It’s obvious that a horror movie is doing its job when even a midday scene of a character hanging laundry on a clothesline can create tension. But using the laundry to get a scare? That takes skill. Yet when the wind, or something more malevolent, whips a sheet from the hands of Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga)—a supernatural investigator helping a client with some housework—then assumes the form of a human body before drifting up to a window to reveal an even creepier image, it’s one of the biggest scares in The Conjuring. The fleeting moment is so scary, in fact, that it takes a second to register that director James Wan just coaxed a jolt by draping a sheet over a human form—in any other context, a lazy kindergartner’s idea of a spooky costume.
That isn’t the only hoary device Wan dusts off in The Conjuring, nor is it the only one the film makes feel new again. Alongside screenwriter Leigh Whannell, a frequent collaborator, Wan first broke into horror films with Saw, setting into motion a decade-long game of gory, mechanical oneupmanship. But Wan withdrew from the game almost from the moment he started it, and with 2011’s low-budget ghost story Insidious (also scripted by Whannell) he started playing by different rules. Instead of excess and bodily fluids, Insidious emphasized stillness and suspense, using shadows and silence to generate tension. More Val Lewton than Grand Guignol, the film also made a virtue of its low budget, making very little go an extremely long way. The approach won the support of critics and audiences alike, and a sequel is due this fall.
Wan clearly had a larger budget at his disposal for The Conjuring, but he keeps the scale small—and the sideburns prominent—for a tale of early-1970s supernatural goings-on purportedly taken from a previously suppressed file in the archives of Lorraine and Ed Warren, the real-life paranormal specialists best known for their involvement in the case that inspired The Amityville Horror. Based on the events depicted here, they had ample preparation on their way to Long Island. Wan and the twin-brother screenwriting team of Chad and Carey Hayes don’t worry too much about evoking comparisons to that famous case. Nor do they shy away from leaning on other horror films, from Poltergeist to The Haunting. They borrow, but they borrow wisely and well, and Wan executes everything with such technical expertise that even the inevitable mysterious bumps in the night feel fresh.
Wan divides the film’s first half between Lorraine and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), as they wrap up work on a particularly tough case involving a possessed doll and travel the college lecture circuit, and the Perrons, a family who’ve acquired a spacious, remote piece of property at a price almost too good to be true. As the Perron clan—Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and five daughters with powerful screaming voices—settle in, strange doings quickly start a-happening. First their dog won’t enter the house. Then the dog dies. Then the pictures start to shake and fall off the walls. Then the family’s habit of playing blindfolded rounds of hide-and-go-clap takes some terrifying turns. In time, the Perrons reach out to the Warrens for professional help, which they provide, even though Lorraine remains fragile from another recent encounter with dark forces.
The leads all perform with perfectly straight faces no matter how often the talk turns to witches and “inhuman spirits,” which helps sell The Conjuring’s fundamentally silly story. But Wan’s direction seals the deal. Whether lighting an excursion to a boarded-up cellar entirely by a single match, swooping gracefully from one side of the house to the other, or staging a desperate hunt for a missing child in tandem with an exorcism, he’s in complete control of the effects he wants to create. These most often involve bathing whole swaths of the frame in deep, rich blacks, then watching and waiting for something to emerge—or maybe not—from the darkness. It’s an old trick, but there’s a reason it’s been a cornerstone of horror films from the start: It’s scary. Wan understands that. He understands all the other old tricks, too, and with The Conjuring, he once more turns the familiar terrifying, making it easy to fear what’s behind that closed door, or under the bed, or just around the corner, making a creaking noise that doesn’t sound quite right.