The haunted house/ paranormal story may be Horror’s oldest sub-genre. From a time before books and movies, people told stories of hauntings around fires, passing on tales of the unexplained. In contrast with other types of horror which have existed for a few hundred years at most, serial killers and zombies for instance, most elements of the haunted story have been established and repeated, then repeated some more, only to be repeated once again. With that kind of narrative baggage, how does one make a haunted house movie with anything new to offer? The Conjuring, James Wan’s latest film, sidesteps this issue a bit by the fact that it doesn’t attempt to bring anything new to the table. What it does do, however, is execute the formula in a more effective way than we’ve seen in years.
From the opening frame, it is clear that Wan is invoking the visuals we have seen in the past. From the traditional framework of “solving of our introductory ghost case in order to learn character traits about our protagonists”, to the opening title crawl that would be comfortable in any 70’s era supernatural movie, The Conjuring knows what it is and where its conceits come from. Instead of offering up these tropes with a lazy sense of deja-vu, Wan and company present this story in such a skillful way, technically and narratively that the audience can’t really help but be engaged in the story, familiar as it may be.
There are three main components that allow The Conjuring to be a better film than many of its peers. Firstly, the time Wan allows the camera to spend with its characters in moments that don’t singularly advance the story. Granted, the story is “based on a true story”, so all of its players started on the basis of actual, three-dimensional people, which has to assist in the portrayal of them in the scope of the film. Even with that fact, though, Wan doesn’t gloss over these characters in a hurried rush to get to the creepy plot points. The audience gets an appreciable amount of time to really know, and empathize with, both sets of families, The Warrens, our investigators, and the Perrons, our haunting victims. This adds a layer of investment from the audience that creates a bond that escalates the stakes of the actual threats that build throughout the film. Fear is only as effective as the threat behind it, and The Conjuring successfully develops the real threat to all involved.
The second component of The Conjuring’s success is the technical camerawork in the film. There are several long-takes in the beginning of The Conjuring that are not only technically impressive, but narratively effective. The camera drifts through the house, establishing a real sense of space and architecture, which is essential to the events that take place in the final act of the film. And when that act arrives, the camera shifts to uneasy, off balance shots that add to the unease and tension of the events it is capturing.
The third major component that allows The Conjuring to stand above its sub-genre roots, is the performances by the actors. While the term “all-star cast” is tossed about quite a bit in marketing, it is arguable that what we have in The Conjuring actually fits that classification. From Vera Farmiga, who does a large portion of the heavy lifting here, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, and Ron Livingston all the way to the five children actors, there is nary a misstep in performance in The Conjuring’s running time. A large portion of the familiar narrative still being thrilling depends on the ability of the cast to buy in, which allows the audience to buy in, to the events unfolding on screen.
In The Conjuring, all of these elements, along with the script, sound design, cinematography, etc, combined in a nearly perfect storm of a quality haunted house film. While all of the specific elements are well trodden and familiar, the combination and execution of all of these elements into one film cause The Conjuring to be a real reminder of why this kind of story is so popular in the first place.