James Wan’s new haunted house film “The Conjuring” is both a creepy homage to ‘70s horror movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Amityville Horror” and an improvement upon his own formula for ghostly horror that brought us “Insidious” two years ago.
The movie is based on the allegedly true events that befell Roger and Carolyn Perron in the early 1970s when they bought and moved into their new home in Harrisville, R.I.
The screenplay for the film, co-written by Chad and Carey Hayes, is largely taken from real news clippings, quotes from the Perron family and memoirs of various people involved in these events, including paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are prominent characters in the movie.
After a prologue that reveals just how creepy Annabelle the doll is (and how quickly Ed and Lorraine can take care of their paranormal business), we’re introduced to the Perron family, a husband and wife (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with five daughters.
Their unity as a family is as evident as the fact that they’re going through a rough patch financially. A game of “hide and clap” both establishes chemistry between Carolyn and her daughters and cleverly sets up the most memorable sequence in the movie.
As things go from bad to worse for the Perrons in their new, extremely haunted home, the movie also follows Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by a very capable Patrick Wilson and the intense-yet-fragile Vera Farmiga.
The Warrens are portrayed as expert paranormal investigators who also search for a logical explanation before attributing things that go bump in the night to spirits or demons, giving a much needed strain of credibility to the characters. Wan very smartly develops the Perrons and the Warrens before they meet, giving a background to both families.
This is a marked improvement on Wan’s textbook haunted house story development formula we first saw in “Insidious,” in which the paranormal investigator was not involved at all until halfway through the film and introduced clunky terms like “astral projection” that fell flat compared to the rest of the screenplay.
The tension mounts as the Warrens spend time in the Perron home, and Wan ramps up the scares with a well-developed sense of pacing. Wan frightens effectively throughout the movie, relying on old-school creaky doors and smash cuts instead of gore, despite the R rating.
Wan instead utilizes the few bloody moments to the fullest instead of piling on the guts from the beginning. These tactics are tried and true but not cliche, as the jump-scares deliver from the start.
Although Wan is clearly developing as a director, knowing for the most part when to reveal and when to stay hidden (both with the screenplay and with the visuals), the score of “The Conjuring” still obstructs some of the time.
The dissonant and extremely heavy-handed score by Joseph Bishara is effective when used sparingly, but Wan sometimes overplays his hand by attempting to elevate underwhelming scares with the use of downright weird music.
The tension during the first time Carolyn explores the basement by herself, for example, is meant to come to a head by the ball coming out of the cupboard and the subsequent jarring chord in the violins but instead deflates the scene until it is rescued by the very cool and very memorable effect of the clapping hands.
The Warrens’ dialogue when trying to explain the phenomena is far from explicit, a marked improvement on Lin Shayne’s dialogue in “Insidious,” which recounts the entire plot of the movie for the members of the audience who haven’t bothered to pay attention until 40 minutes into the film. The lack of phrases like “spiritual realm,” “the Further” and “astral body” lend an element of believability to “The Conjuring” that was sorely missing from “Insidious.”
“The Conjuring” does suffer from some clunker lines like, “We are now fighting for her soul!” during the exorcism scene in the final minutes of the film. The climax of the movie is also, for lack of a better term, lame.
However, the ride up to that point is a fun movie-going experience full of scares, tension and a mounting sense of dread present from the very first shot.
Memorable moments pervade “The Conjuring,” such as the clapping hands, the shot in which Lili Taylor looks frighteningly like Annabelle the doll and the post-shotgun blast entrance to the Perron house.
Wan’s signature aesthetic blended with 1970s horror trends deserve a viewing in a movie theater full of frightened fans or at the very least a watch by yourself with the lights off.
“The Conjuring” comes to DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, Oct. 22.