropping the non-bombshell that they’re all great (when ISN’T Vera Farmiga great though? Seriously?) with the two leads a genuinely reassuring presence as the real life couple who’s antics went on to inspire The Amityville Horror.
Despite all the added slickness (which HAD to have helped when Wan randomly leapt aboard the Fast & Furious franchise for it’s 7th installment) there really is that suspicious sense that the director is just telling the same story a different way, but if we’re all being super honest here, both Insidious and The Conjuring all owe a massive debt to Poltergeist, so it’s all moot really….
So whether you prefer the more spikier and conceptually interesting Insidious or the decidedly more grounded The Conjuring, it’s entirely up to whatever speaks to your tastes, although personally I feel the more energetic former pips it if for no other reason than there’s nothing here to square up to the bristly majesty of the Red Faced Demon.
That being said, The Conjuring is a fine example of a filmmaker stretching his skills, not to mention it’s ground zero to the most persistent horror franchise since… well, the last time Wan kickstarted one.
Not exactly on the cutting edge of original, but still plenty here to get your ghost.