I’ve written about The Conjuring a few times on this site – once for a regular review, and another to examine the many hanging objects throughout the film – so if that doesn’t scream modern classic already, then I don’t know what does. However, I’m going to do my best to branch out from both of those posts into more examination of James Wan’s ongoing efforts to outdo his previous haunt films, and then discuss how well The Conjuring fits in as a Halloween film.
What makes it a classic?
James Wan has learned from past flaws. From his early work on Saw, he has progressed as a horror director, figuring out the techniques that work from the ones that don’t. Stylistically, The Conjuring is about as far from his efforts in Saw as one can get – there are none of those silly fast-forward edits, no jump cuts, no nu-metal tinged soundtrack to signal something extreme. You can even see that to a certain point in 2007’s Dead Silence, which was something of a ghost story that took a lot of cues from Saw‘s direction and headed off on a different course.
The Conjuring, then, released nine years after Saw, obviously showcases a director who has grown over time. Here, Wan progresses away from one of his films with lasting critical acclaim, Insidious – an honorable attempt, but one that required too little of the viewer’s imagination, rather depicting every last detail of its demons and getting a little hokier with every reveal. The Conjuring isn’t about the ghosts, and it’s not about Ed (Patrick Wilson and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) insomuch as it is about the family life, both with the Perron and Warren families and the victims affected by a witch’s curse on a plot of land.
Wan opts for minimalism, heightening his scares by planning them out in detail. There’s no fast edits here, no surprise jump cuts. Instead he lets the scenes linger, aided by strong acting from the entire cast; the Perron daughters, played by Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver, all take turns in strong sequences, selling the horror with their expressions rather than explicit reveals. In turn, Livingston and Lili Taylor (playing Carolyn, the matriarch of the household who eventually will become inhabited by the evil witch) give the viewer a different, somewhat more disturbing, terror: the feeling of losing control of your family, losing a piece of their life that was supposed to be quaint and calm at their new countryside home.
Wan’s nuance in The Conjuring makes it even scarier, and it’s due to his ability to recognize when a scene can run unbroken. One of the scariest moments of the film comes from a long sequence in which Carolyn, hearing the “clap-clap” of her daughters’ favorite game, encounters breaking photographs on her stairwell and a presence in her cellar clapping behind her. The chills come not from seeing the entity – although we do see hands – but in following Carolyn through this harrowing experience, not just because she feels danger, but because she is alone with her children and the only protection they have.
Wan takes away the safety of home, the inability to protect family from an unseen threat, and he pairs it with minimal hauntings that scare much more than explicit encounters. It’s the perfect contemporary ghost story set in the past, and it is undoubtedly a classic in its own right.
Is it good for Halloween?
Yes, very much so, and for those experiencing it for the first time, it will probably be viscerally scary throughout much of the film. Here, there aren’t many unwarranted jump scares; instead, Wan uses his favorite stylistic demon makeup (the kind that distorts the human visage in something akin to Regan’s possession makeup from The Exorcist) but doesn’t overdo the encounters – there are only a few scenes where we actually see the witch, but they’re frightening because of the entire sequence, not just because of her appearance.
Likewise, the makeup work done on Taylor is also striking, nuanced but still effective, especially in her exorcism scene where a single side of her face pokes through a bloodied sheet. These are nightmarish images because they’re happening to a human woman, and The Conjuring remains a tense experience throughout its near-two hour runtime. It’s a great ghost story for Halloween – moody, and yet thoughtfully in tune to its theme.