(Photo : Warner Bros)
Over the last few years, the horror genre has shifted from focusing on films about torture and murder to stories about the paranormal. Despite the shift, the genre has continued to receive poor criticism from the media and has been received with tepid support from audiences. James Wan, coming off his financial hit "Insidious," manages to elevate the quality of the genre with his latest effort "The Conjuring."
The movie is based on the Harrisville Haunting, a case taken on by demonologist Ed Warren and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine. The two ghost hunters were controversial in their day and reportedly engaged in thousands of mysterious paranormal cases including the well-known Amityville Horror. The Harrisville case is said to be the couple's most daunting task as it follows the Perrons, a family of seven, and the excruciating horrors they endured in their new Rhode Island country residence.
From the get-go, Wan lets the viewer know that he/she is in for non-stopped tension and fear. The prologue relates a prior case known as the Annabelle case in which the Warrens learn of a haunted doll. This sequence is ominous in tone and sets up the rest of the film beautifully. The remainder of the film, with its increasingly chiaroscuro cinematography and orchestration of terrifyingly unexpected sound effects, keeps the viewer at the edge of his/her seat. Visually, Wan and director of photography John R. Leonetti employ slow camera moves and a plethora of canted angles to keep the viewer off balance. In one sequence, the camera portrays one of the Perron girls fast asleep. Suddenly, the camera moves slowly toward the bed, creating the impression that someone is in the room with her. There is also a tasteful nod to the Hitchcock classic "The Birds" in the film's climax. Those familiar with the genre will not likely find any of the techniques ground-breaking, but the variety of tricks Wan employs keeps the tension high and the predictability low.
Despite the effectiveness of "The Conjuring," it is impossible to ignore some questionable scripting choices. The characters are constantly haunted by a number of ghosts, some of which go to great lengths to freak out the habitants. While the motives of some spirits are revealed, some of them are never fully developed; the result is that initial scares wind up having no real narrative purpose and are simply used to take advantage of the viewer's panicked state. Later in the story, Wan decides to bring back the Annabelle doll for an 11th hour scare; this ultimately fails to develop and only seems like a ploy to create more dread without a real narrative necessity.
The characters are not overly developed, but the Warrens are unique people and the performances from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga go a long way toward carrying the film. The supporting cast that includes Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor also bring solid turns as Roger and Carolyn Perron.
For those looking for a solid scare, "The Conjuring" is one of the best paranormal horror films to hit the market in the last few years. The relentless pace, terrific visual storytelling and solid performances carry this film above the mundane and predictable product that the Studio system releases annually.