When I was eight years old I was traumatized by Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist. The movie shook me so hard that my parents had to get me a bed that touched the floor; it was the only way to keep the clown from getting me. At the age of 33, I would do just about anything to relive that experience. As you get older, you become desensitized and cynical. It becomes increasingly difficult to be shocked, scared or impressed; you realize that you’ve seen pretty much everything before. This is the inherent problem with James Wan’s The Conjuring that must be ignored. The Conjuring is a film that doesn’t really deliver anything new, per se, but should be recognized as one of the best haunters since Poltergeist (joining the ranks of The Ring and Paranormal Activity).
In the first act of The Conjuring, one of the children has her leg pulled as she sleeps. Panicking, she looks under the bed in a solid homage to Poltergeist. The camera twists and turns upright as she stares in horror at a black shadow behind her door. This moment, which I’ve glazed over, is the high note of the film. This is the scene that will have the hair on your arms standing straight up, and your brain screaming in excitement, “Holy crap, is this movie really going to be THIS good?” This is also when I realized that, for a brief moment, James Wan had reconnected me with my youth and rattled me. It’s a core-shaking sequence that’s so viciously terrifying, yet you barely see anything. It’s a master artist painting the most wonderful picture.
While it never quite gets that good again, there’s a roller coaster of set piece scares that keep this slow burn flowing. Its editing is genius, introducing devices and then splashing the scare at a later, unexpected moment. You could hear the audience’s uncomfortable chattering in anticipation of the forthcoming jolt; the suspense clearly had the audience holding their breath, with a massive exhale after each scare. While it’s similar to most haunters, from the shot selection up to the framing of scares, it just does everything better.
But I digress; it’s time to dial it back a bit. (Minor spoliers.) As good as The Conjuring is, there are some (very minor) problems, most of which stems from the film’s length. It’s just a bit too long, and even pushes the finale too far with a melodramatic epilogue. And speaking of the finale, it feels like it’s missing a beat, and there’s a nagging lack of resolution. This is not to say Conjuring ends on a “to be continued” kind of note, but there were a few character beats that never come full circle. It agitated me just enough to feel moderately underwhelmed when the credits rolled. (End spoilers.)
Reflecting back, I think ending a “ghost” film is inherently problematic, which is where Conjuring falters. Once shit hits the fan, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be “scary” and forces the director to utilize sound design and jolts to garner a reaction. Thankfully, the film is in the hands of a horror master who delivers more than a handful of mind blowing surprises that are cause for repeat viewing. As both Insidious Chapter 2 and The Conjuring appear to be James Wan’s farewell to the horror genre, audiences will celebrate Conjuring as his most impressive work, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest horror directors of our time.